Few reforms for U.S. intelligence

March 24, 1996|By David Wise

High-level government commissions are usually meant to defuse crises and, above all, deflect political criticism from the White House or Congress. Seldom do they produce real solutions or lead to major reforms, because that is not their true purpose.

It was not an overwhelming surprise, therefore, when the commission appointed after the Aldrich H. Ames spy case to study the future of the CIA and U.S. intelligence recently recommended that spies largely be left alone. For the agencies, the commission, headed by former Defense Secretary Harold O. Brown, suggested what might be termed a light make-over some cosmetic changes, a different hair style, a touch less mascara then back to the streets for business-as-usual in what has been called "the second oldest profession."

It was about two years ago when the FBI pulled over Ames in his XJ6 red Jaguar not far from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and arrested him for espionage. A former chief of the Soviet counterintelligence branch, he had sold the CIA's secrets to Moscow for nine years. For this, he was paid or promised $4.6 million, making him the highest-paid spy in the history of the world. He betrayed three dozen agents Soviets working for the CIA and perhaps hundreds of operations. Ten of the agents were executed. Others were sent to prison, as was Ames, who was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Soon after the Ames case, it was revealed that the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages the nation's spy satellites, had built a $300 million headquarters without quite telling Congress. There were other questions about what is blandly called "the intelligence community": Most important, whether, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States still needs a vast secret spy establishment whose annual cost is approximately $28 billion a year. The precise amount is itself secret.

To deal with the rumblings of discontent, Congress established the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community, its 17 members appointed jointly the president and Congress. Mr. Brown replaced its first chairman, former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who died three months after work began. The commission's job was to take a long, hard look at U.S. intelligence and suggest ways to fix it.

Instead, the panel labored mightily and came up with a mouse. Although its members were both experienced and distinguished, commission made up of members of the establishment is not likely to clobber the establishment, or step on many toes and it didn't. The panel recommended some minor structural changes

to strengthen the hand of the director of central intelligence, who runs the CIA but has only nominal control over the rest of the intelligence agencies.

It urged that the "downsizing" of the intelligence agencies continue, warning that post-Cold War payrolls have become alarmingly bloated. It urged that the overall intelligence budget total be made public, pointing out that the amount has been disclosed in the media with no discernible harm to the republic.

But the commission ducked the larger question of how much money the United States should be spending on intelligence now that the Cold War is over. And while the panel said that its proposals would reduce the size of the intelligence budget, it was unwilling or unable to estimate the amount of the cuts.

The commission bobbed and weaved as well on the subject of covert operations. From the Bay of Pigs to Nicaragua and Iran-contra, it is covert operations that have caused the CIA and the country the most embarrassment. Even a covert operation ** that the agency defines as a "success" brings an altogether new meaning to that word.

In Afghanistan, for example, the CIA-backed rebels managed to kick out the Soviets. But Afghanistan today is a country of death and misery.

An estimated 1 million people perished in the civil war, 2 million were permanently disabled, the different "mujahedeen" factions are at each other's throats, and Islamic fundamentalist law prevails in half the country. Thieves have their hands or arms chopped off, women cannot work and are forced to cover their faces and bodies in public. Dozens of the CIA's Stinger missiles, used by the rebels, have vanished. They could be used to shoot down American or other civilian airliners.

The commission's report insists that the United States must maintain its ability to mount covert action to give the president an option "short of military action when diplomacy alone cannot do the job." But covert operations should take place only where "essential" and where the reason for secrecy and for hiding the hand of the United States is "compelling."

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