The compromise of security by Marine guards at the American Embassy in Moscow is the latest evidence that our government's system for protecting secrets at home and abroad is totally inadequate.
Despite the fact that more spies have been arrested and convicted in the past two years than the past two decades combined, the U.S. counterintelligence effort has failed to live up to Congress' expectations on almost every score.
In February, a month before the Moscow incident, America's spy-catchers received a failing report card from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The report recounts a "litany of disasters," stemming from "lax security practice, inadequate interagency cooperation, even bungled surveillance of a prime espionage suspect," and says it all adds up to a "serious management failure in the U.S. intelligence community."
Part of the remedy to this failure is to increase the efficiency of and the budget for counterintelligence operations. The spy-catching bureaus and offices are really second-class entities in the intelligence profession today, and consistently receive low priority when competing for funds and personnel with bureaus involved in intelligence collection.
But the most recent problems make me think that the Reagan Administration should go even further and investigate creating a single counterintelligence agency with its own budget and career service. Spreading the counterintelligence mission across many and sometimes rival agencies and offices weakens and fragments the overall effort. A single agency would facilitate the coordination of operations and information-sharing that, as Congress found, does not take place today.
In short, by taking the job of counter-intelligence more seriously and handling it in a more centralized way, the government can get a whole lot better at deterring foreign powers from trying to subvert our citizens into becoming their agents, and at catching on sooner when security violations and serious compromises do occur.
Critics will say that such an agency would become an American KGB. Some already oppose intensified efforts to investigate the backgrounds and social and financial activities of American citizens who have access to sensitive information and intelligence material.
Admittedly, the counterintelligence job is a difficult one for American agencies to conduct. As Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was director of central intelligence under President Jimmy Carter, wrote in a recent book: "There is no area of intelligence activity more likely to abuse the rights of our citizens."
The challenge is how to do counterintelligence without turning America into a police state. It can be met by creating a clear and comprehensive charter under which such a new agency would operate, one that also would safeguard Americans' civil liberties.
Revamping the way the government goes about the counterintelligence business should be a major and urgent priority for President Reagan's new director of central intelligence who, as former head of the FBI, ought to know how to get the job done.