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Carlucci: Big Man About Intelligence

November 29, 1987|James Bamford | James Bamford is author of "The Puzzle Palace," an analysis of the National Security Agency

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A year ago he ran a small, money-losing division of Sears. Two weeks ago he was in charge of a micro-sized unit, the National Security Council, in the White House. Today Frank C. Carlucci, the newly appointed Secretary of Defense, directs the activities of close to 3 1/2 million people and supervises the spending of more than a quarter of a trillion dollars. At the same time, in a far less visible role, he directs the free world's largest and most complex intelligence organization.

Carlucci's swearing in last week completes a revolution in the U.S. intelligence community that began with the appointment of former FBI chief William H. Webster to take over the critically ill Central Intelligence Agency. Although little noticed by the public, responsibility for the collection of intelligence has shifted dramatically over the last three decades from the CIA to the Pentagon. The primary reason is technology. In the 1950s, former CIA Director Allen W. Dulles chose to concentrate on the traditional human side of espionage, allowing the Pentagon to grab onto the budding techno-spies--satellites, listening posts and reconnaissance planes.

Eventually, because it became more efficient to take a high-resolution photograph from space or eavesdrop on key communications than attempt the difficult task of recruiting an agent-in-place, the Pentagon began getting a larger share of the intelligence dollar. So the CIA, to justify its existence, began shifting efforts away from its original purpose--espionage--toward the risky and questionable areas of covert action and paramilitary operations.

Today the Pentagon controls the largest intelligence machine the world has ever known and it will be one of Carlucci's most difficult tasks to bring it under control. Among the organizations now under his authority is the National Reconnaissance Office, the highly secret and expensive joint Pentagon-CIA agency responsible for the development and operation of the nation's growing fleet of spy satellites. For the last several years the NRO has been in a state of near emergency, as the launch systems designed to put new and replacement satellites into space--the space shuttle and Titan rockets--encountered serial disasters. The organization now appears on its way to recovery with the successful launch last month of the Titan 3/34D rocket carrying a critically needed KH-11 photographic satellite.

Another large network now under Carlucci is the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's own expanding organization that performs myriad tasks--from analyzing photos by spy satellites to running the Defense Intelligence College to collecting human intelligence from a worldwide corps of military, naval and air attaches.

But there are two areas the new secretary will have to take an especially close look at: the National Security Agency and the ad hoc intelligence units set up by various military services. NSA eavesdrops on communications and makes and breaks codes, making it the agency that could most effectively spy on U.S. citizens if directed to do so. In 1975 then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Ida.), who conducted a Senate investigation of intelligence abuses, said of NSA technology: "That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left; such (is) the capability to monitor everything . . . there will be no place to hide."

Because of its potential for abuse, NSA directors must demonstrate absolute trustworthiness or else be replaced. And this is an evaluation Carlucci will have to make about the current director, Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, whose actions during the Iran-Contra affair raised important questions. Because of the agency's enormous capability to intercept communications worldwide, it picked up many messages and telephone conversations among and involving the participants in Iran, Israel and Washington. Instead of passing this information on to his boss, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, as required, Odom bypassed the normal chain of command and gave it to the National Security Council. Thus Weinberger did not find out the policy he had opposed was being implemented.

This led to Weinberger's extraordinary admission during last summer's Iran-Contra hearings: his first discovery that the United States was negotiating with Iran came through an NSA intercept that was placed on his desk by accident. He was then told by the NSA, his subordinate agency, that he had been given the report by mistake and wasn't entitled to know anything more. The American public needs reassurance that such behavior will not be repeated.

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