Marking its 50th birthday, the Central Intelligence Agency needs bold, creative leadership to overcome its current ailments. Instead, new director George J. Tenet starts his tenure by attempting an old bureaucratic dodge: shooting the messenger who brings unwelcome news.

The messenger in Tenet's sights is Warren Marik, a former CIA officer who disclosed his role in the agency's failed effort to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein in separate interviews with The Washington Post and ABC Television last month.

Marik's story of the covert debacle, which cost at least $110 million, should have triggered investigations by the agency, the White House and Congress of this particular operation and the future of covert action. Along with the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Iraq stands as the agency's most expensive and embarrassing flop since it was founded on July 26, 1947.

Instead, Tenet has asked the Justice Department to determine whether Marik violated his confidentiality agreement with the spy agency by disclosing classified information.

Imagine Tenet as the owner of the Titanic who greets news of the luxury liner's sinking by ordering an investigation of the radio operator who sent out distress signals, and you get the picture.

In Washington's labyrinth of bureaucracy and secrecy, a policy failure operates like a shaky bank loan: If big enough, it intimidates everybody connected with it into silence and inaction. Only foot soldiers like Marik risk being sacrificed, and only if they pipe up.

Those who draw up the grand schemes and give orders seem to fall effortlessly upward or sideways. John Deutch, the CIA director who oversaw the Iraq debacle, is now comfortably back at MIT and defending the flawed strategy he chose. His deputy was Tenet, confirmed by the Senate earlier this month as Deutch's successor.

The current London station chief, who played a key supervisory role in the Iraq failure, reached that exalted position after involvement in the Iran-contra scandal and after failing to spot Aldrich Ames as a Soviet spy when he was Ames's boss in Rome.

Instead of tackling institutional accountability, Tenet pursues Marik, a 52-year-old covert operator who retired six months ago and who spoke out in June hoping to get the agency to shift its strategy in Iraq. Marik told me Saddam can be undermined if the agency re-engages in a long-term propaganda and political effort, rather than betting everything on a quick silver-bullet coup scenario.

The new CIA director has asked the Justice Department to consider charges against Marik even though prosecutions are rarely brought in cases where other agents' identities, sources and methods have not been compromised by the ex-agent. This referral seems to be aimed at intimidating other potential whistle-blowers.

Such an approach smacks of a cynicism that eats at the soul of an agency that must above all else believe in itself and its mission. Bob Dylan could have had the once proud tradition of the CIA in mind when he sang that you have to be honest to live outside the law. Bureaucratic dodges and gamesmanship have corroded the core values of America's only true secret service as fundamentally as the loss of the Soviet enemy has clouded its vision of its future.

It is time for Congress and the White House to investigate this idea: Sharply pare down the $3-billion-a-year agency and concentrate its efforts on analysis and on no more than two or three vital covert operations, including Iraq. Listen to veteran and independent-minded agents like Marik instead of hounding them.

But Congress is as mute as the White House and the agency leadership when it comes to asking sharp questions about the Iraq operation. There is a reason: The debacle in Iraq shows the continuing decline of congressional oversight as a check on mismanagement and misbehavior at the CIA.

There is icing for this cake of investigating the wrong people on the wrong charges. It will come in the Senate hearing into President Clinton's campaign finance problems. Republican senators want to know more about the telephone call someone at the Democratic National Committee made to a CIA officer that helped Middle East financier Roger Tamraz gain access to the White House.

The call went to "Bob," the agent in charge of the failed military campaign in northern Iraq, agency sources tell me. Having sailed through a perfunctory lie detector test on his role in Iraq and been put back to work, Bob finds his career at risk today not for his work on coup plots but for his role in dialing for campaign dollars.

Welcome to Clintonian Washington, Bob.