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Tightening the reins on US intelligence. The Iran-contra affair has spawned Senate sentiment for bills that would ensure tough congressional oversight of covert activities

The Senate is taking the first steps to try to correct problems revealed during congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair. Its Intelligence Committee holds hearings today on four bills designed to do this, as the nation awaits Tuesday's release of the final report by the Iran-contra investigating panels.

The new bills reflect congressional conviction that Congress must now set explicit requirements for timely and full consultation by the executive branch on intelligence and covert activities.

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``They show the damage to mutual trust done by Irangate,'' says a senior member of the intelligence community.

Three of the bills involve congressional oversight of intelligence and covert actions. They seek to eliminate ambiguities and loopholes in current law, which many lawmakers believe allowed the Reagan administration to circumvent proper consultation with Congress, violated congressional intent in existing law, and contributed to the Iran-contra debacle.

The fourth bill proposes a major structural reform in the form of an intelligence czar/presidential adviser separate from the director of central intelligence.

The goal of this bill, according to its author, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, is to ensure the independence of intelligence analysis and advice to the president, which, he says, was not the case on Iran-contra issues. The most innovative of post-Irangate bills, this reform has stirred the interest of outside specialists seeking improvements in the performance of the intelligence community.

The most thorough of the oversight bills, written by Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, has won bipartisan support from key members of the Senate intelligence and Iran-contra committees. Senator Specter has introduced a bill touching on related areas, and Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio has proposed independent auditing of the Central Intelligence Agency by Congress's General Accounting Office.

Congressional and administration sources say a version of Mr. Cohen's bill has the best chance of being enacted in the near future. Congressional aides say his bill is consistent with general recommendations in the final draft of the Iran-contra report.

Cohen's bill puts all US law relating to intelligence oversight and covert actions into one statute, eliminates vague wording, and for the first time provides explicit legal authority for covert actions. The bill specifically:

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Defines covert action and provides the president with the power to authorize such ``special activities'' by determining that they are important for national security and are ``necessary to support'' United States foreign policy objectives.

Requires a written ``finding'' by the president to authorize any covert action. This finding could not be made orally or retroactively under this proposal, as was done in the Iran-contra affair, nor could it authorize any activities contrary to US law, which some critics believe was the case with aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

The finding would have to specify who will participate within and outside the government. The law would specifically ban the National Security Council from such activity and from using any funds (US, foreign, or private) without a presidential finding - both of which apparently happened in the Iran-contra affair. Intelligence experts say this provision would discourage other countries and private individuals from cooperating, out of fear of disclosure.

The president (not the director of central intelligence, as is now the case) would be responsible for informing the congressional oversight committees as soon as possible and in no case later than 48 hours after a finding. Provision is made for informing only eight key lawmakers in sensitive cases. In all cases, however, a copy of the finding must be provided and Congress told who will be involved.

Cohen says specific time limits are needed to ensure accountability. Specter, who proposes a 24-hour time limit, says the current provision for ``timely notification'' was blatantly violated by a 14-month delay in the Iran arms finding.

Intelligence community sources say the time limit is too restrictive and invites premature disclosure, for example, of hostage rescue attempts. Cohen agrees that for the process to work, Congress must be a trustworthy partner, fully safeguarding sensitive information and alsopunishing congressional leakers.

Even though Mr. Reagan has corrected oversight procedures since the Iran-contra affair, these changes will be more secure if put into law, both Cohen and Mr. Specter say.

The administration is expected to resist strongly, arguing that the president must retain flexibility to carry out his constitutional duties and that current executive orders meet congressional concerns.

Specter's oversight bill proposes a one- to five-year sentence for lying to the oversight committees, as he says happened in Irangate, and creation of an independent CIA inspector general.

In his second bill, Specter proposes a major reform of the intelligence community.

The bill would create a director of national intelligence, analogous to the national-security adviser, charged with providing objective intelligence analyses and overseeing the whole intelligence community.

The CIA director, who now also heads the intelligence community, would manage both his agency and covert actions for a fixed seven-year term (similar to that of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation).

Specter explains that the Iran-contra affair made clear the need to separate the functions of gathering and analyzing intelligence from those of developing and carrying out policy, so the temptation to skew intelligence data is reduced.

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