Seeing consequences of a languishing CIA

October 08, 1998

The following editorial appeared last week in the Miami Herald:

The Cold War has ended, but the world is still a dangerouplace. The United States, as the only remaining superpower, offers tempting targets for those who blame this country for their woes.

So America's need for reliable intelligence remains. Indeed, the need is arguably greater because today's major worries -- terrorism, rogue states, new technologies, ancient enmities -- are harder to assess than the Kremlin was.

The rewards of good intelligence were demonstrated anew [recently]. A plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Uganda was foiled. Yet this welcome good news came on the heels of a major embarrassment: Not only did U.S. intelligence fail to prevent August's devastating attacks on two other U.S. embassies in Africa, but part of America's military retaliation -- the attack on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan -- now appears to have been based on faulty intelligence.

This has stirred criticism in Congress. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., ordinarily a staunch defender of President Clinton, now calls the Sudan raid "a mistake." So does former President Jimmy Carter.

Meanwhile, one of Congress' most respected members, Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana wants an explanation for another gaffe: U.S. intelligence agencies badly misread North Korea's recent missile launch.

That launch crossed Japanese territory and stirred strong reactions in Asia and in Congress. The United States first called it a test of a three-stage ballistic missile, which would have been a dangerous provocation. Later it was shown to be a failed satellite launch. Said Mr. Hamilton: "A miscall like that has a lot of consequences." Fortunately, there was no military retaliation; rather, Congress rushed to block aid that North Korea got in exchange for a nuclear freeze.

As for things nuclear, U.S. intelligence was caught off guard this spring when India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. Do other unpleasant surprises await? Writing in the Washington Post, the CIA's departing inspector general, Frederick Hitz, warned that the agency's spy operations are losing their best people and not replacing them.

Mr. Hitz cites low morale and organizational drift: "Nobody worth his or her salt is going to join an organization that has lost faith in itself, is confused about its mission, and is trapped in the sclerosis of a middle-aged bureaucracy."

In the 1970s Congress rightly investigated the CIA's excesses, especially its covert operations. Needed now is an investigation into deficiencies that could hobble the CIA's ability to do its job well in a dangerous world.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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