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The CIA Might Be Down--But Don't Count It Out : Intelligence: You often can't tell the agency's triumphs from its failures but though the Cold War is over, its days are not numbered.

June 24, 1990|Ross Thomas | Ross Thomas' newest novel, "Twilight at Mac's Place," will be published in autumn by Mysterious Press

The last contact I had with the Central Intelligence Agency, direct or indirect, was a month or two ago when one of its former contract employees called at 2 a.m. from a motel in Opelousas, La.--where it was 4 a.m.--to inquire if I'd lend him $600 so he could buy an old junker and get out of town.

There were several questions that, in retrospect, I should have asked. Such as, how did this Nebraska native wind up broke in the heart of Cajun country? And what had happened to his 25-year career with the CIA? And why had he called me?

The last question was germane because we hadn't seen each other since a lunch in Washington 25 years ago, when he announced, or maybe confessed, that he had decided to go to work for the spooks.

But the question I really regret not asking was, "By the way, Harry (not his name), now that the Cold War's over, do you think they ought to abolish the CIA?" In idle moments I had been asking myself this ever since the Berlin Wall cracked open and Czechoslovakia chose playwright Vaclav Havel as president.

But the only question I asked was, "What's the address and zip code, Harry?" After telling me what they were, he wondered if I would mind Fed-Exing the check, thus emphasizing the urgency of his financial needs while reminding me of how much he had always liked substituting brand names for verbs.

Although I failed to ask Harry whether the CIA is still needed, the question is being asked by others in querulous man-on-the-moon tones. Such as: "If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they grow edible tomatoes and hire some spies who'd at least tip us off about the biggest international dust-up of the century?"

Two weeks ago, on the New York Times Op-Ed page, Roger Morris, former National Security Council staff member in the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, used 41.5 column inches to brand the CIA as intellectually dishonest with a bad habit of lying to itself, especially about the Soviet Union.

"Its stuffy, orthodox ignorance of the volcanic forces so close beneath the surface of Soviet society," Morris wrote, "is only the last and most spectacular failure."

The next Sunday, Sen. David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat and, like George Bush, a Yale Skull and Bones man, used 23 column inches of the New York Times Op-Ed page to offer a wavering defense.

Boren, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, used his first sentence to pronounce the Cold War dead. He then noted the charge that the CIA was a costly anachronism, brushed it aside and called for a new, improved brand of intelligence-gathering. It involves keeping one eye on the Soviets, and the other on proliferation of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons--especially those in the hands of what Boren delicately described as "less responsible nations," meaning, I suppose, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Libya.

As for the CIA, Boren is convinced its "intelligence excesses are largely behind us." The senator is not only an optimist but also an artful obfuscater.

Since 1947, the CIA has been one of the two Great Meddlers in international affairs. It has had more money and more resources to meddle with than anyone else--including its nemesis, the KGB. But having the most is never having quite enough--even though it now boasts a guessed-at $2 billion-plus annual budget.

The CIA often complains that its disasters are always cited but never its triumphs. That's probably because it's hard to tell them apart. The CIA's wins and losses are equally depressing.

We can begin with what the CIA has done to defend the faith. It has bribed or suborned kings, prime ministers, members of Parliament, a prince or two and scores of journalists. It deposed a lawfully elected government in Iran and installed its own satrap on the throne whose excesses brought on the ayatollah. It helped topple elected governments in Central and South America, which were replaced by dictatorships, none benevolent. And it has long been accused of drug trafficking in Southeast Asia and Central America--accusations yet to be proved.

At home, it cut deals with the Mafia, bribed more journalists, compromised labor unions, corrupted a student association and subsidized at least one magazine and one publishing house. This could be called the agency's domestic policy.

Abroad again, it tried to assassinate Fidel Castro but bungled it. It did nothing to prevent or discourage the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam and was far from displeased, in 1961, when others saved it the bother of killing Patrice Emergy Lumumba, then the Congo's prime minister.

The agency's most recent triumphs and/or disasters were its keen participation in the Iran-Contra mess and its inability to even hint at, much less forecast, the political tornado that roared across East Europe last year.

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