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The Dragon Is Gone--but Not the Snakes : Confirmation hearing shows risks in cutting CIA budget

February 07, 1993

R. James Woolsey has won painless Senate confirmation as President Clinton's director of Central Intelligence, having earlier refused to speculate about whether the budgets of the CIA and the 10 other intelligence agencies he will oversee can be safely cut. His disinclination to commit himself before settling into his new job and examining its demands was sensible and proper. How much the United States spends on intelligence gathering, analysis and operations ought to be guided by objective assessments of national security needs, by the missions assigned to the intelligence arms and by what policy-makers need to know. It's too soon for the new team to have many answers.

There are some in Congress, including some on its intelligence committees, who believe that significant cutbacks in intelligence budgets can be safely made. They may be right, but for now it is impossible to know. Intelligence costs, largely hidden under different headings throughout the vast federal budget, are fully known to only a few people; published estimates put the figure at around $29 billion. That is not, as government activities go, a huge sum--it's little more than 2% of overall federal outlays--but it does fall into the category of discretionary spending and that alone makes it a tempting target for the budget cutters. Yes, all departments must share in cutbacks and, yes, the big intelligence buildup of the Reagan years may have put an appreciable amount of bloat into intelligence spending that can now be siphoned out. But when national security is involved--in fact, the security of much of the world--we had better be very sure.

Three main arguments are usually advanced for cutting intelligence outlays: The Cold War is over, no strategic threat from Moscow to U.S. or Western interests is on the horizon, and the world in consequence is safer than it was just a few years ago. The first proposition is true. The second--given the unsettled nature of Russia's experiment with democracy and disturbing signs of an ultranationalist reaction--must for now be regarded as at least arguable. The third is a dangerous misperception.

The world is clearly a less stable place than it was, say, during the last decade or so of the Cold War, when the two superpowers shared an interest in keeping regional conflicts and clients under control, lest they themselves be drawn into confrontation. To use Woolsey's own apt image, "we have slain the dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes."

A primary task of intelligence is to identify these dangerous reptiles, keep track of what they're up to, and give policy-makers plenty of warning when it appears they might be thinking about striking. The CIA hasn't always looked too good in this regard, mainly because it was largely focused on the Soviet Union. A key task facing Woolsey will be to preside over a major reorientation of priorities, paying a lot more attention to threats arising in the Third World, to nuclear proliferation and to the international drug trade, all without neglecting developments and trends in Russia and China. It's a big order, and big orders can't be filled on the cheap. Congress, though eager to cut spending where it can, would be doing the nation a disservice if it didn't keep that in mind.

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