Post-Cold War CIA Fighting for Its Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of the last four decades, American intelligence agencies saw Soviet communism not only as the principal enemy of the United States but as the sinister force behind other hostile powers around the world, from Asia to the Middle East to Latin America.

So it marked a bit of startling revisionism when outgoing CIA Director Robert M. Gates, in an impassioned plea to avoid cutbacks in American intelligence, suggested that not too much has changed with the end of the Cold War, and that the threats to the United States have been not in Moscow but in the Third World.

“There are still dangers,” Gates declared in a Dallas speech, one of several he has given in his final weeks on the job. “The United States has fought five major wars in this century. None was directed against the Soviet Union. Three have been in the Third World against far smaller, poorer nations--Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.”

The remarks provide a glimpse of the battle about to unfold over the future of America’s intelligence agencies as President-elect Bill Clinton and R. James Woolsey, his nominee to head the CIA, prepare to take office.

For the last several years, the CIA has been groping for new justifications for its work, from combatting narcotics to detecting the proliferation of weapons to helping the competitiveness of American industries.

At the same time, critics such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) have called the CIA “an anachronism of the Cold War” and have argued that the vastly reduced threat to America’s military power has deprived the intelligence agency not only of its principal target but of the very reason for its existence. Moynihan has proposed abolishing the agency and folding its functions into the State Department.

So far, the battle over the CIA’s future has been forestalled by the protection granted by supporters like President Bush, himself a former CIA director, and by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David L. Boren (D-Okla.), a longtime associate and supporter of Gates.

Now, however, the CIA must prove itself not only to Clinton, whose views on intelligence are largely unknown, but to a new Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who is far more critical of the CIA than Boren and has proposed further cuts in the CIA’s budget.

In a recent interview, DeConcini told The Times that Gates, while honest and decent, had been “a company man” as CIA director, and that his predecessor, William H. Webster, had been “a caretaker. . . . I don’t think he knew what was going on out there.” DeConcini said that during the Cold War, CIA analyses of the Soviet economy were “politically motivated, to build up this big (American) defense.”

In an indication of the coming intelligence shake-up, Clinton said at a press conference last month that the CIA “must now adjust to new challenges.” And Woolsey, whose nomination Clinton had just announced, said minutes later that, with the end of the Cold War, “we have to do some things differently.”

Quite a few independent intelligence scholars have argued that not only the CIA’s structure but its entire approach, methodology and way of thinking reflect the days when U.S. intelligence officials were fighting against totalitarian Soviet communism.

“Both its (the CIA’s) operators and its analysts come from cultures conditioned by the Cold War,” wrote Harvard University professor Ernest R. May last summer.

“Neither group may successfully adapt to a world more like that of a Washington news reporter, challenged not to find information but to avoid being inundated by it.”

The possibility of wholesale budget cutbacks is particularly frustrating to U.S. intelligence officials, because they are convinced that the end of the Cold War has unleashed a series of new forces that need to be watched and analyzed. They look upon phenomena such as ethnic nationalism, international arms transfers and the new republics of the former Soviet Union as new challenges and opportunities.

“This is a revolutionary time to be in the intelligence business,” Deputy CIA Director William O. Studeman asserted recently.

There seems little doubt, however, that major changes and reductions are in the works; the only question is how drastic they will be.

For the current fiscal year, Boren spearheaded a series of cuts adding up to about $1 billion in the overall funding for U.S. intelligence agencies, which include the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. While the amount these agencies receive is classified, congressional sources place it at about $29 billion this fiscal year, after Boren’s billion-dollar reduction.

Gates has warned that such cutbacks should not be repeated.

“Further reductions anywhere near the level we experienced this year will dramatically reduce the ability of American intelligence simultaneously to maintain global coverage, to watch many situations at once and to provide the detailed information our users demand,” he said recently in Los Angeles.

Yet DeConcini, the new committee chairman, readily admits that he had proposed reductions of an additional $500 million, “mostly out of technical programs.”

He noted that, while the Intelligence Committee voted down these additional cutbacks, his proposal won the support of at least five senators--and one colleague, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), favored considerably larger reductions.

Cutting the intelligence community’s budget appears to be in line with Clinton’s own thinking. The economic blueprint that Clinton introduced during his presidential campaign envisioned reductions of $1.5 billion a year from the intelligence budget over a period of five years.

The cutbacks do not mean, necessarily, that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies will have fewer spies or analysts. The largest chunk of the intelligence budget goes for big-ticket items, such as satellites. And it seems clear that this is the first place that Congress is looking to save money.

“We’ve got more satellites up in the air now than we know what to do with,” said one congressional source familiar with intelligence issues. “Every one of them, whether for imaging or signals intelligence, was meant for one thing (the Soviet Union). “Some satellites were designed to be up there for two years, and they’re still there after six. And they still want to build every planned satellite on schedule. . . . The American taxpayer should know what he’s getting for his money, when the main target has gone away.”

That sort of thinking is precisely what intelligence officials have been crusading against. “If we must cut a unique satellite system, the capability is lost and will take a decade to replace,” Gates said recently.

No matter what happens to their budgets, U.S. intelligence officials will also confront broader questions about what the agency should or should not do in the new, post-Cold War world:.

* To what extent should the CIA continue covert operations?

Some critics argue that the CIA’s secret, sometimes elaborate efforts to influence foreign governments should be abandoned now that the Soviet Union has broken up and the KGB intelligence agency has been disbanded.

Yet other experts suggest that CIA covert actions might prove important in stopping weapons proliferation.

“More aggressive forms of covert action may be employed to disrupt the arming of bellicose developing countries, with North Korea and Iraq topping the list,” wrote University of Georgia professor Loch K. Johnson in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “The intelligence community also remains wary of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.”

* Should the CIA get into the business of spying on foreign companies to help American firms?

That is one proposed new mission on which the CIA has been extremely reluctant to embark. Gates has said that the U.S. intelligence community “does not, should not, and will not engage in industrial espionage.”

But some former intelligence officials, American businessmen and congressmen believe that under at least some circumstances, that sort of spying might be worthwhile.

“I’m not sure it’s important that General Motors or Ford know what Toyota is doing and the new clutch that they’re going to present by the first of the century,” said DeConcini in a recent interview.

“But it is very important, if Mitsubishi is building a new semiconductor that is three generations out, to have some kind of idea what it is and to get what you can (about it), even if necessary through some surreptitious activities. . . .

“I think there could be a legitimate role for some of that. I really do. But I think it’s going to be limited.”

Woolsey has not tipped his hand on these issues. With his background in the Defense Department and in arms control negotiations, he seems likely to be supportive at least of some traditional U.S. intelligence activities, such as the efforts to gather information about other countries’ nuclear weapons and missile programs.