A key provision of the draft Middle East peace agreement calls for the CIA to play a pivotal new role in guaranteeing security in the troubled region and to monitor Palestinian Authority efforts to crack down on anti-Israeli terrorism.
For a spy shop that traditionally has operated in the shadows of diplomacy, the proposal would broaden the CIA's mission and, potentially, its influence.
However, critics fear that it also could expose the intelligence agency and its operatives to new risks, both physical and political.
Although the details were still being negotiated Thursday, the preliminary agreement presented by the United States would have the CIA verify the incarceration of accused terrorists in Palestinian jails and determine whether they are being dealt with appropriately.
The agency would also mediate disputes involving the handling of suspected terrorists and help administer border checkpoints.
U.S. officials said they felt confident that the proposal will remain in any agreement.
The Clinton administration believes that the CIA is the best choice for the job because it has gained the confidence of both sides in recent years as it has monitored West Bank security issues, acted as a go-between and provided training to Palestinian law enforcement personnel.
CIA Director George J. Tenet, in fact, has been instrumental in designing the proposed CIA oversight role and winning support for it among participants in this week's Mideast peace conference at Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland.
Yet critics say that the job could undermine CIA agents' effectiveness as intelligence-gatherers and possibly make them the targets of terrorist attacks. They predict that the agency will be caught in a political cross-fire if it appears to favor one side or the other, damaging its image and undermining U.S. diplomacy.
The CIA "will have to walk a political tightrope," said David Schenker, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As it tries to be "day-to-day arbiter of who's violating what . . . there's a lot of downside, and not much upside."
The security issues have been a critical element of the Wye Plantation peace negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. President Clinton has served as mediator of the talks.
The Israelis have argued that the Palestinians too often have failed to arrest people suspected of terrorism, and in other cases have released them soon after their arrest.
The Palestinians, for their part, have sought an independent arbiter who will rebut Israeli claims that the Palestinian Authority has secretly condoned terrorism.
In 1996, when Israeli-Palestinian talks nearly broke down, the CIA--having taken on a more active role in the Mideast--brought security officials of both sides back to the table.
Tenet has met with Arafat four times in three years, and a string of other Israeli-Palestinian meetings have been hosted by the chief of the CIA's Tel Aviv station.
CIA officials did not seek this added responsibility, yet they believe that the urgent need for progress in the talks gives them little choice, U.S. officials say.
"This is a departure from what the CIA normally does," one official said, "but the CIA is looked on as an honest broker. . . . You've got to look at the greater good."
Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director, said he believed that the CIA's involvement is needed since the two sides "trust the CIA more than they trust each other--and more than they trust other parts of the [U.S.] government."
Gates said the CIA has often played a role in security-related negotiations, as well as monitoring security agreements. The agency did so after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, during 30 years of U.S.-Soviet arms-control negotiations and during the Indian-Pakistani negotiations that narrowly averted war in 1990.
He acknowledged that the proposed Wye Plantation deal would broaden the agency's responsibilities by giving it "greater visibility and more of a day-to-day operational role than in the past." He also conceded that some people within the CIA probably would object to this departure.
The visibility would entail danger for CIA officials, he said, but "that's part of being in the intelligence business."
Another former CIA official said some aspects of the new role are likely to be fairly straightforward and noncontroversial, such as the task of monitoring the presence of accused terrorists in Palestinian jails.
But deciding whether an individual should be arrested or detained presents the risk that the CIA could become embroiled in real controversy.
Already, this official noted, officials of the militant group Hamas have denounced the Palestinian Authority for taking part in talks with the CIA.
In addition, the heightened visibility of CIA operatives creates the possibility that their sources and methods might be compromised, the former agency official said.
He said the proposed role also raises questions about whether there would be conflicts with other U.S. agencies, notably the State Department, and whether in such a visible role the CIA might become ensnared in the kind of political firefights in Congress that it has until now been able to duck.
Some analysts predicted that if this effort works as planned, the administration might be tempted to later cast the agency in similar roles in other trouble spots, such as the former Yugoslav federation.
Schenker said the CIA might soon experience the frustrations felt by United Nations Special Commission weapons inspectors in Iraq.
While the job of UNSCOM inspectors was to be direct, sometimes they came under political pressure from their leaders to mute controversies in an effort to further international diplomacy.
CIA personnel, for example, might be pressured to go easy on a suspect to help keep the Palestinian leaders at the bargaining table.
While some at the CIA may oppose the new role, analysts said others may see it as an opportunity to help rebuild an agency that has lost prestige and resources in recent years.