Rogue white elephant

WHERE will the new president turn for vital information to help him make life-or-death decisions on foreign affairs?

To the CIA, of course. His national security adviser will tell him not to curtail that vast establishment. His new economic security adviser will suggest expanding its reach into the world of economic intelligence.


If President Clinton should trouble to ask what all this costs, he will be told a fact kept secret from the American public: About $20 billion a year goes to military intelligence -- from satellites still reading Kremlin license plates to Big Ears listening to millions of voice and data transmissions -- and an additional $10 billion per year to the CIA for human spying, covert operations and analysis that winds up in the president's daily intelligence brief.

He may ask: Why can't the American taxpayer be told, at least in the aggregate, how much is spent on the intelligence gathering and evaluation?


Reaction: horror. He would be told that sources and methods would be blown, allied services betrayed by publication of our overall intelligence budget. Worst of all, the cozy symbiosis between the intelligence community and its congressional overseers would be shattered if nosy outsiders knew the real rate of growth of our spying spending.

If the new president has any moxie, he will cut through this stultifying secrecy and demand to know: Are we getting enough data for the dollar? How does the efficiency of our operation compare with that of other major nations? Is the information so expensively gathered lost in the bureaucracy or made available to the decision-maker at the moment of decision?

A recent episode is illuminating. If CIA spokesmen are to be believed, the agency "misfiled" some pertinent intelligence about the participation of Italian officials in the decision to help finance Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's arms buildup. This supposedly led our gullible Justice Department to absolve Rome of wrongdoing and cost U.S. taxpayers billions in loan guarantees.

Misfiled? Lost some memos? That suggests CIA clerks sticking handwritten slips into red-taped folders and putting them in oaken file cabinets, with the system of retrieval in one Uriah Heep's head.

In fact, even the agency's new family jewels are on computers. Any hacker with software costing $49 and all the relevant CIA access codes in hand could type in "Lavoro or B.N.L. or Matrix or Dragoul or Atlanta and Iraq," command "Search," and turn up all the memos that were mysteriously "misfiled" for years -- and more.

Either the CIA method of handling data is egregiously inefficient -- unable to call up and present hard intelligence to help the president make a far-reaching decision directive -- or the organization is corrupt, deliberately concealing the truth from lawmakers and law enforcement officials.

Faced with this reality, what's a new president to do?

1. Pick a CIA director who knows how accountability has been avoided but is not a compromised insider.


Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren, D-Okla., who bet the Company on Robert Gates, was betrayed and is sore; he's the sort who could introduce competitive "Team Bs" to improve the product while reducing waste. Scheduled to be next year's chairman is Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.; President Clinton should agree to notify congressional leaders of "findings" within 24 hours.

2. The Intelligence Oversight Board within the White House has always been a joke, but the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board -- "Piffiab" -- was once useful in providing a quality control check by informed outsiders.

When President Reagan purged Martin Anderson and other critics at CIA Director Bill Casey's request, Piffiab lost its independence; Bush further reduced it to a panel of technocrats. The new president should replace and expand the board, let it hire competent new staff and make it a source of citizen oversight of Langley's old pros.

3. Focus on new missions for the new CIA: protection of industrial privacy and preparation for decisions involving "the right to intervene" when genocide looms. We didn't hear about intelligence in the campaign, but now it's time to get serious.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.