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Behind the CIA's Cloak


Trying to figure out what the Central Intelligence Agency is up to is a lot like watching shadows on the wall. The shadow may be larger than the reality, or it may be conjured out of nothing. The CIA's relatively new director promises a series of changes in the agency's structure and "culture," in response both to the end of the Cold War and the discovery of a traitor in its midst. What does it all mean?

Some things are fairly obvious. The agency seriously botched the Aldrich Ames case, ignoring for years warning signals he might be spying on the U.S. rather than for it. It needs to justify its whopping cost at a time of fiscal stringency and declining global tension. Reasonable doubt exists whether top CIA officials can adjust their clandestine operations to a world no longer preoccupied with a threatening international ideology.

CIA Director R. James Woolsey is making reassuring sounds. He has promised an administrative overhaul, a leaner bureaucracy and realistically redirected intelligence operations. The fact a CIA director is discussing such matters publicly is progress in itself. But it is no more clear than it ever was how much of Mr. Woolsey's program is substance and how much is shadow.

For one thing, even his list of administrative reforms is dismaying. Many of them, like periodic evaluations of personnel, were standard procedure in well-run businesses decades ago. Since so much of what the CIA does is necessarily secret, it leaves outsiders -- including key officials and legislators -- wondering just how badly managed -- or unmanaged -- the agency really is.

An outside review of the Ames fiasco found more than bureaucratic change is necessary. In a recommendation Mr. Woolsey has publicly embraced, the commission said the CIA needs a change of culture, too. Though the agency has long touted its professionalism, contrasted with the talented amateurs and outright dilettantes of its founding years, it still has many of the earmarks of an old-boys' club. Ames was one of the boys, therefore he couldn't be lying about his mysteriously acquired wealth.

None of this is reassuring when essentially the same people are still running the show. Old Washington hands like Mr. Woolsey are adept at paper reorganizations. The risks of shedding more light on the CIA's internal affairs are outweighed by Congress' and the public's need to be confident the spies have indeed mended their ways.

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