AN UNSATISFACTORY argument has been going on over the new executive order Ronald Reagan is preparing on the organization and control of U.S. intelligence activities. At each critical leak the administration complains that its position is being unfairly presented and maligned. Yet it declines to explain or defend its drafts in public, even when the leaked language raises as many questions as it answers, and such official explanations as people without security clearances are permitted to hear tend to be murmured and cursory. We would not argue that the administration ought to do all its drafting and consulting with Congress in the noonday sun. The visible result of midnight toil, however, is the cloud of suspicion now gathering over the Reagan order.
It has been recognized in recent years, painfully, that intelligence is one of the principal areas in which the demands of national security and individual liberty compete. The Ford and Carter intelligence executive orders, proceeding from a tumultuous review of cold-war intelligence activities, were strenuous political exercises that corrected what was widely perceived to be an imbalance on the national security side. Did they overcorrect? Mr. Reagan thinks so and has been saying so for years. It would be startling if his executive order, when it finally emerges, did not reflect this judgment.
It is not conceivable, however, that he is going all the way back to the pre-Ford-Carter days. He has accepted the basic reform, which was to grant that the executive is accountable to Congress in matters of intelligence as in all other matters. The draft now being discussed is not an exclusive executive-branch product. It is being worked out with the responsible congressional intelligence committees and in the expectation of a continuing process of congressional oversight. Some of the overseers share Mr. Reagan's judgment that Mr. Ford, and especially Mr. Carter, overcorrected. Some don't.
Much of the public flurry has centered on suspicions, denied by responsible officials, that the president wants to put the CIA back into what is loosely called domestic spying. This raises the specter of a secret police denying the civil rights and liberties of blameless citizens, and if it is any part of what Mr. Reagan is trying to do, then it must be fought at every hedgerow. It seems likely at the least that the president wants to expand the CIA's powers in certain gray areas, such as surveillance of American citizens abroad thought to have terrorist links. It is in the argument over the terms of these activities that the hardest questions are posed.
One still hears from Capitol Hill the occasional lament that intelligence activities are controlled by executive orders, which are written primarily by presidents and altered by them at their initiative. That should not be a lament but a confession. For years Congress tried to write charters, permanent laws laying down the missions and powers of the intelligence agencies. It has given up trying. Its failure in that task gives Congress a special obligation to press its views forcefully during the consultations this administration is conducting on its new order.