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How tight should be the rules governing American involvement in covert operations abroad?

The answer would seem to be: tighter than they are now. But not nearly as tight as some members of Congress are trying to make them.The issue arises just now because Congress has been criticizing the Bush administration for its handling of the aborted coup attempt in Panama recently. President Bush has responded by accusing Congress of failing to give the Central Intelligence Agency enough flexibility to operate in situations in which a foreign leader could be overthrown or killed in a coup.

So inflexible was the wording of the ban on American participation in assassination attempts, the White House insisted, that it even required Washington to notify a foreign leader of an impending coup because it might endanger his life. Any such requirement would, of course, be absurd.

Though the latest word out of Washington is that Bush and the Senate Intelligence Committee have ironed out their differences, any such agreement still does not come to grips with all of the problems.

Specifically, it does not relieve the White House of congressional criticism that the administration failed to inform American military leaders in Panama on how to react to a coup and help ensure its success.

Nor does it deal with some ill-advised legislation in Congress to establish a more independent inspector general to investigate possible wrong-doing within the CIA. At present, the inspector general is appointed by the CIA's director and may be dismissed at any time. Under the new legislation, the inspector general would not be subject to control by the CIA director.

Ordinarily, an independent inspector general is best. The trouble with this legislation is that it would give the House and Senate intelligence committees full access to the inspector general's reports on CIA management practices. Because Congress keeps secrets about as well as a sieve holds water, this provision could compromise sources of intelligence. Though the existing inspector general system can be faulted for failing to detect wrongdoing by the CIA in the Iran-Contra scandal, this failure apparently can be attributed more to the individuals involved than to the system under which they operated.

How about a compromise involving the creation of an independent inspector general who would report to just one committee, rather than two, or better yet who would report to just a select part of a committee? The fewer people who share secrets, the easier it is to keep secrets.

Up to a point, Bush and the CIA are right to resist efforts to tighten controls over the agency. Some members of Congress seem to think the CIA should not make a move without first checking with them and explaining everything in detail. That's no way to keep secrets or run an intelligence operation.

But the fact remains that the CIA could be trusted more to police itself if it had not in the past illegally spied on thousands of Americans, conducted drug experiments on unwitting victims, conspired to overthrow legally elected governments overseas, and cooperated in efforts involving the assassination or attempted assassination of at least five foreign leaders.

Congress can't micro-manage the CIA. But neither can it leave the agency entirely to its own devices. Just how tightly or loosely to draw the guidelines is something that is bound to vary with the circumstances and require constant reappraisal.