'Secret Agencies': Whither U.S. spying?

November 24, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,sun staff

"Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World," by Loch K. Johnson. 262 pages. Yale University Press. $30. Few spectators at the great game of American spying have had so good a seat as Loch K. Johnson.

In the mid-1970s, he was a congressional staff member during probes of Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency abuses. In 1995, he was a top staffer on the Aspin-Brown Commission, which assessed U.S. intelligence in the wake of the Cold War. These jobs gave him an insider's access to secrets while encouraging him to remain skeptic rather than cheerleader.

In between, he regularly interviewed American spies and their bosses while keeping his distance from Langley and Fort Meade as professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

The result is the balance he brings to his third book on American intelligence. "Secret Agencies" is a compact, often engrossing review of U.S. spying over the last two decades that will challenge and inform anyone interested in what the American taxpayer gets for $30 billion or so a year.

Only in passing does Johnson describe the labyrinth of agencies or explain the dazzling net of spy satellites. His emphasis is on the lasting controversies of spying: the pros and cons of covert action, the diligence of congressional oversight, the wisdom of economic espionage and the real impact of intelligence on policy.

With deft common sense, he skewers some of the dubious claims of the secret world. CIA's directorate of intelligence alone, for example, produced 35,000 reports and briefings in 1994; yet, as Johnson points out, busy policymakers leave almost all of them unread and unheard, having time and inclination only for "bumper-sticker" intelligence summaries of a page or two.

Moreover, presidents and secretaries of state and defense are inclined to use intelligence, as Johnson (himself leaning on Benjamin Disraeli) quotes a former intelligence official as "a drunk uses a lamppost ... more for support than illumination." When the CIA's most knowledgeable Soviet analysts argued that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were potentially explosive, their reports were were ignored by the Reagan administration. Policymakers only wanted backing for their belief that perestroika was a Communist ruse.

Johnson convincingly warns against frequent use of covert action, which usually has ended in failure and embarrassment. He accuses the intelligence oversight committees of a "farrago of sycophancy" toward CIA and NSA. Some 16 representatives and five senators, he reports, asked not a single question during their years on the oversight committees; only at a third of public hearings did a majority of committee members even show up.

Ultimately, Johnson credits the spies with numerous achievements, in particular a crucial contribution to reducing the chance of nuclear war. But he remains skeptical about the

potential of what he calls the "bloated" U.S. spying machine. He sensibly concludes: "A hundred young American businesspeople studying Japanese, reading the Tokyo business papers, and interacting with their counterparts in Japan are far more likely to keep this country informed about Japanese economic issues ... than a score of spies or a thousand wiretaps."

Johnson's felicitous style is marred slightly by his inebriation with abbreviations: weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are tracked HUMINT (human intelligence) flowing into SOVA (CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis). Cut it out already! (CIOA!)

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, last year wa co-author of a six-part series on the National Security Agency. He was the newspaper's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and is author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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