Beyond the Cold War: Developing a New, Improved Mandate for the CIA : Intelligence: Watching the Soviet Union was the agency’s raison d’etre. But the health of the planet is now in urgent need of monitoring.

Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf). His most recent book, "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb," will be published in March

The killing of two CIA employees by a deranged gunman--or an Iraqi agent, or a home-grown terrorist, or a disgruntled former employee-- proves somebody still thinks the agency makes a difference. But who? Witnesses said the shootings were random, and the local police reported no early suspects. Finding the shooter will help explain what sort of world the Central Intelligence Agency is expected to watch, analyze and to some measure control in the still nameless era that follows the end of the Cold War.

President Bill Clinton has chosen a new CIA director--the relatively conservative Democratic national-security professional, R. James Woolsey--but it is still unclear what sort of intelligence the President wants Woolsey to collect or practice. The two men inherit a vast organization--roughly 22,000 employees with a budget in the tens of billions--governed for nearly 50 years by one purpose: to hold the Soviet Union in check.

The Cold War ended so quietly there is still no agreement on when it happened. But while it lasted, the struggle was a matter of life and death. That has changed, but so far the CIA has not.

During his final months as Director of Central Intelligence, Robert M. Gates made a case for the continuing importance of intelligence as the world went through its most radical political reorganization since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. He argued that budget-slashing at the CIA should be exercised with a surgeon’s care--the world might be less dangerous, but it was harder to monitor from an intelligence point of view. The one big opponent had been replaced by 20 targets of interest, and none could be safely watched on the cheap.


There is something to this. The problem of nuclear proliferation alone supports the need for comprehensive intelligence. Where the Soviet Union could be counted on to exercise vigilance over its nuclear stockpile, now several different countries--and perhaps, in the worst case, even military detachments--have begun to weigh the force of two insights. One is new: that nuclear weapons inspire respect and are worth a great deal of money. The other is old: that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Accounting for the Soviet Union’s 20,000 nuclear warheads as they are handed back to Russia or destroyed according to agreement is a serious matter. Some are almost certain to fall off the books--indeed, probably already have--thereby lending agonizing weight to the future threats of outlaws like Saddam Hussein. If he were to tell Clinton, a year or two down the road, to back off or watch New York go up in nuclear smoke, Clinton would want to be pretty damned sure it was bluff, before he rolled up his sleeves and spit on his hands.

Easier to watch but harder to control are local wars--increasingly likely since the end of the Cold War. Russia and Eastern Europe were fixed in a kind of suspended animation during the long winter of Soviet control. It is as if a dysfunctional family had been flash-frozen in mid-argument, then reawakened a half-century later: The shouting resumed almost in mid-sentence.

But with the end of the Cold War’s dangers, the former superpowers no longer have the overriding need or even the ability to keep the peace. For two years, the big countries of Europe have done little to stop the civil war in Yugoslavia. What will they do if Ukraine and Russia come to blows over the Crimea? We may imagine many ghastly scenarios, and every last one would be the more dangerous for coming as a surprise.


But these new dangers are lesser than the old danger of the Cold War, and cannot justify the old budget. Thus, the U.S. intelligence community, while it has important work, also has a great deal of excess energy and capacity that may be considered much as an 18th-Century sea captain would have looked on a loose cannon rolling about his foredeck. Some bright ideas for putting the CIA to work have the potential for serious mischief. Most alarming, perhaps, was the modest proposal of Stansfield Turner, CIA director during the Carter Administration, to put the agency’s clandestine arts at the service of the U.S. economy.

At first glance this might sound interesting to a nation with a disintegrating industrial economy, burdened with a chronic trade deficit. Business is competitive by nature, after all, and trade secrets are secret for a reason. To pick only one example, Tiffany treats the copy for its annual Christmas catalogue in the distinctive blue cover with the obsessive security reserved for war plans. This is not persiflage for publicity. A day or two after the catalogue is mailed, sweatshops in Hong Kong begin knocking off cheap look-alikes of Tiffany watches and pins.

Businessmen all know what is a conspiracy in restraint of trade, that they work best when most secret, that where there is no understanding it is a war of all against all. Knowing what competitors are up to, early warning of price changes, arrangements for locking up market share, “accidents” that ruin the plans of rivals, access to secret communications--these are the sorts of things the CIA is in the business of providing.

But consider. Intelligence services don’t shoot enemy agents for one reason: If you shoot theirs, they’ll shoot yours. It is this principle, not the Judeo-Christian ethic, that lies behind the official U.S. prohibition against assassination. If the United States were to transform the trade war into an intelligence war, with all the black arts unleashed, we would be inventing an entirely new kind of international misery.

But what is to be done with all that excess energy at the CIA? My own modest proposal is that its mandate be extended to cover new kinds of targets. The intelligence budget covers far more than the CIA, the largest part goes to satellites for overhead reconnaissance, and the National Security Agency for reading other people’s (and our own, but not on purpose) secret messages. Satellites are indispensable for monitoring a great many things, but chief among them is the biological health of the planet. This is a matter of urgency, neglected in the past because the intelligence community did not want other people telling it how to task the satellites. It is a little like telescope time at the big observatories; jobs are booked months in advance and there is never enough for everybody’s project.

For the last 20 or more years, for example, Africa south of the Sahara has been drying up and blowing away--a process of desertification that has resulted in repeated famines. Satellite photography might have tracked this natural process, but the job has been neglected. Time spent watching the biosphere would have been time denied the Soviet target. A host of things can be monitored by satellite reconnaissance--the rate of clearing the Amazonian rain forest, snow-pack accumulation in the California Sierra, the recovery of defoliated regions in Vietnam, whale and dolphin populations, air and water pollution. The same techniques might be used to monitor the political health of the planet as well.

Peace--even a rough-and-tumble peace--provides the opportunity to try something new. It is not just a matter of giving the CIA something to do, but of recognizing that the scale of human activity now poses a greater danger to human welfare than traditional political enmities, however desperate. Understanding these dangers requires the full attention of large organizations with access to all the tools of monitoring.

Clinton and his new CIA director have a unique opportunity to reinvent intelligence with a broader notion of the national interest. They have a practical motive as well. Old Kremlin-watchers and KGB counterintelligence hands might be restive with the new tasks, but the alternative is the melancholy job of budget cutting. Because one thing is clear: An intelligence service with no honest work promises only embarrassment to its patrons and worry to its neighbors.