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Spies Look for a Mission, Even an Impossible One

March 23, 1997|David Wise | David Wise is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million" (HarperCollins)

WASHINGTON — For the past three months, the Central Intelligence Agency has been headless, "a captain without a ship," in President Bill Clinton's words. Now that the president has nominated the agency's acting chief, George J. Tenet, to be director, that problem seems likely to go away. But in the wake of the W. Anthony Lake debacle, there are much larger shoals ahead for the intelligence agency.

The CIA, if it is to survive in the post-Cold War world, must redefine its role. It has had more than five years to accomplish that task since the collapse of the Soviet Union--and it hasn't done it. The agency has failed to explain to Congress and the public why it is still important, even vital, to the national security. It is an agency adrift, on the defensive and in search of a mission.

Even aside from redefining its mission, the agency faces other difficulties. Its morale has sagged in the wake of a drumbeat of disasters that has overtaken the spooks. When its new chief is confirmed, the agency will have had five directors in six years.

The CIA, now approaching its 50th birthday, was born in the ashes of Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath of World War II, U.S. policymakers were determined never again to be caught short by a surprise attack. A nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was perceived as a very real threat during more than four decades of Cold War. In those years, the CIA was regarded by many as a sentinel on the front lines of the struggle.

While the possibility of such a nuclear confrontation with Russia has not entirely disappeared, that threat is no longer considered pressing. Indeed, the new secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, insists that both countries are now "on the same side."

But as the peril of a nuclear attack by Russia has receded, the possibility of a nuclear threat from a "rogue" state, such as Libya, North Korea or Iran, has increased. The dangers of nuclear proliferation, as smaller, often unstable countries obtain weapons of mass destruction, have made the world arguably an even more precarious place than it was during the Cold War.

As former CIA Director R. James Woolsey once described the situation to the Senate Intelligence Committee: "We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And, in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of."

In addition to nuclear proliferation, the CIA has singled out terrorism, drugs and international organized crime as new areas of concern. But, in truth, CIA officers do not want to play cop, as Duane "Dewey" R. Clarridge, a former senior agency official, noted in a recently published autobiography, "A Spy for All Seasons." If the agency helps to catch drug lords, or members of the Russian mafia, for example, its officers may be called upon to testify in court or to produce secret documents, which may expose their identities, sources and methods.

Economic espionage is another area in which the agency, grasping for new territory, has begun to expend its resources. But embarrassing flaps have erupted in France and, more recently, in Germany as the agency's clumsy attempts at economic spying boomeranged.

In addition, the intelligence agency has been battered by a succession of even greater problems. Two of its officers, Aldrich H. Ames and Harold J. Nicholson, have been convicted as moles for the KGB and imprisoned. Ames, who is serving a life sentence, was responsible for the deaths of 10 Russians, most of them KGB officers, who were working as agents for the CIA. The Russians paid him millions of dollars for his information, making him the highest-paid spy in history. He drove his XJ6 Jaguar right into the CIA parking lot every day. Nobody noticed.

Nicholson, a former CIA station chief, pleaded guilty this month to spying for the KGB for more modest amounts of cash. The Ames case led to Woolsey's abrupt resignation in 1994. It was even disclosed that the KGB, with help from Ames, ran a network of double agents who fed the CIA information that Langley, in some cases, passed on to the White House without disclosing that the source was tainted.

The agency is still reeling from the scandal in Guatemala, where an agent on the CIA payroll has been linked to the brutal murder of one American and the husband of another. The station chief in Guatemala and the head of the agency's covert operations in Latin America were fired by John M. Deutch, Woolsey's successor. Earlier this month, the agency dropped more than 1,000 informants from its payroll around the world after officials concluded that the agents were either not producing or that some were involved in serious crimes or human rights abuses.

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