SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — Soviet and U.S. intelligence operations are the wild card in current attempts to back gingerly away from the Cold War. Intended to enhance national security, intelligence operations--especially covert actions--have a way of going noisily wrong and putting policy-makers on the defensive, or working too well and frightening opponents. Just about every other aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations has been discussed by the two sides in recent years, and the time has come to put intelligence on the agenda--to ensure the wild card doesn't wreck chances for peace.
The aggressive pursuit of intelligence goals poses problems that must be recognized by both sides. Americans hear plenty about Soviet intelligence operations--spies (since a Washington policy decision to prosecute publicly) and clandestine efforts to support Third World revolutionary movements--but get only rare glimpses of U.S. efforts. The Central Intelligence Agency is not laggard, and shaky Soviet control of Poland and other Eastern Europe client states offers a rare opportunity to hit the Soviets close to home--and shatter prospects for better relations.
Like all dissident movements, Poland's Solidarity is partly dependent on foreign help. Whether funds, communication assistance and the presses used for underground publishing come from the CIA, I cannot say, but the line between practical assistance and attempts at control is a fine one. Poland is in a state of revolutionary ferment--ideal for political manipulation or recruiting agents to report on Warsaw Pact military secrets. Similar crises could arise in other Eastern European states. Some U.S. intelligence officers will be itching to make hay while the sun shines, but the temptation should be judged with care. Too much is at stake.
We have faced this before. One goal of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Administration was the "rollback" of communist control in Eastern Europe. The CIA accumulated weapons and trained emigre leaders to take advantage of any crisis, and funded propaganda broadcasts that played a role--just how large is still a matter of debate--in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. When push came to shove, Eisenhower wisely backed off, but the the bloody Soviet military suppression of the uprising poisoned East-West relations for years. A new Soviet military intervention in Poland would have the same effect. Avoiding such a crisis will require great tact on the part of Solidarity, as well as restraint by U.S. intelligence. Much the same can be said of the Soviets, who doubtless see, and may be tempted to exploit, opportunities in Central America.
Restraint of this sort requires a shift in traditional views of how intelligence helps make us safe. Not every operation that "works" is a good idea. In wartime, U.S. military services and intelligence agencies must be opaque--a "black hole" that absorbs information but lets none escape. In peacetime, national security is better served by translucence, a partial, measured escape of information reassuring international rivals that defense policy is just that--a wary readiness that poses no threat when unprovoked.
Because it can never be fully controlled, this translucence can be painful. Both sides in the Cold War live with overhead reconnaissance and the monitoring of radio traffic and other broadcast signals. Spy satellites keep track of every missile silo, every aircraft on a runway, every tank park in Europe, and thereby reassure both sides that nothing is afoot. Eavesdropping on the airwaves does much the same; even coded messages can be reassuring, simply because they are routine. Without "national technical means" of surveillance, as they are called in the legal language of treaties, arms-control agreements would be impossible, and the current relaxation of U.S.-Soviet tensions would revert to the dark days of the Cold War, when little information escaped the "denied areas" controlled by efficient Eastern European security services, and the United States feared the worst.
But spies are another matter. Spies raise the blood pressure of intelligence agencies because "compartmentalization"--channeling of information based on a "need to know"--is never perfect. In the age of photocopying, paper has a way of slipping its tethers, and the paper a spy was cleared to see may be only a part--perhaps the lesser part--of the paper that came his way. The former U.S. Army sergeant recently arrested in West Germany, Clyde Lee Conrad, appears to have had unlimited access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense documents, which he passed to Hungarian intelligence, largely under KGB control.