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CIA NEEDS REFORM, BUT DON'T REFORM AWAY ITS COVERT CAPACITY

The CIA is defending the indefensible and failing to defend the defensible.

When the columnist Mary McGrory of The Washington Post criticized in passing "their most egregious and expensive blunder about the Soviet economy," the acting director, Adm. William O. Sturdeman, huffed: "The most objectionable piece of fiction is the canard that the intelligence community's analysis of the Soviet economy was wrong . . . The facts have been on the public record for any journalist who cares to do her homework."The homework-skipper is the admiral. In 1988, when the CIA made public its estimate that the Soviet GNP was about half of ours, and that less than 16 percent of the Soviet economy was devoted to arms production, academics like Harry Rowan, Charles Wolf, Anders Aslund and Richard Ericson took sharp issue.

I went across the river to Director of Central Intelligence Bill Webster's office armed with their opposing view: that the Soviet GNP figures were phony, that its economy was half its CIA-estimated size and that the portion going to arms was an unsustainable 30 percent, compared with 6 percent in the United States. That would mean Moscow was on the brink of economic meltdown.

The assembled CIA experts pooh-poohed this. When I suggested a "Team B" to challenge the CIA evaluation, Director Webster looked toward his deputy, Robert Gates, who scornfully said, "It's the same different view."

No independent assessment was permitted - might hurt community morale, you know - and the projections in Judy Sheldon's book "The Coming Soviet Crash" were brushed aside.

Result: The CIA failed to alert the president and Congress about the inexorable Soviet collapse. The present DCI, in his starched white outfit wishing it all away, is in a curious state of institutional denial.

Now shift gears. After the fallout from the Ames affair and the resignation of Director Jim Woolsey, the agency faces months of headlines about its support of the Guatemalan government - especially its payments to an informant within the government who has been "linked" by a Democratic congressman to the deaths of an American citizen and an insurgent leader.

The New York Times promptly thundered editorial condemnation of the CIA's "disgraceful covert relationship with Guatemalan military thugs." President Clinton is displeased with the agency's apparent end run. Spook-bashers are salivating at the prospect of stories about abuses of secrecy, opening the way to whacks at the intelligence budget.

This has deep roots; two generations of liberals have been infuriated by our support of anti-communist regimes in Central and South America. From the coup in 1954 that threw out Arbenz in Guatemala to the defeat of leftists in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the late '80s, CIA agents carried out their assignment of helping stop the spread of Castro's communism in our neighborhood.

Thanks partly to those CIA covert operations, we won - often messily, sometimes undemocratically, on occasion scandalously. But real war was being waged, and the alternative outcome - Soviet-Cuban hegemony up to our Mexican border - would have been far worse for democracy and human rights.

U.S. policy was the opposite of imperialism, and most CIA operatives were not the villains or blunderers many in the media made them out to be.

Now, as the next wave of revulsion rolls in, we have to ask: Should we ever hire informers, none of whom would be played by Victor McLaglen? Do we hold ourselves responsible for all that these sleazy characters subsequently do?

Easy to say "stay clean." But if a CIA operative claims he can recruit an informant inside the Hezbollah; or buy a line into the presidential palace in Pyongyang; or asks permission to guarantee safe haven to a military clique in Baghdad if a coup fails - should the next DCI insist that such inside sources not be describable as thugs?

Good ends do not justify evil means, but such dirty tricks that would save thousands of lives gain some moral coloration. Reform the CIA, but don't reform away its covert capacity.