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Where does the truth lie at the CIA?


YET ANOTHER SHOE, the heaviest so far, has been dropped by the many-footed super-spy Aldrich H. Ames -- this one in the form of a damaging admission by the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John M. Deutch, that, beginning in 1985, the agency, without warning of any kind, passed on information to the White House from Soviet "spies" known or suspected to be working for the other side. Aldrich Ames himself is in federal prison serving a life term for his treachery, which included the betrayal of at least 10 genuine spies later executed by the Soviets. But the new confession by the agency suggests Mr. Deutch has declared war on the old guard at the CIA, an omen that Aldrich Ames may have dealt the agency a fatal blow.

Capitol Hill outrage

The first response of the House and Senate intelligence committees was predictably one of horror -- "mind-boggling" said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., a candidate for president. "Something has gone terribly wrong," agreed Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. But infuriated reports by committee members that U.S. presidents had been misled with phony information during the crucial final years of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was coming apart at the seams, missed the deeper implications of the extraordinary five-hour briefing on the Ames case conducted by the recently confirmed Mr. Deutch. Letting tainted information go to the White House with solemn face was bad enough, but the reason for doing it was worse: The CIA evidently hoped to keep secret from the only clients who count -- the president and his advisers -- the awful facts that its most important spies in Russia had disappeared in 1985 and early 1986, and that the agency had no idea what had gone wrong.

All intelligence services get burned from time to time; spies get caught, or turn out to be double-agents, or make up information when they can't please case officers with the real thing. The men who run intelligence agencies know this; and the men who employ them -- presidents and policy-makers -- are supposed to know it, and the whole endeavor is threatened unless the spy-runners are quick to confess screw-ups, and their bosses take setbacks in stride.

It is this fundamental trust between the gatherers and the consumers of intelligence that has been poisoned by the Ames case. In fact, Mr. Deutch's briefing is strong evidence that both he and the White House have concluded the CIA must be fundamentally reformed -- that is, broken up and renamed -- if it is ever again to enjoy official trust.

This may sound like a drastic conclusion to draw from one more revelation in a case that has generated embarrassing headlines for nearly two years. But the new report marks a serious turn, because it was Mr. Deutch who brought it to the intelligence committees, not his predecessor, R. James Woolsey, who was forced to resign as CIA director over his handling of the case; and because it was Mr. Deutch's inspector-general, Frederick P. Hitz, who concluded in his damage assessment of the case that three previous CIA directors -- Mr. Woolsey, Robert M. Gates and William H. Webster -- should be held personally responsible for passing doubtful information to the White House.

Battles ahead

Mr. Deutch's declaration of war, a sure sign that major battles over intelligence lie ahead, brought a prompt fax of protest from Messrs. Webster, Gates and Woolsey, who jointly insisted they had no way of knowing that Soviet agents recruited by the CIA were all "controlled" -- that is, run by the Soviets with intent to deceive -- until they understood what had gone wrong in 1985 and 1986.

On its face, this seems a fair demurrer, but Messrs. Deutch and Hitz have apparently reached a harsher conclusion: Knowledgeable intelligence officers always know what it means when spies are suddenly rolled up -- their absence is as dramatic as the disappearance of an airliner from a radar screen. Their bosses know, too, for the same reason: The flow of secret information suddenly halts.

If the flow of secret information to the White House had been halted, the president and his advisers would have asked: What happened? Messrs. Webster, Gates and Woolsey all knew that. The inspector general's report strongly implies that they sat on the bad news, and went on passing information from suspect spies, to keep the secret of the primary disaster. Of course, none of this would have been confided to paper by the accused directors. Messrs. Deutch and Hitz have no proof that would stand up in a court of law. But in the world of secret intelligence, it is elementary: When spies are rolled up, the other side is in control.

Knowing and not knowing are the alpha and the omega of the intelligence business. They are the bedrock of the metaphysics of secrecy. The goal of intelligence services is to know what is really going on; the cancerous seed that may grow in the dark for years before reaching a vital organ is not knowing where the secrets are leaking away.

Because all is shrouded in secrecy, it is easy to hide mistakes, serious problems, even -- for a time -- disasters. A straight face is no guarantee of truth; lying to enemies is taken for granted, but so is lying to friends if they lack the proper clearance. But once spies and their masters start lying to each other, even the truth becomes impossible to recognize.

Mr. Deutch and his inspector-general say three directors of the CIA were, in effect, lying to the president. The directors deny it. Who is telling the truth? When presidents can no longer answer that question, it is time to start over.

Thomas Powers is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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