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Building a Better CIA : With Washington Insider John M. Deutch in The Director's Chair, The Once-Proud Spy Agency Cleans House, Looks for New Enemies and Struggles to Reinvent Itself.

October 08, 1995|JAMES RISEN | James Risen is a national correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau. His last article for the magazine was on the Rose Law Firm of Little Rock, Ark., and its role in the Whitewater scandal

Deep in the basement of the Central Intelligence Agency's sprawling headquarters complex in Langley, Va., the staff of the agency's Crime and Narcotics Center sat rigidly at one end of a long conference table, girding for a unique briefing for the Washington press corps.

The CIA men--they were all men--were clearly uncomfortable. They had worked in the shadows all their lives, and the media seemed to fill them with more dread than the KGB.

There was Jack Devine, the CIA's acting operations chief, with the hulking look of a retired linebacker, and others whose names must be kept secret: the owlish, balding director of the narcotics center; the center's Hispanic deputy director, a man with a background in clandestine operations in Latin America, and the narcotics center's prematurely gray research director, a desk-bound analyst who could rattle off the latest cocoa crop estimates for Bolivia and Peru.

They were here to talk about the CIA's latest contributions to the federal government's war on drugs, one of the highest of the high-profile missions for the spy agency as it seeks to redefine its place in the New World Order. The CIA now finds itself in a world in which The Communist Threat--the 48-year-old agency's reason for being--is conspicuously absent. A piece of the Berlin Wall now stands outside the agency's headquarters as a memento of The Great Game, the good old days.

And so these American spies seemed eager to let the public know they have found new work.

But before they could begin their background briefing, a reporter quickly took the air out of the occasion: "Hey, before you start, isn't this where Ames worked?" Awkward silence.

"Yes," finally came a terse reply from across the room. "His last assignment was here in the narcotics center."

For the CIA officers in the room, it was as if a rude house guest had just inquired about the family's crazy, ax-wielding uncle. The churlish press seemed obsessed by the Ames case; didn't these reporters realize that Ames was an aberration? The Ames issue hit uncomfortably close to home with this particular crowd. Devine had once been Ames' station chief in Rome, and Devine's hopes of becoming the CIA's permanent operations chief--in charge of the CIA's clandestine espionage service--had been dashed as a result.

Yet it also served as another reminder that Aldrich Ames--and countless other Cold War ghosts--still haunt the CIA as it confronts an increasingly uncertain future. The reporter's question may have seemed impertinent, but privately, CIA people admit that they have been more traumatized by the Ames case than anything else. Many can recall where they were when they heard the news; it was Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination rolled into one for American intelligence professionals, a searing day of infamy. They thought the agency couldn't sink any lower than it did on the morning of Feb. 21, 1994, when FBI agents pulled Ames from his Jaguar on his way to work. Sadly, the past year has proven them wrong.

The bad news has just kept on coming. No matter that truth and fiction are still to be sorted out from many of the negative stories that have emerged from the hazy world of espionage. The damage has already been done to the CIA's public image, which hasn't been so badly tarnished since the ugly days of Iran-Contra.

The agency was still reeling from the Ames scandal when it was hit early in 1995 by explosive revelations about the CIA's murky role in Guatemala, leaving the perception of a rogue agency dealing with Third World thugs involved in the murder of American citizens. A class-action lawsuit, brought by some 450 current and former women spies, charging widespread sexual discrimination and harassment within the CIA, which the agency settled this summer, seemed to provide evidence that the CIA was still dominated by a network of leering old boys. Finally, a high-profile attempt by the agency to make a foray into the post-Cold War world of economic espionage blew up in its face, when five of its officers get caught red-handed--by the French, of all people. French intelligence beat the CIA so badly--rolling up the American attempt to penetrate French and European trade negotiations and then, for good measure, leaking the story in February just before French elections--that the CIA needed an internal investigation to determine what went wrong.

Turmoil at the top of the agency has only made matters worse. With four CIA directors in just over four years--not counting one acting director and a nominee who imploded because of a messy personal controversy--the agency has endured so many leadership changes lately that it is becoming Washington's version of the Steinbrenner Yankees. Above all, the turnover has underscored President Clinton's inattention to and lack of interest in the problems facing the U.S. intelligence community, especially by comparison with George Bush, the first CIA director to become President.

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