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Is It Curtains for the CIA? : The agency is in for a bloodletting. It's more than the Ames case or the string of bad intelligence estimates. Or even dislike of the director. Cold War misdeeds are coming back to haunt it.

October 09, 1994|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf). His most recent book is "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb" (Little Brown)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The hour of truth has arrived for the Central Intelligence Agency. Three years after the Soviet Union dissolved while the stunned CIA was in mid-sentence, Congress is preparing for a long second look at the intelligence charter it approved in a climate of crisis in 1947. The first step is creation of a 17-member commission, already approved by the Senate and pending in the House, to study U.S. intelligence needs and how they ought to be met.

No one at the CIA is in any doubt about what this means: The agency in its current form is no longer sacred. What it will look like at the end of the commission's reassessment, the size of its budget, even the name over the door--all are in question. Intelligence professionals fear the worst. There is an appetite for bloodletting in Washington, fueled by the embarrassment of the Ames case; a sex-bias suit by female employees; a string of bad intelligence estimates; the agency's die-hard resistance to cutting its $3-billion budget; plain dislike of the agency's director, R. James Woolsey, by many legislators, and a growing belief that without the Soviet Union, the CIA has nothing to do.

Nor is there any lack of bright ideas circulating in Washington for a new and improved intelligence service, and perhaps two. For years, critics have proposed breaking the CIA in half. Some favor one organization to engage in secret intelligence activities, while a second writes up intelligence estimates using information from all sources. Other tinkerers would divide the existing agency differently--between a secret collecting-and-analyzing arm and a separate body to conduct covert operations.

A few extremists, led by the sharp-tongued Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), suggest dismantling the CIA altogether and going back to the simpler, pre-World War II days, when the State Department collected political intelligence, mainly at diplomatic cocktail parties, and the military kept track of foreign enemies, if any.

No consensus for reform yet exists, but discontent is high with Woolsey's pugnacious defense of the CIA. A widespread sense that something is badly wrong centers on the agency's numerous, in retrospect, flagrant, failures in handling the case of Aldrich H. Ames--who has admitted spying for Moscow between 1986 and his arrest earlier this year. At least 10 highly placed agents working for the CIA disappeared in the mid-1980s, but the CIA's internal investigators failed to read the implications of conspicuous spending by Ames, or to note many other clues. The Soviets penetrated every other major Western intelligence service during the Cold War, but it is doubtful that any other Soviet spy did as much damage, over so long a period, with the arguable exception of Kim Philby.

After the CIA's inspector general completed a 400-page report on the Ames case, which sharply criticized a dozen agency officials, Woolsey issued official reprimands criticizing their performance, but otherwise declined to punish the worst offenders.

The Ames case is one of those highly visible gaffes no official agency could survive unscathed--but even without it, the CIA would have been facing hard times. Despite huge growth during the Reagan years, to a peak of more than 20,000 employees, the CIA failed to grasp what was happening to the Soviet Union under Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

By the time the Soviet Union broke up, it was apparent that the old Soviet Union was literally bankrupt, that the CIA had for years been overestimating the size of its economy and underestimating the crushing burden of military spending and that the agency did not know what to do with the thousands of analysts and covert operators focused on Moscow once the Soviet threat had disappeared. Almost until the Soviet Union's final moments, the CIA, under Robert M. Gates, had been darkly wondering if it all wasn't some elaborate trick.

When Woolsey took over in 1993, he inherited an old agency, huge and set in its ways, with which to monitor a new world. He argued that the United States confronted a host of new dangers--each far less threatening than the old Soviet Union, perhaps, but harder to watch in the aggregate. The implication, which he defended with a lawyer's tenacity in budget hearings, was that the CIA couldn't function with less money and, in fact, needed more.

The lawmakers were put out. They had been cutting Pentagon dollars--spent in their home districts--and they were impatient with Woolsey's claim that the CIA alone should prosper in the post-Cold War world. It is probably the CIA's resistance to change that is most directly responsible for Sen. John W. Warner's plan to rethink U.S. intelligence with the help of a commission armed with a broad mandate to put everything on the table.

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