If the criminal justice system let defendants off the hook by proving their innocence of a crime they're not charged with, court dockets would clear up quickly. Not likely? Well, the CIA has been getting away with the equivalent for decades. Adm. William Studeman, acting director of the intelligence agency, made a big show of denying it participated in the murders in Guatemala of a U.S. citizen and a guerrilla leader married to a U.S. lawyer. No one has accused the CIA of complicity.
The issue is whether the agency is off on its own fighting insurgency in Guatemala or is hewing to U.S. policy there, and whether it is keeping the people who have a right to know what it's doing fully informed. Admiral Studeman also denied that the agency deliberately covered up information about the two slayings. But somehow information that should have been supplied to the two congressional watchdog committees never got to them.
The repentant admiral told the Senate Intelligence Committee that aides thought about informing it and its House counterpart, but someone inadvertently slipped up. A plausible explanation, on its face. All organizations make occasional mistakes. But the CIA has a long and ignoble history of making this one over and over again. Each new time it pleads innocent error it further strains credulity.
Added evidence that the CIA is still unwilling to meet its obligation to keep superiors and congressional watchdogs informed trickled from a closed session it held with the committee after the public hearing. Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee chairman, told a television interviewer that even then getting information from the CIA was "like pulling teeth." Senators had to ask the same question three times before getting the beginning of an answer, even in closed session, he explained.
That's another favorite CIA gambit. Respond to a question only in its narrowest terms, and don't disclose anything unless the questioner zeros in directly on the target.
This sort of game-playing, not ideological CIA-bashing, is the real threat to the agency's future in the post-Cold-War world. No responsible citizen wants the agency to reveal its necessarily secret sources of information. But confidence that the agency only implements U.S. foreign policy -- as determined by the nation's elected leaders -- gets increasingly tattered the more it appears to deceive even its own overseers.