What Is the CIA For?

March 20, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- By giving his new CIA chief, John Deutch, a cabinet seat, President Clinton reopens an old controversy, likely to obscure the newer and more important question about the CIA today: What is it for?

Whether its director belongs to the cabinet is a secondary issue, if an important one. The agency originally was kept away from policy because of the danger that the director would adjust the intelligence to suit the policy. To make the policy suit the intelligence was thought the wiser course. President Reagan made William Casey a member of his cabinet, but that experiment proved the original judgment right.

Mr. Deutch, an eminent scientist as well as an experienced Washington power player, is much too smart and ambitious to accept a secondary role. By helping Mr. Clinton out of still another appointments fiasco, he has jeopardized his chance of eventually becoming president of MIT. The CIA still is not entirely respectable in academic circles, even those of the country's pre-eminent engineering school. Having made that sacrifice by accepting the CIA appointment, he wants the consolation prize of national policy-making.

Putting the CIA director into the cabinet strengthens the agency at a moment when it is necessary to ask what the post-Cold War CIA is doing, and what it should be doing. The recent imbroglio concerning American spies in France is not reassuring on either count.

As an American attorney with one of the big international law firms bitterly noted at the time, his taxes are paying CIA agents to do things for which his American business clients would go to jail. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it a crime for American businessmen to bribe foreign officials to obtain information or competitive advantage in foreign commercial transactions.

That is exactly what the CIA's agents were caught doing. It is true enough that the French and others do the same thing. Particularly in the arms trade, bribery is all but universal practice. But Congress has made bribery a crime for Americans -- except for agents of the CIA, it seems.

The added absurdity of this particular episode is that most of the questions the CIA people were putting to the official they had bribed (who was actually cooperating with French counter-intelligence) were puerile or ignorant. They wanted to know if Prime Minister Balladur was going to run for president, why the French worried about their family farmers when there are so few of them, and why the French should want to protect their movie industry since people seemed to like American movies on television. I would like to think that the French government invented some of this to make the CIA look ridiculous, but the published account is detailed and unhappily plausible.

The United States Embassy in Paris has an able political staff which spends its time considering these matters, among others, and one would have thought the CIA could have put their questions to them. They also could have asked any American journalist here and had most of the answers they wanted. They could even have stayed in Washington and read the French papers -- or read the International Herald Tribune.

Commercial and economic intelligence, which was never before a preoccupation of the CIA, is said to rank only midway on a classified list of intelligence priorities issued by the White House last week. But as a congressional source said to the Washington Post, it is hard to make the intelligence services keep to these priorities.

And in an age of ''jobs, jobs, jobs,'' commercial intelligence operations offer a new future to a CIA which has lost a large chunk of its old rationale.

CIA disclosure of selected intelligence is alleged to have been used recently to block a French arms deal in Latin America, and to be currently in use to head off the appointment of the Italian central banker Renato Ruggiero as head of the World Trade Organization (even though the United States at the moment has no candidate of its own, Mexico's ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari having withdrawn).

There seems little doubt that Mr. Deutch will relish this game. He is known to be a hardball player, with ''a first-class mind and ego and energy to match,'' according to a New York Times profile. He already has made a reputation in Europe for his ominous remark that in transnational European arms and aerospace restructuring, the United States ''means to have its say.''

This brings us back to the fundamental question about today's CIA. The country undoubtedly needs an intelligence service, but does it need this one?

Does it want the clandestine Cold War operational apparatus the CIA possesses redeployed to commercial war? Does Washington now intend to have the CIA operating outside international law (or our own law) to gain trade advantage and undermine our competitors' exports? When Washington summons the world to a new trading order it talks about rules for all and level playing fields.

Congress would do well to examine what the new CIA is up to, and what Mr. Deutch and Mr. Clinton intend to do with it in the future.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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