CIA debates merits of bad spies Agency's firing of 2000 informants fuels discussion

March 04, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Some call it, not kindly, the "nice spies" issue.

Recent disclosures that the Central Intelligence Agency has purged assassins, torturers and other human rights abusers from its ranks of paid informants has intensified debate over the kinds of people the agency relies on for information.

On one side are human rights groups, liberal members of Congress and other agency critics who say that reliance on unsavory characters for information too often leads to overlooking or even abetting their crimes.

On the other side are intelligence veterans who say that the only way to get information on villains is by cultivating their friends -- namely other villains.

The issue is likely to draw increased attention on Capitol Hill in the months ahead. It is also expected to be a focus of questioning during confirmation hearings later this month for W. Anthony Lake, President Clinton's nominee for director of central intelligence.

The CIA has fired close to 2,000 informants since the end of the Cold War, about half in the past two years. Those dropped included many Latin Americans with records of human rights abuse, according to current and former intelligence officials.

The CIA declined to comment.

Its most recent director, John M. Deutch, put a particular emphasis on weeding out human rights abusers unless the information they provided was of such value that it outweighed their offenses, according to these officials.

A substantial number of informants in Central and South America were discarded both because they were no longer needed to fight communism and because many were tied to military establishments with sordid human rights records, they added.

While Deutch didn't rule out obtaining information from unsavory characters, critics of his approach say it could limit the CIA's recruitment of sources in terrorist groups, narcotics organizations or death squads.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former top counter-terrorism official at the CIA, faulted it for succumbing to "political correctness."

"If you report on these subjects, you've got to deal with these people," he said.

'Scrub' begins

The worldwide "scrub" of informants, as the process is called, began during the Bush administration, when William H. Webster was CIA director, according to a former top official.

At the time, the agency was positioning itself to confront post-Cold War threats like terrorism, rogue states, drug trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he said.

"By 1991-'92 they cut out 1,000" informants, he said. A contributing factor was pervasive 1990s downsizing, another official said. In the past two years, the Washington Post reported Sunday, close to 1,000 more informants were fired.

The effort to remove human rights abusers gained momentum during investigations into the CIA's role in Central America, particularly in Guatemala.

Last year, the White House's Intelligence Oversight Board completed an extensive review of the agency's ties to top officials of the Guatemalan military who covered up the killing of an American innkeeper, Michael DeVine, and joined in the interrogation or torture of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a guerrilla married to American Jennifer Harbury. Bamaca died within a year of being captured.

"In the course of our review, we found that several CIA assets were credibly alleged to have ordered, planned, or participated in serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture or kidnapping while they were assets," the IOB said in its report.

The board recommended that the agency lay out clear guidelines on how to use informants with a record of human rights abuses or criminal backgrounds.

The CIA's rules

Of the rules subsequently spelled out by the CIA, which remain classified, the IOB said: "We believe this guidance strikes an appropriate balance by generally barring such relationships but permitting appropriately senior officials to authorize them in special cases when national security interests warrant."

The "scrub" is not connected with the CIA's review of its role in Honduras during the 1980s, although the agency is known to have formed close ties at the time with officials in the Honduran military who were likely to have been discarded during the scrub.

The Honduras review was begun after a series appeared in The Sun in 1995 reporting on torture, kidnapping and murder committed by a CIA-trained Honduran military unit during the 1980s.

An internal review of agency documents relating to Honduras was substantially complete last August, but the agency assigned its inspector general to conduct a further probe.

While there may no longer be a need to maintain Latin American military officials on the payroll, several experts fear that too restrictive a CIA policy could hinder the recruitment of sources. "We need to look into it a lot more carefully and make sure it NTC doesn't have unintended consequences," said an intelligence official.

To avoid criticism, this official said, agents looking for new informants may steer clear of those with questionable backgrounds even if they have access to valuable information.

Testifying last year, Deutch sought to deflect congressional concern that the new guidelines on recruiting informants might hinder CIA information gathering.

"If they are being perceived or, in fact, are constraining the collection of intelligence, they are going to have to be modified or communicated in another way," he said.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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