America's spy agencies need more money, a sleeker bureaucratic structure, fluent Arabic speakers and a host of other reforms and gimmicks to protect the United States and its allies from harm. Add one more urgent need: a sense of proportion.

In substance and style, the exposure of the "extraordinary rendition" -- Bush-era legalese for kidnapping -- of a radical Egyptian cleric off a Milan street in 2003 reveals a crushing inability by higher-ups here to ask and answer sensibly this question: Is this covert act really worth the likely consequences?

It certainly seemed worth it to the spies who lived in five-star luxury hotels while setting up the snatch -- and briefly afterward to rest up, it seems -- as long as the operation was never discovered and publicized. I hear the Hotel Principe di Savoia in Milan makes an unforgettable cappuccino.

But their incredibly sloppy tradecraft in bundling Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr onto a CIA-chartered jet and flying him to Cairo for interrogation virtually guaranteed that the operation would surface and be used against the United States and -- more consequentially -- against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of President Bush's staunchest allies in the war on terrorism.

In the "timing is everything" department, Berlusconi announced Wednesday that he would seek reelection next year, only to be hit on Thursday with a Post exclusive quoting unnamed "CIA veterans" asserting that the Italian government was in on the operation all along.

The story goaded a tardy, unconvincing denial from Rome of any involvement in the grab. But the earlier total silence from Berlusconi's office and its now overtaken orders to Italian officials not to discuss the matter publicly lend substantial weight to the account of the "veterans."

The quickness of CIA officials to give up sources makes reporters Judith Miller and Matt Cooper look even more heroic for stubbornly resisting the disclosure of theirs to another overzealous, judgment-impaired official, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Cooper and Miller opposed Thursday's decision by Time Inc. to give some documents to Fitzgerald.

Unlike those two journalists, the "veterans" rushed to break a CIA pledge to the Italians never to confirm the incident if it became public -- which it did on June 23 when an Italian magistrate issued arrest warrants for 13 U.S. intelligence agents.

Berlusconi, like other foreign leaders who cooperate intimately with the Bush administration, will have to fend for himself against this embarrassment, which comes after one of his own ace secret operatives was killed in a tragic error by U.S. troops in Iraq. The Italian magistrates -- who have long been convinced that their national chief is a crook -- will make sure the kidnapping story does not go away.

Americans should focus on what this incident reveals about the lack of effective restraints and review placed by the Bush administration on covert operations. To paraphrase Lord Acton, absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

This gung-ho administration has elevated secrecy to a positive end in itself, an attitude that gives extraordinary license to spooks, knuckle- draggers and other contract employees of the agency to exceed the normal limits of lying, cheating and breaking other countries' laws.

Knuckle-draggers? It is, I gather, a term of art for a growing number of contract employees who accompany full-time CIA agents on risky missions and who have greater latitude to get physical if need be. The descriptions of the Milan operation suggest that some such outsourcing occurred there.

This is not to say that physicality is not at times required in vital operations, or that renditions should be automatically removed from the kit bag of U.S. foreign policy. The Bush team did not invent rendition. It was inherited and reauthorized by Bill Clinton in a 1995 policy directive and used more extensively during his administration than is generally recognized.

But a look at 18 confirmed renditions from 1987 to 2001 that are documented in FBI, Government Accountability Office and other public records provides an immediate understanding in almost all those cases of why they were ordered, and of the value they held for law enforcement and national security purposes.

The available facts about the abduction in broad daylight of the cleric Nasr, who is still missing, do not provide such prima-facie reassurance -- especially when weighed against the now-apparent costs.

In the current climate of secrecy and fear, there will be no limits on such damaging behavior unless Bush and his new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, clearly establish them. If they do not, then Congress should. Even a war on terrorism needs to take into account the words spoken by Talleyrand two centuries ago: Above all, not too much zeal.