IT WAS DISQUIETING to learn the other day that a CIA-led task force has proposed removing many current restraints on collecting information on Americans -- on Americans, moreover, neither accused nor suspected of committing any crime. But the disclosure, in a leak, did seem to have a positive effect. The agency's deputy director, Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, promptly held a press conference and disavowed key elements of the draft proposal. He then reaffirmed his opposition before the Senate Intelligence Committee, reassuring the oversight group that "the job of the CIA is abroad" and describing the leaked report as merely a "third-level working staff paper."
Whatever its "level," the draft appears to have originated among political and intelligence circles either unfamiliar or unhappy with the process of executive-congressional-agency consultation by which intelligence guidelines have been fashioned through the Ford and Carter years. Adm. Inman has been a valuable participant in that process, and that is presumably why he reacted to the leak at he did. He is well placed to tell whether there is any merit to the complaints, amounting to an article of faith in some conservative quarters, that an excessive concern for the niceties of civil liberties has shackled the nation's intelligence services.
In fact, most Americans do appear to agree that the intelligence agencies should be strengthened. The relevant question is how. The leaked proposal represents an unfounded claim to set the CIA up in the field of domestic counterintelligence. It raises the spector of the 1980s' anti-terrorist equivalent of "Operation Chaos," the CIA's justly criticized compilation of files on 300,000 allegedly anti-war persons and organizations during the Vietnam War. Only recently, furthermore, FBI Director William Webster assured Congress that his agency did not need to have the existing FBI guidelines relaxed in order to deal effectively with terrorists and foreign agents in this country.
CIA professionals do have an interest in continuing their collective recovery from years of past scandals, personnel upheavals and altered mandates. But surely the CIA has more important work than heading back in the direction of "Operation Chaos." CIA counterintelligence and anti-terrorist operations abroad need to be strengthened, and collection and analysis procedures need to be improved to provide more reliable intelligence to the president and his chief foreign policy advisers.
Fortunately, Adm. Inman left no doubt of his resistance, and of the resistance of CIA Director William J. Casey, to the proposals in the staff paper. The admiral had no hesitation in arguing that certain constraints governing the actions of intelligence agents in this field might have to be reviewed in order to deal with specific terrorist threats. But he put the CIA's "old boys," and others so minded, on notice that he does not support an attempt to restore the good old days of widespread surveillance, surreptitious entries, infiltration of suspected organizations and other covert operations -- at least not in the United States. He thought it would not be "likely" that the final draft of any new executive order governing CIA behavior would sanction such practices.
The admiral displayed admirable and, one hopes, contagious sensitivity to civil liberties concerns. At the same time, he complained that the draft report had been leaked by someone from the "cottage industry" of intelligence agency oversight that has "grown up" in Congress and in the Justice Department. One can understand how an intelligence official might feel about leaks. Yet Adm. Inman and other thoughtful professionals have reason to know that in recent years they have often been better served by "cottage industry" overseers than by some of the CIA's own complacent and nostalgic hands. The wish-list draft that circulated last week suggests that some people have not properly absorbed the experience of the past decade.