THE NEWS about the Reagan intelligence order now being worked up is that the administration has been listening privately to those legislators and others whose concern is that individual liberties may be unnecessarily abridged by the asserted imperatives of national security. It is even reported to have made certain changes as a result. Exactly what these changes are won't be known, however, until the final text of the president's executive order on U.S. intelligence activities is released. That's expected any day now.
It's an odd business. The administration does deserve credit for consulting Congress. Strictly speaking, it didn't have to. Congress, which has failed in five years to write legislation controlling the intelligence agencies, has abandoned the field to White House executive orders. As it happened, however, when the administration did consult, it did so on terms preventing participating legislators from going public with their alarms. This created what is for the public a double bind. Not only has the administration never detailed and defended in public its views on a most sensitive and important subject. It was also able to silence interested legislators in return for giving them the chance to present their views.
It will not be surprising if the new executive order alters the balance between individual liberties and national-security prerogatives. Jimmy Carter may have come to the White House promising to leash the CIA. Ronald Reagan promised to unleash it. We had supported the Carter effort, which followed a pioneering effort by Gerald Ford, to bring the intelligence agencies under explicit presidential control and to make them accountable to Congress. We do not feel Mr. Reagan has made a strong case for a major revision of the Ford-Carter terms.
As the third draft of the Reagan order turned into the fourth and evidently final one, the CIA still had a certain new license for conducting some of the activities that go under the name of domestic spying, and for doing some parts of its work under reduced constraints. The fact that the processes of consultation and internal discussion were still going on as late as this week offered what prospect there was that the CIA will not be put back in the path of the temptations to which it succumbed in earlier years.