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CONGRESS SHOULD GIVE CIA BETTER SENSE OF DIRECTION

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Not everything the CIA does can be out in the open - that is the nature of the spy agency's business.

But its building of a secret office complex one-fifth the size of the Pentagon on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., boggles the mind. This feat hasn't made Congress happy, either.What's troubling is not only the secrecy but also the size and cost of the project. Even members of the congressional oversight committees that supervise the CIA were stunned.

The offices are supposed to house 2,900 employees of the National Reconnaissance Office or NRO, the clandestine agency that manages the nation's spy satellites for both the CIA and the Pentagon.

Members of oversight committees supposedly were briefed about the project. But they complain they never knew the actual size and eventual $350 million cost of the project on 68 acres in suburban Virginia. The money came in bits and pieces out of the "black budget" that pays for U.S. intelligence activities.

The CIA and the Pentagon insist that members of the oversight committee were given specifics on the planning, construction and cost of the building on nine different occasions since 1990 - and a clear paper trail seems to back up that defense.

So why the surprise expressed by committee members?

Part of the answer may be that a "full briefing" in CIA terms is less than it would appear. Even CIA chief Jim Woolsey admitted that the costs of the center hadn't been spelled out as clearly as they should have been.

The project started out as two buildings and eventually grew to include four major structures. Congressional oversight seems to have gotten confused or lost along the way.

Details of the project came to light only after oversight committee members became unhappy with the lack of information and asked for a detailed audit. President Clinton then authorized details to be declassified.

Maybe the NRO needs a new headquarters to centralize its spy-satellite operations. But a facility one-fifth the size of the Pentagon? In these tight times?

This episode once again raises fundamental questions about the role of the CIA in a fundametally altered post-Cold War world and indicates the need for better control and supervision of the agency's activities.

Some in Congress have raised the possibility of abolishing the CIA altogether. Others at least want procedural changes in CIA operations.

The Clinton administration opposes some of these reforms and also is against efforts by Congress to get more involved in CIA activities, an area the administration believes is a function of the executive branch.

Several senators have asked that a presidential commission be formed to study the duties and mission of the CIA and make a report by 1997.

If nothing else, such a study ought to be implemented immediately. The CIA clearly needs a firmer hand at the helm as well as a better idea of what it is supposed to be doing and why.

Whether the apparent boondoggle involving the new office building got so far by deliberate deception or sloppy oversight, one thing is clear. As Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., put it, "We need to root out the obsession with secrecy that treats legitimate overseers as enemies."