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Mysteries & Secrets : Director Gates Knows The Central Intelligence Agency Must Change. But How--and How Much?

April 19, 1992|JOHN M. BRODER | John M. Broder covers national security affairs for The Times' Washington bureau; his last piece for this magazine was a profile of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell.

Eventually, Gates finds his way back to what he considers the bottom line. He has addressed the problem of change at the CIA over and over again--at his confirmation hearings last year, at the Farm in February, at budget meetings that ended this spring. And every time he wanders around the questions of what to change, and how deeply to change it, he comes to the same basic conclusion, to that paradoxical and delicate spot on the scale from 0 to 5: The CIA must change radically, but it must also be preserved.

VIRTUALLY ALL INTELLIGENCE WORK CAN be reduced to two categories--secrets and mysteries. The United States has expended hundreds of billions of dollars over the past four decades to purloin the secrets of its enemies and to protect its own. A relatively minuscule effort has been expended in the more ambiguous job of understanding the world's mysteries. With its sophisticated spy satellites, its electronic eavesdropping aircraft and its cable-tapping submarines, America became more adept than any other nation in history at reading the other guy's mail. But it has repeatedly failed to read his mind--in Moscow's Politburo, in Hanoi's war councils, in Tehran's ruling circle of mullahs, in Baghdad's Baath Socialist Party headquarters.

An increased emphasis on the mysterious, as opposed to the merely hidden, is now the first order of change at the CIA. According to Gates and his senior advisers, unraveling the mysteries of the mind of a Saddam Hussein, for instance, is far more critical to American security than counting the number of tanks assigned to a Czech mechanized division.

"It is really important to make the distinction between the knowable--which in our business is the stealable, like the design of an aircraft carrier or the specifications of a missile--and that to which there is no known or knowable answer, such as 'What is the future of Iran?' " says Fritz W. Ermarth, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the office that brings together the highest-ranking intelligence analysts from the CIA, the military and other departments. "A secret, you can ask your colleagues in collection to go get for you. But no amount of collection can tell you what the future holds for Iran or Russia."

Plumbing mysteries rather than simply stealing secrets is mostly a matter of asking different questions. Last November, President Bush directed 20 government agencies to weigh in on exactly what those questions should be. The goal of the directive, National Security Review 29, is "a top-to-bottom examination of the mission, role and priorities of the intelligence community." The replies included a desire for greater attention to environmental problems, health issues, ethnic strife, migration and economic trends. Military capabilities and intentions, while still a high priority, were appreciably less important in the mix.

Gates' first official act as director of central intelligence last November was very much in keeping with such priorities. He ordered 10 short-deadline national intelligence estimates on the likely course of events in the former Soviet Union. He wanted his analysts to gauge the probability of starvation in Russia and divine whether that would lead the people to revolt against Boris N. Yeltsin. He wanted their best guess on whether the long-suppressed ethnic and religious bonds between the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the neighboring states of Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan would lead to militarily powerful alliances hostile to the West--with nuclear weapons stirred into the stew.

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