Intelligence: Where are the books to build policy on? Security: Post-Cold War U.S. national interests demand public awareness

The Argument

June 16, 1996|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Intelligence gathering and covert actions present a particular challenge to democracy. The public's democratic need to know runs into the intelligence community's equally imperative need to conceal.

The Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence organizations operate almost entirely in secret.

Ideally, a republic is a body of citizens who are informed, who think soundly and make up their minds on the issues, and who then elect representatives who will vote appropriately.

Meeting the challenge proposed by intelligence books can play a crucial role. Books can probe beneath the business-as-usual defenses of any bureaucracy and particularly those of the intelligence community, which is otherwise clothed in secrecy.

Now, more than ever, the American public needs good books on intelligence. In the last five years, the world environment has radically changed with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which justified the buildup and Cold War character of the current intelligence system. Despite this dramatic change, spying, covert operations and electronic surveillance continue at the same level as before. Does the United States need all this? Is it morally permissible in a world in which the major powers are no longer in a race for survival? Is there justification for the intelligence community's present whopping budget of $28 billion when school lunches, education benefits and health programs are being cut off?

Or has the post-Cold War world turned up new needs for intelligence, such as an increase in rogue states, transnational terrorists and crime, nuclear proliferation and cutthroat economic competition?

The press best exemplified by The Sun's December series on the National Security Agency and hard-hitting reporting in the New York Times, Washington Post and the Nation, has attempted to describe what U.S. intelligence is doing.

These reports have depicted in detail the most recent intelligence failures, such as the Aldrich Ames spy case, which ,, resulted in the deaths of at least 10 U.S.-paid agents; the supply of double-agent-tainted intelligence to the president; and the breakdown of intelligence predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. But what the daily and weekly press cannot do with broad effectiveness is draw all the evidence together to provide the basis for sound policy.

Given the problem of secrecy, this should be the job of the Executive Branch and congressional oversight committees, which by law have access to classified material. In 1994 and 1995, doubts about the intelligence system sparked two major governmental studies: one by a commission of House, Senate and Executive Branch members, chaired by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown; the other by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Texas Representative Larry Combest.

Far from criticizing the existing system and suggesting major reforms, however, these reports, released this year, ended up meekly supporting the status quo, with only modest administrative recommendations. A main reason this occurred was suggested by the Combest Committee's report. "Intelligence," it declared, "unlike other federal programs, has no natural constituency; therefore, Congress plays a vital role in building public support." Clearly, if oversight becomes advocacy, cannot work.

With Congress shirking its oversight obligations, books offer the best way Americans have to make up their minds on the right approach to U.S. intelligence. Yet a five-year review of books reveals virtually no basic analysis of or justification for the current U.S. intelligence system.

The dearth of books, pro or con, constitutes a disturbing failure to grapple with one of the most serious issues facing the $H republic.

The pickings are slim. Accounts of recent spy scandals, such as Peter Maas' "Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI's Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America's Deadliest Spy" (Warner Books Inc., 1995) entertain, but usually lack analysis. Recent memoirs, such as the CIA's Richard M. Bissell Jr.'s "Reflections of a Cold Warrior" (Yale University Press, 1996), provide anecdotal details but are often self-serving and frequently blind, although Bissell is particularly revealing about the "old boy network" of government, foundations and industry that supports the U.S. intelligence establishment. Christopher Andrew's "For the President's Eyes Only" (HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), a well-written history of how presidents from Washington to Bush have used, and misused, intelligence, lacks operational analysis.

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