What are spies for? They recruit one another to betray their respective services, but what positive things do they accomplish?
The CIA acknowledged recently that it has little current information on Africa because the actual mission of its agents in Africa had always been merely to recruit double agents in Soviet and East-bloc embassies.
During its nearly five decades of existence, the CIA has been responsible for certain operations that did the reputation of the United States no good, such as the Bay of Pigs landing and the Phoenix program in Vietnam. On the other hand, its U-2 and satellite photo-intelligence operations were unquestionably important in tracking Soviet military developments.
The CIA ran the Soviet general-staff spy, Oleg Penkovsky, but he had offered himself to British intelligence, and they made a gift of him to the CIA. The Khrushchev "secret speech" was also a gift, from Israeli intelligence. The CIA was good at political warfare in the 1950s (creating the Congress for Cultural Freedom, its magazines and Radio Free Europe), but this later declined to vulgar propaganda.
The agency's principal activity was always the effort to penetrate Soviet intelligence, while Soviet intelligence was spending its time penetrating Western intelligence. In a draft lecture to KGB recruits that turned up recently among Kim Philby's possessions put up for sale at Sotheby's in London, Philby says, "I have a dream. It is that one day we, perhaps one of you, will recruit, say, a young Norwegian officer -- perhaps even an officer cadet. Over the years, you will nurse him into Norwegian military intelligence, and then finally into NATO headquarters . . . ."
But one must ask, if they did, so what? Philby himself came close to becoming chief of British intelligence, but even if he had, the Cold War would have ended just as it did: in Soviet economic and political collapse.
This, of course, is the argument Aldrich Ames makes in his own defense. In April, he said in his confession of spying for the Soviet Union that intelligence work is "a self-serving sham" conducted "at considerable human and ethical costs," and that he had done no fundamental harm to the United States. He might have been expected to say that, but it is not necessarily untrue.
Wartime intelligence deals with tangible matters and confronts the test of the battlefield. There are plans to steal, orders of battle to learn, weapons and weapons sites to photograph, strategic and tactical decisions to discover.
In peacetime, the major directions of scientific and technological evolution are known to everyone working in a given field. There are few secrets. Peacetime intelligence deals with political intentions and political reality. Any government's policy options are limited, and its decisions usually are soon known. What can spying tell us about the policies that will be followed by Kim Jong Il in North Korea?
Governments, in any case, listen to what they want to hear. Warnings about Iraq's intentions before it invaded Kuwait were ignored because of the Bush administration's investment in good relations with Saddam Hussein. Assessments of the weakness of the Soviet Union during the 1980s were rejected because Reagan administration policy presumed a powerful and dynamic Soviet threat. After Mikhail Gorbachev had convinced Washington that he was an authentic reformer, the Bush administration overestimated his strength because it wanted him succeed. The Clinton administration may be making the same mistake about Boris Yeltsin, for the same reason.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., has for some time argued that the CIA ought to be closed down. Its "action" capacities can go under military command, he says, and its analysis duplicates that of the State Department. While there is a danger in centralizing analysis, I believe the senator is correct when he says that the CIA, as it has existed for the last 47 years, is at the end of its useful life. Its personnel quality and talent level have fallen steadily since the 1960s. It is demoralized by intelligence failures, the Ames case and by the end of the Cold War that was responsible for its creation.
The problems in the world today cannot be treated by bribing police chiefs and local politicians, or by recruiting other people's diplomats to tell Washington their secrets. The useful information today is that supplied by area specialists, historians and ethnologists, and through conventional diplomatic observation and journalism. The United States government needs intelligence, not spying. There is a difference.
The United States needs to do something about the outdated or half-baked ideas of foreign countries that circulate in Washington and New York.
Instead of the CIA it needs a new, small, organizationally independent, high-talent analytical agency staffed by people who really know foreign countries and international relations. Mr. Clinton should think about it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.