WASHINGTON -- For misguided consternation, it's difficult to top the widespread criticism of the CIA for branching out into so-called economic espionage.
The spooks, in search of post-Cold War work, were recently revealed to have been eavesdropping on some Japanese bigwigs who were dickering with our side about business matters. Employing the same super-high-tech electronic gear that used to intercept telephone conversations from the Kremlin's limousine pool, the CIA tuned into the Japanese pre-meeting planning sessions.
And when the two sides got together, the Americans believed they knew everything about the give and take in the Japanese strategy. The depiction of the Japanese as helpless victims of wily American spycraft does invite skepticism, but so the story goes.
These stealthy operations are abhorrent to those who believe in the sanctity of privacy and the value of good faith and upright dealings in personal as well as business affairs. Unfortunately, such sentiments are antiquated and naive when big deals are at stake. Or even lesser matters, as wondrously efficient, inexpensive electronic goods make illicit looking and listening an off-the-shelf pastime.
Nonetheless, upright editorialists and other commentators are demanding that the CIA stay out of commercial matters and stick to the traditional topics of spycraft -- armaments and military and diplomatic intentions -- plus the new problems of terrorism. Business matters, according to this righteous -- and wrongheaded -- view, should be out of bounds.
The agency, like all intelligence agencies, is by nature a rogue outfit that will do what it deems desirable, irrespective of safeguards and checks imposed by Congress or the president. Every few years bring further revelations of misdeeds by the CIA, followed by shocked reaction about the passivity of the congressional intelligence committees that are supposedly positioned to prevent such things. The agency has been doing things by its own rules for so long that there's no reason to believe it can be changed.
But even if angelic values excluding the CIA from business dealings could be imposed, no one would believe that they were being adhered to. And, short of a botched spying job, there would be no way of finding out, since the CIA either lies about what it's doing or refuses to comment.
No points to be scored
Clearly, then, whether or not commercial espionage remains on the agenda of the CIA, prudent foreigners will assume that it does, and take appropriate measures. Thus, no public-relations points are to be scored by declaring a ban on this promising line of work. And conceivably, it could do the country some good in a time when national security is defined in economic rather than military terms.
However, if the CIA, for whatever reason, does not take a full-fledged plunge into this line of work, there are no grounds for fear that American business will be intelligence-deprived. In business, as in military affairs, it's greatly advantageous to know as much as possible about the other side. Left over from Cold War service, there's plenty of talent out there to conduct non-governmental intelligence operations. And whether for monitoring boardroom or bedroom, the electronics gadgetry is simply marvelous.
So, in these hard times, the CIA deserves sympathy, rather than censure, for offering assistance to businessmen on the front lines of economic combat, and, in the process, finding work for underemployed spooks.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.