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New Tasks for American Spies

WHAT'S a spy to do when there's nobody to spy on? This is the predicament that faces the American CIA (as well as the the formerly Soviet KGB).

As our spies begin the New Year looking for work, it is useful to reject some things that have been suggested.

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They ought not to get into gossip. Robert M. Gates, the new director of the CIA, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would like to enliven CIA reporting with the kind of thing one hears at cocktail parties.

The president is the most important recipient of this reporting, and most presidents like titillating morsels about the private lives of their foreign counterparts. But these rarely have much relevance to the national security of the United States. Collecting such tidbits seems beneath the dignity of the world's best intelligence service.

The CIA ought not to compete with news services. In congressional testimony, Mr. Gates seemed to take it as an affront that policymakers get their news from CNN before the CIA. He ought to rejoice that by reporting so much, CNN is relieving the CIA of that burden. The CIA ought to use its resources to learn things that CNN cannot know.

Finally, the CIA ought not to get into the kind of economic intelligence that is a euphemism for industrial espionage. Macroeconomic intelligence (for example, the relative importance of the components of China's gross national product) is a legitimate intelligence collection target. Industrial espionage (new tech- nologies of European or Japanese companies) is not.

Yet there is growing pressure for the CIA and the intelligence community generally to concern themselves with these matters. The community, to its credit, is resisting. The argument for such involvement is that this is how to keep America competitive, that other countries are spying on our businesses and we need to spy on their businesses in self-defense. Hard times at home and accompanying protectionist temptations in trade policy add political appeal to the argument.

It is a fallacious argument put forth to support a thoroughly bad idea. The US government has no business engaging in the clandestine collection of this kind of information. Such activity implies a clandestine connection between the intelligence and the business communities, something that would be seriously detrimental to American business. It's argued that this could be kept secret, but that is a futile hope.

The way to enhance competitiveness is not to steal from others, but to be more productive ourselves. The US has just been through a wrenching trade negotiation seeking to gain international recognition of intellectual property rights. It would be hypocritical now to turn around and try to steal industrial know-how.

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THE US collects some business information inadvertently. The National Security Agency (NSA) has a kind of big ear in the sky that scoops up just about every communication out there, including the competitive secrets of foreign companies. NSA ought to leave these secrets secret. Otherwise, American business will rue the day it opens this Pandora's box.

There is already more than enough for the CIA to do. There is a large question of the possible proliferation of unconventional weapons in third-world countries, some of them with irresponsible governments. There is the Chinese mammoth about which we don't know nearly enough.

And there are the components of what used to be the Soviet Union. The old Soviet Union was a tough intelligence target. Its pieces are likely to be a good deal easier, but with a special challenge. Where one hard language - Russian - used to be enough, there is now a demand for Americans speaking perhaps a dozen even harder ones.

But what a potential bureaucratic bonanza, not only for the CIA but for the whole foreign-affairs community. Instead of one country with one embassy, there are now 15 countries. Some (Russia, the Ukraine) are more important to the US, some (Kirghizia, Moldavia) are less. But all of them are going to want some kind of tie to the US. There is the prospect of 15 new embassies with attendant bureaucratic trappings - ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, State Department desk officers, CIA intelligence analysts.

Could they be so busy they won't have time to get into trouble?

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