In a highly unusual move for a congressional leader, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has intervened in House-Senate negotiations over the budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to push for a new covert-action program to destabilize the government of Iran, according to sources in the intelligence community.
Gingrich’s demand for about $18 million in funding for covert action in Iran has become the major reason for a lengthy delay on an agreement between House and Senate bargainers on the roughly $28-billion classified budget for the U.S. intelligence community.
Senate Republican leaders and the Clinton administration have opposed Gingrich’s proposal because they believe that such a program would be ineffective and could needlessly worsen U.S. relations with the Islamic country.
Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley refused to comment on the reports. One source said the speaker sees Iran as an “evil empire” and believes strongly that the United States should oust Iran’s current government.
The Georgia Republican decided to make specific demands for espionage activity by the intelligence community--and then hold up an agreement on the intelligence budget until those demands are met--because “he apparently feels very strongly about this,” one source said.
Administration officials fear that public discussion of any program to destabilize Iran could greatly complicate U.S. efforts to secure international support for other measures to apply pressure on that nation. The United States has tough trade sanctions in place against Tehran because of charges that it supports terrorist activity.
At the CIA, leaders appear to have mixed feelings about renewing any covert activity in the Middle East.
Some intelligence officials believe that Iran is one of the most difficult targets in the world for clandestine espionage, and they note that the United States has had little success in its previous covert efforts against Tehran. “You can’t trust the dissident groups, and it has been next to impossible for us to get really good sources,” one official said.
CIA Director John M. Deutch in September called for an increase in covert-action funding, but he has not spoken publicly about whether he believes that the agency should mount a covert operation against Iran.
Gingrich’s intervention in the negotiations between the House and Senate intelligence committees has left the CIA and other agencies without final authorization for their 1996 budgets more than two months after the start of the fiscal year.
Intelligence community sources said Gingrich’s proposal for funding for covert action in Iran is one of the few remaining issues unresolved in the budget conference between the House and Senate panels. The House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), is said to be supporting Gingrich’s proposal in the face of resistance from the Senate panel, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
The funds for the CIA’s budget were included in the defense appropriation enacted in late November. But the House and Senate have yet to agree on final authorizing legislation, spelling out in detail how the intelligence agencies are supposed to spend that money.
However, one source said an agreement on the authorizing legislation for the intelligence budget could be hammered out between House and Senate negotiators as early as this week.
Gingrich’s role underscores his strong interest in the CIA and intelligence matters, which may stem from well-documented efforts throughout his career to learn more about the U.S. military.
“Gingrich is really intrigued by intelligence stuff,” said an observer. “He is one of the most astute people in the Congress when it comes to high technology, and intelligence involves a lot of high-tech stuff.”
Sources say, for instance, that Gingrich gave a speech at CIA headquarters earlier this month aimed at boosting the sagging morale among agency employees. He drew a standing-room-only crowd and a standing ovation from CIA employees for a speech in which he urged them not to get down because of negative publicity surrounding CIA activities.
“He wowed them in the bubble,” said one source, using a nickname for the auditorium at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Within the U.S. intelligence community, covert action is supposed to be the most secretive element of clandestine espionage activity. It often involves large-scale paramilitary operations aimed at achieving U.S. national security objectives that cannot be reached through diplomatic means or routine intelligence activities.
But covert action involves enormous political and strategic risks. If it works--as did the CIA’s covert-action war in Afghanistan, aimed at driving Soviet occupying forces out--it can achieve spectacular results.
But when it fails, it can lead to national scandal and endless political recriminations--as it did in the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and in the Iran-Contra affair, the complicated three-way scheme during the Ronald Reagan administration to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages and to use the proceeds to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Since the end of the Afghanistan war and the Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA has sharply scaled back its covert actions. Indeed, critics say that covert action has become virtually nonexistent during the Clinton administration, and they warn that the intelligence community’s covert-action infrastructure is wasting away as a result.
Now, there are even some Democrats in Congress who believe that covert-action funding needs to be increased. But some intelligence experts wonder whether it is a good idea to give the CIA marching orders for a new covert-action program just as the spy agency is trying to recover from a stream of scandals and controversies that have left it reeling over the last two years.
“This is not the time for the CIA to be doing covert action,” said one CIA veteran.
In fact, some officers within the CIA’s clandestine espionage service are said to fear that a spate of investigations into past CIA activities have sent a message to America’s spies that taking gambles and risks in undercover operations will only lead to scandal and ruined careers.
When Deutch met with officers from the agency’s Directorate of Operations--the CIA’s clandestine service--in September to inform them of his decision to dismiss two officials and reprimand others for their role in a controversy surrounding CIA activities in Guatemala, he told them he still wanted them to take risks. He was greeted with what some eyewitnesses have described as derisive laughter.
Gingrich’s interest in funding for a covert-action program against Iran was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal in October and the Washington Post in early November, but the role his demand is playing in the intelligence budget negotiations is considered highly sensitive for diplomatic and domestic political reasons.
If the Senate agrees to a compromise that allows the covert-action program to go forward, Clinton will be faced with a difficult choice over whether to veto the intelligence budget legislation. Going into a presidential election year, Clinton clearly does not want to look soft on Iran, but he also does not want to approve what administration officials believe is an ill-considered proposal.