CIA reform: the search for panaceas

June 18, 1996|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the Aldrich Ames affair and other purported failures of American intelligence, there have been numerous inquiries and reports designed to reform the operations of the nation's $28 billion-a-year intelligence community.

If past experience is any guide, these attempts at bureaucratic reshuffling and organizational fine-tuning will be as ineffective as previous reform attempts extending over three decades since the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

The Ames case was the most flamboyant of the CIA's recent problems. He all but wore a T-shirt emblazoned ''I'm the Mole!'' yet he operated undetected for almost nine years while 10 of the agency's major sources in the Soviet Union were executed, scores of agents were compromised, a hundred operations were blown and thousands of pages of secret documents disappeared.

The CIA was under fire also for being slow to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union (a charge it denies), and to foresee the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. All its assets in Cuba and East Germany were found to be double agents. Cover-ups, corruption and widespread sexual discrimination against female workers were other problems. Critics challenged the justification, with the Soviet threat having vanished, of the CIA's $3.1 billion budget and 20,000 or so employees. Suggestions for reform ranged from incremental tinkering to outright abolition of the CIA, as suggested by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Ideas for change

The House and Senate intelligence committees produced ideas for change. Think tanks came up with versions of reform. Congress directed President Clinton, who has shown little interest in intelligence, to appoint a special commission, first headed by ex-Defense Secretary Les Aspin and then by a predecessor, Harold Brown, to rethink the roles of the nation's intelligence services.

In recent weeks, some of these groups have delivered their far from revolutionary recommendations -- most of them have been made before -- and there is a rough consensus of what should be done.

Everyone agrees that the United States needs an efficient intelligence service to deal with the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare by such rogue regimes as North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya. Narcotics trafficking and international terrorism should also be targets.

The CIA staff should be cut by roughly 25 percent. Paramilitary operations should be spun off to the Pentagon and propaganda efforts to the U.S. Information Service. Services that are duplicated and triplicated within the 13 U.S. intelligence services should be consolidated. (For example, the CIA has some 1,500 analysts and the Pentagon intelligence services have another 13,000.) Accountability must be improved. Priorities should be established. After all, what secrets do we really need to steal in Gabon or Uruguay or Denmark?

The role of the director

Particular attention has been focused on the role of the Director of Central Intelligence, who runs the CIA and serves as board chairman of the nation's intelligence agencies. He should take charge of the entire intelligence community and become the president's chief intelligence adviser, while the day-to-day job of running the CIA should be given to a deputy who would rank with the FBI director.

This official should serve for a fixed six-year term to insulate the job from changes in the White House. The concentration of both positions in one person has allowed presidents to secretly conduct foreign policy independent of the State Department and congressional consultation, as occurred in Iran-contra.

A realistic examination of the facts makes it clear that no matter what flow charts are drawn, bureaucratic rejiggling or legal restrictions imposed, there will be little change.

Presidents will continue to be frustrated by the restraints upon their conduct of foreign policy and are likely to seek out independent means for decisive action. If the White House is determined to follow a secret course, someone with a ''can do'' mentality will be found to carry it out. Counterparts to Oliver North are always available. In such situations, good judgment and common sense rather than unquestioning obedience to orders or loyalty to the president must be the bottom line. Policy makers should ask themselves a series of basic questions whenever they contemplate such activities. Given the propensity for leaks in Washington, the obvious question is: What will happen if -- or more likely, when -- the operation becomes public?

Will it have the support of the American people? Does it contravene open American policy? What is the nature of those who are to receive secret American assistance? Had anyone in the Reagan administration asked these questions about the reckless decision to trade arms for American hostages in the Middle East, the Iran-contra affair could hardly have happened. Nor would President Clinton have allowed Iran a role in Bosnia.

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