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Can Woolsey Pull It Off? : The CIA: The agency that limped in from the cold

July 24, 1994

The Central Intelligence Agency, concedes its director, R. James Woolsey, stands in need of major reform. Its internal culture, especially in the Directorate of Operations, its spying arm, too much resembles a kind of "fraternity" in which "once you're initiated, you're considered a trusted member for life." Such faith in the implicit integrity of those working within the same system, as students of modern espionage history will well remember, was precisely what allowed Britain's intelligence services to be so deeply infiltrated and tragically compromised by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and beyond. With the CIA, it was the Aldrich Ames case earlier this year that made inevitable the intensive review of how it runs its affairs that, Woolsey now promises, will bring about sweeping changes.

Maybe. The skeptics have strong doubts. Among them are Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), respectively the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Both, no longer having confidence in the readiness or the ability of the agency to reform itself from within, believe the President should appoint a commission that would evaluate the CIA from top to bottom and propose whatever changes it feels are required.

Commending such an approach is the expected objectivity and absence of institutional bias that a panel of presumably experienced and respected outsiders could bring to their work. But where there might be an opportunity for unbiased scrutiny, there could also surely be risk. The CIA is not, after all, the Agriculture Department or the Social Security Administration. It's an agency intimately involved in the nation's security and for that reason chartered to operate largely in the dark. Would it be in the country's best interests if the CIA's most intimate methods were exposed to an investigative body whose very appointment would suggest a mandate to find fault? Faults there certainly are. But for now at any rate, continued and continually intensified oversight by the intelligence committees of Congress seems to us to be preferable to a presidential commission.

Woolsey, of course, isn't eager for more intrusive congressional examination. Perhaps in hopes of heading off that possibility he has announced that a special review board of outsiders would be named to constantly monitor the Directorate of Operations and report directly to him. Additionally, he pledges to introduce new standards of ethics and accountability, tougher promotion standards, tightened access to secrets and greater computer security.

Are these correctives enough in the wake of the Ames scandal, which saw a 30-year veteran of the CIA--from subsequent accounts, a heavy-drinking mediocrity--escape detection as a Soviet spy for more than a decade, meanwhile literally flaunting the material fruits of his betrayal? Whether they will be enough pretty clearly isn't something the public will be in a position to judge independently.

Nor is the adequacy of the reforms something that the CIA alone can be left to decide. For that determination, we'll have to trust the congressional intelligence committees. If they conclude that the CIA is doing too little to clean up its act, it will be time to consider the presidential commission idea.

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