FROM THE START, President Reagan took issue with the presumption of culpability that colored most official and public discussion of the country's intelligence agencies from the mid-1970s on. He never accepted that the agencies had been, in many respects, corrupted and that they were almost inherently drawn to abuse their special powers. Denying that the abuses brought to light in the 1970s were all that serious, he insisted that intelligence was a vital and worthy function of government, as manageable as any other.
It is no surprise, then, that in his new executive order on the organization and control of U.S. intelligence agencies the tone reflects the president's traditional pride and confidence in them and his conviction that their public image deserves burnishing. What is surprising, perhaps, is that so little of the content of the old Jimmy Carter order has been changed. Controlling intelligence is mostly a matter of making calibrations in the gray areas, and in some of these areas the Reagan order moves the marker a bit to the right on the individual liberty-national security scale. It takes a rather vivid imagination, however, to think that he has moved it much. Almost all of the darker dangers perceived during the drafting period by those fearful of fresh inroads on citizens' liberties seem to have evaporated.
This is the intriguing aspect of the Reagan intelligence order. It may have made some difference that during the final drafting two of the officials most closely identified with "unleashing" the agencies, CIA Director William Casey and national security adviser Richard Allen, were distracted by official inquiries into their affairs. What appears to have mattered much more, however, was that Mr. Reagan gave a full hearing to those people in his own government and in the congressional oversight committees whose first purpose was to keep the agencies on the intelligence straight and narrow, out of the domestic political swamp. Throughout, Mr. Reagan accepted the substance of earlier reforms: there must be specific executive accountability for all intelligence activities, and all of these activities must be within the reach of congressional review. The agencies must be policed. Mr. Reagan grants that, and Congress has its clear duties here. Meanwhile, as we understand it, he means for the agencies to do their basic job.