New information has surfaced that explains why Congress is so deeply concerned about the judgment of William J. Casey, embattled director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The information is that it was the government of relatively unstrategic Mauritania -- and not that of oil-rich Libya -- that Mr. Casey agreed to let the CIA try to destabilize by covert means.
Contrary to earlier reports, Casey did not agree to let the CIA try to overthrow the Libyan regime of the controversial Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The public reason several members of the Congress (both from Senate and House) want Casey to resign is the allegation of questionable business practices. But the real reason, this newspaper and others have discovered, is his approval of the Mauritania plan.
This raised in congressional minds a question of judgment. Mauritania is not a place of major importance. Its population is 1.5 million, mostly illiterate. It recently went through a political coup as a result of which it shifted its association from Morocco, which is friendly to the United States, to Libya, which is unfriendly, although a major seller of high- grade oil.
It might be desirable to help out King Hassan of Morocco, who has both economic and political problems, but is it worth a serious US covert operation?
The Mauritanian operation was devised by Max Hugel when he headed the Operations branch of CIA. Mr. Hugel resigned under pressure July 14 after disclosure of questionable business practices on his record. Congressional critics, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, think the original choice of Hugel to run the covert side of the CIA was itself a matter of poor judgment. The "Mauritania caper" was subsequently regarded as raising a further question about both Hugel's and Casey's judgment.
There have been allegations of another "destabilization" project for Libya with the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi as the ultimate goal. Intelligence sources say that President Sadat of Egypt has frequently expressed the wish that he might have a friendly neighbor running the affairs of Libya. But, it is said , the CIA has consistently declined to have any part in an anti-Qaddafi operation.
Under existing law, clandestine operations aimed at foreign governments must be reported to the intelligence committees of House and Senate. Normally, this is a routine procedure -- and normally there is no interference by the committees with the intended operation.
But in the case of the Mauritania plan, members of the House committee considered is so questionable that they sent a letter of protest to the White House.
Knowledge of the affair has by now become general throughout Congress. It has added to the feeling that Casey not only showed bad judgment in his original appointment of Hugel, but also bad judgment in giving his approval to the Mauritania project.
In intelligence quarters the affair raises a different problem. The cover activities of the CIA have always been considered the primary concern of the executive branch of government. Congress has wanted to keep an eye on the matter, but it has been a watchful rather than an operational eye.
In effect, Congress now has vetoed the Mauritania project.
Is this to be a precedent for more direct congressional association with "operations?" Intelligence community specialists think such association by Congress in actual operations make secrecy virtually impossible, hence would almost wipe out that side of CIA work.