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CIA, covert action, and congressional oversight

IN the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, the Senate and the House of Representatives are considering how to reform the laws on covert operations. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, author of the 1947 law that set up the Central Intelligence Agency and authorized it to conduct these clandestine operations, defined the problem:

``I believe that on balance covert activities have harmed this country more than they have helped us. Certainly, efforts to control these activities, to keep them within their intended scope and purpose, have failed.''

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Few in Congress are prepared to rule out covert operations in time of need. But we must devise ways to make covert operations serve foreign policy, not substitute for it.

As a nation of laws, our instinctive response to a problem is to pass new laws. And while modest in comparison with the scale of wrongdoing uncovered by the Iran-contra investigating committees, the proposed changes now before Congress are useful, and I support them.

While many on the Intelligence Committee at the time sensed that something was wrong in the system, it took the accident of an internal political fight in Iran to reveal the arms for hostages deal and the diversion of funds to the contras. Only when the Intelligence Committee and later the Select Committee on the Iran-contra affair used subpoena power and took testimony under oath, was Congress able to penetrate the lies to get at the truth.

Some involved in the Iran-contra affair argued against oversight, setting up as a straw man distrust of Congress. That claim was knocked down, however, when it was revealed that those carrying out the operations also withheld information from the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even the president. That covert action would never have gotten off the ground had anyone in a position to say ``no'' been aware of what they were doing. But by exploiting gaps in executive branch and congressional oversight they were able to run an ``off the books'' covert operation for many months.

I do not think we solve the problem defined by Clark Clifford merely by requiring that all presidential authorizations of covert actions be in writing, that such authorizations cannot be retroactive, that covert operations be in accord with US law, or that congressional leaders be notified of all covert actions within 48 hours. These are useful changes contained in bills now in Congress. But more-fundamental reform is needed.

One of the most important changes would be to protect the CIA from politics and policymaking. The servant of US foreign policy should never again be the secret arm of ideologues in the basement of the White House.

When the head of the CIA starts setting and conducting foreign policy, it is more than just interference in the business of the secretaries of state and defense and the national-security adviser. It risks misuse of intelligence information to steer policy decisions by the president and his senior advisers, as Secretary of State George Shultz so eloquently testified before the Iran-contra committee.

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To reduce the chances of this happening again, Congress should mandate nonpolitical direction of the CIA. The director should be appointed for a fixed period of years, to extend beyond the term of the president who names him or her, in the same way we now do with the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Also, the offices of director of central intelligence, nominally responsible for coordinating all intelligence activities of the United States, and the director of the CIA, now held by the same individual, should be separated. No longer should a single person be charged with formulating, presenting, recommending, executing, and overseeing covert actions. Legislation in the Senate that would accomplish this change should be seriously pursued.

Congress has the responsibility to protect our democratic institutions, even if it means reducing the freedom of future presidents to install political friends as head of US covert operations, and even if it takes the director of the CIA out of the Cabinet Room.

The US has the best intelligence services in the world. In my time on the committee, we were unstinting in providing political, moral, and financial support for their activities on behalf of the nation. I have never wavered in my respect and admiration for the professionals in our intelligence agencies.

But all institutions have vested interests, inner loyalties, and urges to greater power. This is why the Founding Fathers established the checks and balances of our system of government. The limitation of power, accountability to higher or independent authority, and the rule of law are principles that must apply as fully to intelligence agencies and activities as to any other functions of government.

Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont is former vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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