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The CIA, Covert and Overt, Always Survives Its Critics

October 18, 1987|David Atlee Phillips | David Atlee Phillips, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, is founder of the Assn. of Former Intelligence Officers

WASHINGTON — Can the Central Intelligence Agency survive its current season of inquiry? Will the agency recover from investigations of the Iran- contra congressional committee and, most recently, controversy generated by Bob Woodward's hot history of William J. Casey? With such revelations, can the CIA operate efficiently in an open society?

After any major intelligence failure, damage assessment follows. After the Bay of Pigs in 1961, I was a witness when Robert F. Kennedy arrived at CIA headquarters--his countenance grim--to take command. President John F. Kennedy had dispatched his brother to put covert action operators on a short leash. Soon, though, the CIA was back in business--the Kennedy brothers fell in love with the concept of secret operations. Another cycle of world-wide influence operations began. It continued until 1975.

Then came the congressional investigations, the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House. In early 1975, I feared the CIA might not survive the intense scrutiny. There was acrimonious public debate--often focusing on secret operations involving assassinations or Chile. It seemed that the Company, as we called it, might be forced out of business.

But the CIA survived because Director William E. Colby diffused congressional critics with extraordinary candor, and then because Director George Bush provided balm to bruised CIA operatives with his therapeutic management style, and then because Adm. Stansfield Turner so reduced the agency's covert action capabilities that there were few controversial operations to complain about.

Beginning in 1980, the intelligence community watched with dismay as the Big Leak began. In the past, the U.S. ship of state leaked from the bottom. Now it began to leak, profusely, from the bridge. The Administration, Congress, even intelligence agencies, leaked. Sometimes, as in the "covert" support of Nicaraguan contras, it seemed the Administration wanted secrets to leak. The dismal era of overt covert action had begun.

Despite the damage done to foreign intelligence liaison and efforts to recruit new agents, the CIA survived the difficulties of conducting secret operations in Macy's window. Morale improved and overseas operations recovered. The Company was in business again. And most of the credit belonged to Casey.

Then came the Iran- contra hearings, the Woodward book and investigations by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.

The CIA is in trouble again. Most of the blame must be placed on Casey, the hyperactive Cold Warrior so frustrated by what he considered Sunnybrook Farm limits on clandestine engagement that he bent rules--and perhaps broke some. And Casey violated trade craft with an incandescent act of folly when he decided he could beat Woodward at his own game.

What is the degree of trauma this time, at the end of yet another cycle?

As before, there will be serious short-term damage to liaison operations with foreign intelligence services. In the long run, however, these relations can become viable again: Most Western nations need a symbiotic relationship with the CIA.

But the worst damage to the CIA may never be discernable.

Prospective spies overseas will say thanks but no thanks when recruited by U.S. intelligence. We will never know how many "walk-ins"--intelligence sources volunteering their services--decide to pedal their espionage wares to other countries.

Many overseas intelligence operations involve grubby little people recruited to perform grubby little jobs. Such agents are still available.

But important potential spies are educated people who follow world affairs and have been as mesmerized by the Iran- contra hearings and Woodward's book as we in the United States. They have access to the kind of information needed by military and political leaders. These people often betray their country's secrets not for money but because they believe our political system is better. As in the case of Col. Oleg V. Penkovsky, their CIA collaboration is a form of political protest.

An intelligence officer learns early that his reality must sometimes be another's perception. Now CIA recruiters will find the perception of potential agents abroad is that their CIA connection might someday surface on U.S. television or in a reporter's book. That's the real damage inflicted by the recent revelations.

The best covert-action practitioner is the operative who has zeal and imagination under control. Zeal is important, imagination essential, but the indispensable element is control. Covert action operations carried out zealously, no matter how imaginative, lead to disaster when they lack control. In the final analysis, it's a question of law. Intelligence officers who break the law should go to jail.

Will the CIA survive this time around?

Certainly.

It will survive because the public feeling for secret operations is much more accepting than in previous years.

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