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When Major News Happens, Why Is CIA Among the Last to Know? : Intelligence: Despite time and money spent by the CIA, the President learned about the Soviet coup only after many newsrooms did.

<i> James Bamford is the Washington investigative producer for ABC's "World News Tonight" and the author of "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin), a study of the National Security Agency. </i>

In the months and weeks before last month’s coup attempt, America’s vast intelligence network watched and listened as the Soviet Union convulsed.

Twenty-two thousand miles above the Soviet Union, dish-shaped satellites, costing more than $100 million each, eavesdropped on government and civilian communications. Other, equally costly photo satellites--shaped like enormous telescopes--peered through clouds and even the Earth to see what the Soviets hoped to hide. On the bottom of the ocean, large networks of electronic “bugs” the size of massive natural-gas tanks listened to Soviet ships and submarines thousands of miles away.

On the ground, Central Intelligence Agency case officers managed hundreds of intelligence agents directed against Soviet military and strategic targets. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency received reports from scores of military attaches, inside and outside the Soviet borders. Thousands of other employees from a dozen or more additional U.S. intelligence organizations scanned the world for any nugget of information on what the Soviets were up to.

Thus on Aug. 18, at 11:30 p.m., President George Bush received his first indications of the Soviet coup attempt from his national-security adviser. Unfortunately, the same information had already appeared in newsrooms all over the world a short time earlier.

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Once again, as with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the overthrow of the shah of Iran and numerous other occasions, a major crisis took the U.S. intelligence community by surprise. In spite of a massive intelligence network, costing taxpayers more than $30 billion a year, Bush could have learned of the crisis sooner by having a United Press International (UPI) wire-service ticker next to his bed.

Little has changed over the years. A quarter of a century ago, a U.S. Army listening post in Germany, eavesdropping on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, first heard of the invasion of Czechoslovakia from a portable radio playing in the operations room.

There is something seriously wrong when, according to one report, nearly a half-hour after the first news bulletin, one of the CIA’s most experienced Soviet analysts rushed back to his office “switched on his computer terminal and urgently began to search the previous 72 hours of intelligence data for telltale warning signs of the move against President Mikhail Gorbachev.” A little late.

The photo satellites are excellent at spotting missile silos and counting tanks and the eavesdropping, or “signals intelligence,” satellites are superb at listening to communications--as long as it is the right phone line and the information is in a breakable code. But to obtain advance information of major developments, the necessary ingredient is agents on the ground. In other words, spies.

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One of the principal reasons the CIA more often than not comes up short in intelligence collection--the area where they are supposed to be the expert--is the agency’s longstanding obsession with the messier side of the business: covert operations. Since the early 1950s, when the CIA managed the coup in Iran that returned the shah to power, changing the world--usually with disastrous consequences--has held a far greater priority than learning about it.

The price paid for the CIA’s obsession with plotting coups and undermining banana republics is lack of money and effort for its most important mission: recruiting spies and planting agents in potentially hostile nations. To discover intentions--coup plotters in the Soviet Union or war plans in Iraq--the most effective method is human agents on the ground, the CIA’s Achilles’ heel.

When originally set up by President Harry S. Truman in the late 1940s, the CIA was strictly to be an information-collection and analysis organization. But by the mid-1950s, its role had completely changed. The newly established National Security Agency could pluck telephone calls and military messages out of the ether, while high-flying spy planes--and later satellites run by the National Reconnaissance Office--could look deep into areas no agent could ever penetrate.

As intelligence collection became faster and more economical through the technical wonders of the NSA and NRO, the CIA began shifting its focus from traditional human espionage to a variety of covert operations. On occasion, it would even mirror activities of its longtime foe, the KGB. In the late 1960s, the agency launched a massive and illegal domestic espionage campaign, targeting anti-Vietnam War protesters and other “enemies” of the Administration’s policies.

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Later, under Director William J. Casey, the law became little more than a nuisance and the Congress an enemy as the agency embarked on illegal and half-baked covert schemes, such as Iran-Contra. Intelligence collection became a low priority.

Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the near demise of the KGB and the departure of Director William H. Webster from the CIA, the time is ripe for a revolution within the U.S. intelligence community. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has submitted a bill to do away with the CIA, transferring its intelligence role to the State Department. Other, less radical, proposals call for the CIA director to be placed under a new intelligence czar.

Even some former senior CIA officials think the agency has outlived its usefulness. Vincent N. Cannistraro, who ran the CIA’s counterterrorism section, called the agency’s analyses of Soviet affairs never better than academic or journalistic studies. “Events have rendered the CIA an obsolete tool of national-security policy,” he recently said, adding, “The CIA should be disbanded and its necessary functions spun off to the rest of the national security bureaucracy.” Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf also had harsh words for the intelligence he received in the Gulf War.

Whatever direction the reorganization takes, it is clear that the nation is in far greater need for more competent spies, better analysts and fewer covert warriors. If this proves impossible--maybe the CIA could be replaced by the UPI and the public could save $30 billion a year.

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