The Old Boys' Club Fights For Its Existence

Protecting and promoting incompetents is not unique to the CIA. In the military, the practice is known as "pass the trash." But judging from the details that emerged last week in the case of Aldrich Ames, the now infamous Soviet mole, the CIA's clubby Operations Directorate acted more like a mutual protection association than a spy agency.

Pegged by his bosses as a boozer who used CIA safe houses for sex, Ames nonetheless was promoted to a highly sensitive counterintelligence post in 1984. The FBI observed him meeting secretly with a Russian contact in 1986, but the CIA ignored the warning. He was transferred instead to Rome, where he was so drunk that the Italian police once fished him out of a gutter. Though he was ranked 197 out of 200 case officers in his division, Ames was put on a promotion panel to pass judgment on his colleagues (he also likely passed along their identities to the Soviets). In 1990, a female case officer alerted her bosses that Ames seemed suspiciously flush with cash. Still, he slipped by a lie-detector test because no one had told the polygrapher he was under suspicion. By the time the FBI finally caught him last winter, he had blown scores of CIA operations to the Soviets, resulting in 10 CIA agents executed by the KGB. Yet he had received not a single reprimand in his 32-year career. The excuse? His superiors thought he was a "good briefer."

It was a "systemic failure," conceded CIA Director R. James Woolsey last week, and the consequences for the CIA were "horrid." But when it came to disciplining individuals for the worst CIA failure since the Bay of Pigs invasion, Woolsey apparently decided to pass the trash. Of the 23 top officials criticized in a scathing report by the CIA's own inspector general, Woolsey reprimanded 11. None was fired, and seven of the 11 were already retired.

The mild wrist slap sends a "bad signal" and means "business as usual," charged Sen. Dennis DeConcini, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. THE C.I.A. CLUB NEEDS A CLEANUP, scolded a New York Times editorial. The criticism was not limited to outsiders. Younger ease officers, fed up with the old-boy culture, privately groused. "In any other profession, if the guy at the top doesn't get the job done, he takes the fall," said one. "What message does this send to people in the ranks?" In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Woolsey insisted that he was taking steps to clean up what he called "the dark side" of the agency (page 34). It may be too late. Congress has created a special commission to re-examine the purpose, and the existence, of the CIA. "The place just needs a total overhaul," said Sen. Arlen Specter.

With the cold war over, lawmakers are wondering what return the taxpayers are getting on their $28 billion-a-year investment in intelligence. The CIA failed to predict Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait or the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Even when the agency's spies did spot trouble ahead, the message did not always make its way to policy-makers. CIA analyses were once regarded as so long and turgid that they often went unread by their customers in the White House and national-security staff. The agency's huge investment in technology (price of one spy satellite: $1 billion) now often seems misspent. Spy-in-the-sky cameras focused to look down Soviet missile silos were not wide-angle enough to photograph the desert battlefields of the gulf war. CIA eavesdroppers could not intercept the radio transmissions used by Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid; his radios, intelligence officials explained, were too "low tech."

Old spooks from the CIA's heyday in the 1950s, meanwhile, complain about a blander new breed. The CIA has signed on a large number of Mormons, who are squeaky clean and have language and recruiting experience from proselytizing on their "missions" for the Mormon Church. Some old hands grumble that Mormons manage less well in the CIA's traditional recruiting grounds, the seedy bars and fleshpots of the Third World.

Such mutterings need to be put in perspective. The CIA's record in the cold war also included numerous failures. Russia and China were termed "denied areas" because of the difficulty of recruiting foreign agents there. In the 1950s, the CIA never had more than one or two spies in the Kremlin, After the fall of the Berlin wall, the CIA was embarrassed to learn that almost all its East German agents had been "doubled" by the Communists. Ironically, the CIA today probably has more agents in the capitals of its enemies than it ever did during the cold war. The CIA has a "deep-penetration agent" in the North Korean government, NEWSWEEK has learned, as well as agents in the ruling circles in Iran and Iraq. The Kremlin is now thoroughly penetrated: paid less than they were by the KGB, Russian intelligence agents are currently easier to buy.

But there is little doubt the intelligence establishment has grown too fat. The CIA is only one of 12 military and civilian agencies collecting information. The result is endless overlap, often producing conflicting reports. Some congress-men, most notably Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, are beginning to ask: if the United States has a State Department (annual cost: $2 billion) legally collecting and analyzing intelligence around the world, why does it need a CIA (annual cost: $3 billion) to steal secrets?

The CIA's defenders point out that it's still useful to have skills normally lacking in diplomats, like breaking into foreign embassies to steal code books. They also note that the CIA has a better reputation for independence. The Pentagon is notorious for inflating threats to justify higher budgets. In the 1950s, the air force created a wholly fictional "bomber gap" and "missile gap" in favor of the Soviet Union -- finally debunked by the CIA's U-2 spy plane in 1960. The State Department is inevitably influenced by the policy views of its upper echelon. The CIA works only for the president. While that allegiance sometimes skews intelligence--the CIA became overly hard-line under Reagan --for the most part, agency analysts have called their shots honestly, if not always correctly.

Director Woolsey's hardest task is to change the old-boy culture of the agency. Because the CIA is secret, it is also insular; because it is elitist, it is also unaccountable. A trial lawyer in private life, Woolsey has been a zealous advocate for the CIA, too unyielding in the view of congressional leaders like De-Concini. At the same time, he is not entirely trusted by the old boys, who view an outsider as--at best--an "asset" to be manipulated but not trusted. Woolsey is a devotee of a game called Crud, a form of pool conceived by the Royal Canadian Air Force, played by jostling and throwing elbows while trying to line up a finesse shot. Useful training, perhaps, for the job ahead.