<i> Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA"(Knopf)</i>

Soviet and U.S. intelligence operations are the wild card in current attempts to back gingerly away from the Cold War. Intended to enhance national security, intelligence operations--especially covert actions--have a way of going noisily wrong and putting policy-makers on the defensive, or working too well and frightening opponents. Just about every other aspect of U.S.-Soviet relations has been discussed by the two sides in recent years, and the time has come to put intelligence on the agenda--to ensure the wild card doesn’t wreck chances for peace.

The aggressive pursuit of intelligence goals poses problems that must be recognized by both sides. Americans hear plenty about Soviet intelligence operations--spies (since a Washington policy decision to prosecute publicly) and clandestine efforts to support Third World revolutionary movements--but get only rare glimpses of U.S. efforts. The Central Intelligence Agency is not laggard, and shaky Soviet control of Poland and other Eastern Europe client states offers a rare opportunity to hit the Soviets close to home--and shatter prospects for better relations.

Like all dissident movements, Poland’s Solidarity is partly dependent on foreign help. Whether funds, communication assistance and the presses used for underground publishing come from the CIA, I cannot say, but the line between practical assistance and attempts at control is a fine one. Poland is in a state of revolutionary ferment--ideal for political manipulation or recruiting agents to report on Warsaw Pact military secrets. Similar crises could arise in other Eastern European states. Some U.S. intelligence officers will be itching to make hay while the sun shines, but the temptation should be judged with care. Too much is at stake.

We have faced this before. One goal of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Administration was the “rollback” of communist control in Eastern Europe. The CIA accumulated weapons and trained emigre leaders to take advantage of any crisis, and funded propaganda broadcasts that played a role--just how large is still a matter of debate--in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. When push came to shove, Eisenhower wisely backed off, but the the bloody Soviet military suppression of the uprising poisoned East-West relations for years. A new Soviet military intervention in Poland would have the same effect. Avoiding such a crisis will require great tact on the part of Solidarity, as well as restraint by U.S. intelligence. Much the same can be said of the Soviets, who doubtless see, and may be tempted to exploit, opportunities in Central America.


Restraint of this sort requires a shift in traditional views of how intelligence helps make us safe. Not every operation that “works” is a good idea. In wartime, U.S. military services and intelligence agencies must be opaque--a “black hole” that absorbs information but lets none escape. In peacetime, national security is better served by translucence, a partial, measured escape of information reassuring international rivals that defense policy is just that--a wary readiness that poses no threat when unprovoked.

Because it can never be fully controlled, this translucence can be painful. Both sides in the Cold War live with overhead reconnaissance and the monitoring of radio traffic and other broadcast signals. Spy satellites keep track of every missile silo, every aircraft on a runway, every tank park in Europe, and thereby reassure both sides that nothing is afoot. Eavesdropping on the airwaves does much the same; even coded messages can be reassuring, simply because they are routine. Without “national technical means” of surveillance, as they are called in the legal language of treaties, arms-control agreements would be impossible, and the current relaxation of U.S.-Soviet tensions would revert to the dark days of the Cold War, when little information escaped the “denied areas” controlled by efficient Eastern European security services, and the United States feared the worst.

But spies are another matter. Spies raise the blood pressure of intelligence agencies because “compartmentalization"--channeling of information based on a “need to know"--is never perfect. In the age of photocopying, paper has a way of slipping its tethers, and the paper a spy was cleared to see may be only a part--perhaps the lesser part--of the paper that came his way. The former U.S. Army sergeant recently arrested in West Germany, Clyde Lee Conrad, appears to have had unlimited access to North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense documents, which he passed to Hungarian intelligence, largely under KGB control.

This hemorrhage of secrets represents translucence verging on transparency--all but naked exposure. The U.S. public may feel the recent Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and continuing strategic arms talks mean something like a winding down of the Cold War, but U.S. intelligence services feel hard-pressed by a vigorous opponent, and their alarm works to undermine chances for further easing of tensions. Thus the paradox: Unrestrained Soviet intelligence efforts, intended to make them safe, are in fact threatening their national security as they do our own.


With this, the time for U.S.-Soviet talks on intelligence restraint may have come. A recent, year-long study of U.S.-Soviet relations by distinguished citizens from both sides, including former intelligence officials, made a first pass at discussing the importance of intelligence restraint in the field. Unwritten rules already limit this contest; the murder or kidnaping of rival intelligence officers, for example, is simply unknown. The case of Vitaly S. Yurchenko, a KGB official who defected to the United States a few years ago and then returned to the Soviet Union, offers silent evidence. The Soviets are quick to retaliate when they feel rules have been broken. If Yurchenko had really been kidnaped by the CIA, as Yurchenko claimed after redefecting, and as the Soviets elected to believe, the Soviets would have responded in kind. The absence of any such incident is implicit confirmation that Yurchenko’s original defection was genuine, and the Soviets knew it. But there is a long road between the etiquette of unwritten rules and a formal agreement to restrain agent recruitment efforts, complex deception operations and other provocative clandestine efforts that keep intelligence services in a continual state of alarm and doubt.

Part of the problem is a Russian tradition of secrecy in government. In its infancy the Soviet government was the target of many efforts at overthrow, and it needed a secret police to survive.

But Soviet officials now recognize that secrecy can exact a high price. In the 1950s, a Soviet research official, Adm. A. I. Berg, frustrated in his attempts at technical innovation, said, “We are stuck fast in secrecy like a fly in treacle.” Within the last two months, two KGB officials, its director Victor M. Chebrikov in an interview published in Pravda and Vladimir Rubanov in the journal Kommunist, both stressed there can be too much secrecy. The Soviets also broke with the customs of secrecy when they allowed a team of U.S. scientists to monitor Soviet nuclear tests, when they said they would open the controversial radar facility at Krasnoyarsk to inspection and when they invited U.S. Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci III to visit Soviet military bases and look at the Soviet long-range bomber, the Blackjack.

Long-time Soviet-watchers have been stunned by the breathtaking--to them--candor of the Soviet media in the new climate of glasnost, or openness, introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Even hard-liners in the U.S. intelligence community admit the change. Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a “Star Wars” proponent, recently wrote, “In 40 years of Soviet-watching, I have never seen the likes of what is going on in the U.S.S.R. today.”

Graham feels it is primarily the technological challenge of the computer age--especially the microchip revolution--that has forced the Soviet government to confront the weaknesses of its system, and he is probably right. But there is no denying that change under Gorbachev has opened the way to better relations with the West, and even the possibility of something much like the end of the Cold War. Progress depends on a climate of growing trust that could be undone overnight by intelligence operations which cut too close to the bone.

This is a time for both sides to watch, not intervene. Whether the recent improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations has been accompanied by intelligence restraint is hard to tell. One hears conflicting stories. Some say the Soviets are less active in the field, others that their continuing contacts with Third World revolutionary groups promise future trouble. But there is little doubt that restraint by either side would be welcomed by the other-- and would be quickly noted. Individual intelligence operations can be hidden, but not intelligence activity. A vigorous CIA attempt to exploit intelligence opportunities in Poland--much less attempt to guide Solidarity--could not be hidden, and the same goes for Soviet contacts with revolutionary movements in the Third World. It is a truism in the intelligence business that activity reflects policy, and aggressive intelligence is a sure sign of hostile policy.

Bland words alone cannot paper the gap. If U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union is to pursue a relaxation of tensions, then intelligence must do the same. This does not mean closing down CIA stations abroad and putting the FBI on stolen car recoveries at home. It means restraint, unilateral at first, by agreement eventually. Formal discussions between the CIA and the KGB on these matters may initially seem bizarre but we have learned to talk about many other things once considered beyond the reach of agreement; we can learn to talk about this, too. The alternative is a rumbling of alarm in the bowels of intelligence services, the danger of aggressive operations going badly--and publicly--wrong, and a return to the Cold War.