The morale of U.S. intelligence officers --and, thereby, commitment to a career in the nation's clandestine service--has plummeted.
The Iran- contras affair has sent a series of shocks through the American intelligence community and its sister services abroad. This has happened even though the Central Intelligence Agency and other components of the intelligence community were not running the arms-for-hostages deal with so-called moderate elements in Tehran. Nor were they engineering the diversion of the profits from weapon sales to the anti-Sandinista contra resistance in Nicaragua. The affair even has called into question the quality of intelligence analysis. A leaked draft report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence alleges that the information about Iran, which the National Security Council staff used to plan the operation, was "woefully inadequate."
In any case, the prospect of sensationalized and multiple congressional investigations will inevitably erode confidence in the professionalism of U.S. intelligence services, discouraging many from entering the CIA, others from continuing to make it a career, and still others from taking risks to supply it with information.
Our country's allies abroad have raised a different set of questions because they have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about. Ever since the Watergate scandal toppled a powerful President, foreign observers have been mystified by the degree to which our politicians make an issue of intelligence activities. They are equally surprised by the requirements that we have for the leaders of the intelligence community to submit their plans to extensive congressional scrutiny and to tell the truth in the process, especially about convert actions.
For most of our allies, in contrast, intelligence is regarded as a necessary evil, and its leaders and programs are both shielded from detailed parliamentary examination.
But even though congressional oversight has been deemed essential to ensure the compatibility of U.S. secret intelligence with the American democratic system, it never really was compatible with covert operations. Moreover, as the U.S. government became more prone to leaks, it was essential to limit those who knew about planned operations. To the CIA professional, informing Congress was an increasingly bad risk.
Therein lies the seed of the present controversy.
What is at issue is less the wisdom of American policy toward Iran or even the sources of funding for the contras than why the Administration kept Congress in the dark and what such actions reveal about the moral and intellectual qualifications of those in the White House to lead the government.
The focus on these issues will deflect some of criticism from the CIA to the White House. So in this sense the Iran-contra affair is not the same type of scandal that proves to CIA critics that the agency is still a rogue elephant. Nor does it prove that secrecy and American democracy are incompatible, since Congress was never trusted with the plans of the operation in the first place.
But the controversy does raise a fundamental question about whether the laws and executive orders that govern the intelligence activities of government today are adequate. For it was in loopholes to these laws and rules that NSC staff members apparently found a way to ignore Congress and mislead CIA officials about the authority for their actions.
Consequently, one of the best results of the congressional and White House investigations that are under way would be the replacement of the antiquated 1947 National Security Act, the six-year-old executive order currently governing U.S. intelligence activities and other assorted regulations, with an up-to-date comprehensive charter for the intelligence community and its oversight by Congress.
Such a charter should make clear:
--Where intelligence should fit into the foreign-policy decision-making system of the U.S. government.
--Whether the director of Central Intelligence should have a policy-making role in that system.
--Which officials outside the intelligence community have authority to command and use its resources.
--Who in the executive branch besides the CIA director should have a complete picture of intelligence operations in order to monitor compliance with the letter and spirit of the charter.
--The process by which Congress should have access to intelligence information and should conduct oversight of U.S. intelligence activities.
None of these features are clearly provided for in any of the laws and executive orders governing the intelligence community today. Especially in the area of congressional oversight, the current process is a patchwork of resolutions and amendments to budget appropriations, and requires a constant struggle on Congress' part to develop the information and perspective necessary for informed and effective evaluation.
Finally, an up-to-date charter should make clear what intelligence operatives may not do (for example, promote terrorism, violate the laws of war, plan or engage in assassination plots against foreign leaders), and should provide clear and stiff penalties for violations of such laws and prohibitions--something that current laws and executive orders fail to do in many cases.
The effort to develop such a charter would be a clear sign that the Reagan Administration intends to deal effectively with a scandal that has provoked a major crisis of confidence--at home and abroad--in the system by which intelligence supports American foreign policy.