WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to make economic espionage with America's trade rivals a top priority, and the agency has been scoring secret successes in trade talks with Japan and other nations, according to sources in the intelligence community.
Among the successes, sources say, is strong intelligence information the CIA provided on the Japanese during this spring's heated auto trade negotiations between the Clinton administration and Japan. 'We've done really well with the Japanese," said one source.
The trade talks ended in compromise, but only after critics charged that negotiators and officials in each country had misjudged the political undercurrents influencing their rivals. Even so, sources say that U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor has been pleased with the agency's ability to provide accurate reports on the bargaining positions of America's rivals.
The CIA refused to comment, and it is unknown how the United States targeted the Japanese side of the negotiations, and whether it did so with electronic eavesdropping methods or with covert agents.
The new focus on economic intelligence reflects the high priority that the Clinton administration has placed on international economic issues in foreign policy. Sources say the president has issued a classified set of intelligence priorities for the post-Cold War era that calls for the CIA to take economic espionage off the back burner.
The shift to the economic arena actually began well before Mr. Clinton's new directive. Once it became clear that economic rivalry with industrial superpowers such as Japan and Germany was being viewed by the White House and Congress as a critical national security issue after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the agency began to divert resources from Russia and other traditional targets to meet the new demand.
The shift has not been an unqualified success, however. The CIA has recently experienced humiliating failure as well as victory, with perhaps the greatest defeat coming in a bungled operation in France that is now the subject of a confidential investigation, urged on by the Senate Intelligence Committee, by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz.