Albion Monitor /Features

Reining in Our Spooks

by Frank Sietzen, Jr.

Internal strife and new public scrutiny exposed once-dark corners in the cloistered spy business

(AR) WASHINGTON -- In the midst of the government shutdowns this winter, on a weekend when the National Air and Space Museum managed to stay open, a couple approached a guard looking for the NSA's Spy Museum. They didn't know that it was located far from downtown Washington in nearby Maryland.

"We're looking for that spy museum," the woman told the guard. "We want to find out about that spy they caught. You know the one I mean -- the one that made them look so stupid."

The were referring, of course, to the revelation that along with his wife, the head of the CIA's clandestine Eastern Bloc intelligence- gathering operations -- i.e., the man in charge of "running" American spies in the Soviet Union -- was himself on the Soviet payroll.

In the wake of the Aldrich Ames scandal, the impetus for changes in the way the CIA and the intelligence community were run -- and were interrelated -- finally crossed a threshold at which there can be no return to the past.

Since then, nearly every politician and policy wonk in Washington has pontificated on the shape and structure the myriad of U.S. intelligence organizations should take in the world of the 21st Century.

The combination of internal strife and new public scrutiny have exposed many once-dark corners in the cloistered spy business, in effect lifting the veil on the ancient spymaster's game.

A once arrogantly proud array of unreachable organizations, now chastened and shaken

Now, as new leadership at the CIA and consolidated leadership at the Pentagon have finished taking stock of the assets still available for America's clandestine service, Congress and the intelligence community have embarked on similar but separate paths toward radical reforms of both the civilian and military intelligence organizations.

It is a process of downsizing and redirecting a once arrogantly proud array of unreachable organizations, chastened and shaken now by corruption and the winds of change.

This month a panel of 17 experts, advocates and critics of intelligence completed a year-long review of intelligence matters and released a ground-breaking 200-page report whose recommendations, if implemented, will change forever the character of American espionage and information gathering.

Almost at the same moment the report was being printed, CIA chief John Deutch was stripping the top leadership of one of the most secret spy organizations in the federal government. A long-awaited response to the discovery that the agency in question, the National Reconnaissance Office, had not misspent taxpayer dollars recklessly, but had in fact created a multi-billion dollar pool of unspent cash which, a senior Congressional source told the American Reporter, exceeded $2 billion dollars -- almost a billion more than previously reported.

And while the shake-up was underway, the chairman of one of Congress' most powerful committees was proposing some sweeping changes of his own which would decentralize authority over intelligence even more than the experts have proposed.

CIA turf battles with the FBI delayed Ames' arrest for years

Along the way towards reform, the public has had the chance to learn more about some of these agencies and how they operate than was ever possible before. But little confidence has been created in how -- and why -- and on whom America spies. The calls for change, while often ignored, are not new.

Efforts to impose greater control over the intelligence community began in 1975 and continued for the next twenty years. Spy cases and political scandals such as Iran-Contra increased pressure for reform, but the CIA and other agencies resisted oversight by either civilian or military authorities.

Any illusions that the spies could keep their own house in order were shattered forever on President's Day, February 21, 1994 when the FBI arrested a CIA employee named Aldrich Hazen Ames and his wife Rosario in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va. It was bad enough for the agency's image that Ames was a 30-year career employee -- bad enough that he had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1985 undetected for years.

Ames was believed to have sold the Russian Communists the names of nearly all of the CIA's active Soviet agents -- many of whom were executed because of Ames' betrayal. But what proved the most damaging aspect of the Ames case -- and the fact that ignited the spark of change at last -- was the fact that Ames had exhibited serious and obvious personal problems for years that went ignored by the agency. And CIA turf battles with the FBI delayed his arrest for years.

By the fall of 1994 Congress, with the Clinton administration's assent, had enacted new legislation to improve counterintelligence and related practices throughout the intelligence world. Cooperation, if not outright coordination, was now the requirement of the day, written at last in stone.

But still the White House failed to launch its own internal restructuring of the CIA. DCI James Woolsey quit as 1995 began, and as the White House cast about for his replacement, a frustrated Senate moved to establish yet another commission to look into overhauling the entire framework of intelligence.

The difference this time was strategic: the Senate committed in advance to taking whatever recommendations that would emerge from the committee and codify them into law almost immediately. This fact gave the committee's work new importance in a town where a committee report is considered sufficient instead of change itself.

Having just dumped his Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, Clinton decided to assign him the task of heading up the panel with the new clout. Aspin took his task seriously, planning a series of detailed interviews with a wide cast of characters both within and outside the spy world.

At the same time Aspin was gathering steam, new details about once-secret elements of the spy game were slowly emerging. The new CIA chief, John M. Deutch, headed for the agency's Langley Va. headquarters with a rare combination of political clout and Congressional authority to clean the agency's house.

By the spring of 1995, it truly looked like reform was headed for the intelligence world, as it had come nearly everywhere else in government and business. But, suddenly, the new commission was stopped cold. Word came in from Capitol Hill that some members of Congress were ready to shut down the CIA entirely, not willing to wait for their own commission's deliberations.

And on a bright Sunday morning in May, Bill Clinton picked up the telephone in his living quarters at the White House and heard bad news again: Les Aspin was dead. Was the chance at major reform that his commission offered gone with him?

Moynihan called for the outright abolishment of the CIA

But with the attention of the Intelligence Community fixed on its deliberations, the Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of U.S. Intelligence pushed on. By late winter, dodging federal budget shutdowns as well as record snow falls in Washington, the commission's work was nearly complete.

Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter's Defense Secretary in the 1970s, and former New Hamphire Senator Warren Rudman moved cautiously to finish the outline that Les Aspin, the commission's first chair, had drafted before his death in the spring of 1995. Although nobody knew it then, that outline aimed at incremental change for the CIA and the related "intelligence community," that conglomeration of agencies and military organizations that both conducted global espionage for the U.S. as well as studied and analyzed its results.

The commission held hearings and interviewed a wide range of intelligence area players, more than 100 in all. These included expected figures such as former CIA directors and former Secretaries of Defense, but also writers including intelligence historian Jeff Richelson and industry leaders such as Lockheed Martin's Norm Augustine and Morton Thiokol's Tidal McCoy. Staffers found no clear consensus as to what direction the future of the CIA should take; nearly everyone had an idea, but none had a vision. And although commission members included sitting Members of Congress and others close to the Administration, few felt any sort of direction coming from the election-focused Clinton White House.

The most dramatic voice for change came on a snowy Friday in late January, as the commission met for the first -- and only -- time in open public session. In strode retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman to the Senate chambers the commission had borrowed for that day. Inman was a former director of the National Security Agency, a former deputy CIA director, and for three weeks Clinton's pick to replace Aspin as DoD Secretary in 1994 -- that is, before changing his mind and telling a startled President Clinton, "Never mind."

Inman's view was blunt. The attempts at CIA cooperation with other federal agencies were a joke, a failure, he said. It was time to respond to the bureaucracy's foot-dragging by stripping that function out of the CIA and making the FBI the nation's counterintelligence agency. The CIA was to remain only for "analysis and study" of intelligence data. He also called for new strength to be given the State Dept. in intelligence matters.

"We should make use of the professionals, the Foreign Service Officers" in understanding the internal developments of other countries, rather than relying so heavily on CIA agents' views. And in his most radical proposal, Inman called for the creation of a new intelligence "czar" and a whole new spy agency for recommendation and coordination of intelligence data, making the once-dominant CIA only one player among many, and not the most powerful player at that.

While the committee chewed over his recommedations and that of the other witnesses, Congress threatened to make some changes of its own. Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, long interested in intelligence issues, blasted the CIA in the wake of yet another scandal that emerged as the commission moved towards completion of its work.

This time, the CIA was involved in the death of an American and the husband of an American in Guatemala. The activities were apparently known to the CIA station chief there, or so it was alleged, but the agency's headquarters didn't know what was going on -- again. Moynihan was calling for the outright abolishment of the CIA.

"There is little that they do over there (CIA headquarters) that can't be found by reading the newspapers, or using open sources," he said. But interestingly enough, Moynihan never put his idea into legislative form. Many thought at the time that he was waiting for the report of the Roles Commission which, it was thought, would make a host of sweeping recommendations.

CIA old guard players heaved a sigh of relief: maybe things wouldn't change after all

But it might well have been that the New York Senator was anticipating change from a surprising Congressional source. For unknown to most of the intelligence players, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas) had been conducting a quiet, year-long study into the future of the CIA and related issues. While pledged to await the Roles and Capabilities Commission report, Rep. Combest, it turned out, would have a wave of reforms waiting if the committee chose just small changes, or merely superficial change.

When the report finally came out on March 1, it proved to be a stunner, but not for the bold action that many had hoped for and others had feared. Its key recommendation? The powers of the CIA chief should be shared by a pair of new deputies, one for the management of the overall community and one for the day-to-day CIA housekeeping.

Both should be appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress and both should have fixed terms of office, the report's key recommendation said. A second recommendation called for downsizing both the budgets of the agencies as well as their staffs, with a minimum cut of 10 percent done within a year.

The Roles Commission report also called for restructuring the fragmented world of military intelligence, with an aim to reduce duplication by consolidation if necessary. Who should go? The commission didn't say. The National Reconnaissance Office? Why, the commission said, everything's just fine -- leave it alone -- although a new satellite imagery office should be established to distribute the pictures the spy satellites take.

The commission did call for the creation of a two-tiered system of space reconnaissance satellites, with the lower tier made up of spacecraft and ground stations provided by foreign nations, which if accomplished would mark the first time such assets were shared. But beyond these and other similarly mild recommendations, the window for change seemed to have closed. CIA old guard players heaved a sigh of relief: maybe things wouldn't change after all.

All intelligence- gathering under control of the "czar" suggested by Bobby Ray Inman

The sense that the CIA bureaucracy had triumphed lasted just one week. On March 8th, Combest called a news conference on the House side of the Capitol. He revealed his year-long study of intelligence changes, called IC 21 (for "Intelligence Community for the 21st Century"). His package of proposals would be quickly codified into law, he said, and hearings would begin quickly this spring, aiming toward passage by fall.

Rep. Combest's major recommendation? The director of Central Intelligence should be moved outside the CIA to become the "czar" that, months earlier, Inman had suggested. That person would be given total control over all of U.S. intelligence, manpower and money, including the military. Combest would strip all analysis from the military intelligence agencies and vest them with the CIA. But the CIA would in turn lose its counterintelligence powers, transferring the spy function to a newly created spy agency headed by the new DCI. The CIA would simply become a report-writer, one voice among many in the community.

Combest also aimed his axe at NRO. The spy satellite agency would also be gutted, with authority over the design, manufacture, and launch of spy satellites transferred to a new agency. This "Technology Development Office" would report not to the DoD Secretary, as the NRO staff does today, but directly to the spy "czar." The NRO would be left to only operate the satellites in space, as ordered by the other intelligence agencies that used the images.

The military agencies would get some "reinventing" as well. Combest proposed combining all of the military intelligence groups under a newly created Director of Military Intelligence. This new post would be filled by a uniformed officer, much like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but would report to the DCI and not the military or the Secretary of Defense.

If the entire package of IC 21 proposals were implemented, the costs of spying would not go down -- Combest did not propose any major budget cuts -- but the authority over intelligence would be consolidated under the one officer, and the CIA's stranglehold over such matters would at last become history.

Combest's initiative took much of the attention away from the Roles and Capabilities report, although the report did make some news in a way it did not plan. It contained a recommendation that the "top line" intelligence budget, the total spent by all agencies civil and military, be published each year. But it was insistent that any more detailed release would "harm" national security.

That the NSA was even larger than the Pentagon stunned analysts

To help illustrate the idea, the report published for the first time a budget and manpower chart that listed each intelligence agency's budget and staff proportion in relation to the other, without printing specifics. But Federation of American Scientists' analyst Steven Aftergood, realizing that two of those agencies listed had public budgets already, by using those ratios was able to project out what the specifics of the others might be.

The CIA, Aftergood projected, has an annual budget of $3.1 billion and a staff level of about 17,000 employees, about what many had expected. The Defense Intelligence Agency has 19,000 employees with a budget of $2 billion. The Defense Mapping Agency's $850 million budget and 7,360 staffers was public, as was the Community Management Staff, a combination of military personnel, at $90 million and 247 employees.

But it was the data on the National Security Agency that stunned analysts. Aftergood projected that NSA's budget was $3.7 billion with a manpower level of 38,000 employees. To put this in perspective, the entire staff of the Pentagon, from janitor to general, was less than 26,000. All of NASA, from Cape Canaveral to every field center, wouldn't add up to half the NSA's total. He also projected the NRO's budget at $6.2 billion (most of it for satellite hardware and the rockets that launch it) with 1,000 staff members.

Although the Roles Commission would not comment on Aftergood's numbers, they didn't deny the totals, either. Staffers privately told reporters after Aftergood's analysis was published last week that his numbers were "on the mark."

So what about the great change? As Combest prepared his hearings on IC 21, word came late last week that Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was drawing up a legislative package that added to the Roles report. Specter staffers told the American Reporter late last week that Specter would work closely with Combest to combine the "best elements" of each plan and work out the differences.

But CIA chief Deutch wasn't waiting for the Hill to impose change on him. After purging the top nine leaders at CIA headquarters, Deutch fired the top two managers at the NRO when his own internal review of NRO pooling of excess spy satellite budgets found that even the top two NRO managers didn't know how much the extra cash, accumulated from satellites ordered but delayed, was.

Congressional sources told the American Reporter that the amount was more than $2 billion -- even double that, perhaps -- and that both NRO Director Jeff Harris and his deputy Jimmy Hill did not know how high the the hoarded money-pile went. Deutch's planned changes for NRO started with imposing Pentagon budget control over the agency, moving satellite imagery control to another agency -- leaving many to suspect NRO's days may well be numbered.

So it may well be that the season of change for the intelligence community is at hand, although in a framework that few expected when the year began. The only commonality among the plans was the lack of both leadership and consensus. The leadership of the President, who after all is the chief "consumer" of intelligence materials, had been missing all along, save for the appointment of Deutch himself.

With the absence of consensus, it may turn out that too much change comes to the ancient spymasters' game, making up for decades of isolation. The only certainty was that in whatever form it survived, the CIA would never again be the same -- not in structure, and certainly not in the public's esteem.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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