IF THE Carter Administration has its way, America's intelligence community will seize the recent resurgence of military fervor to wriggle out of unwelcome Congressional and public restraints. Carter paints the effort to clothe intelligence agencies in responsibility as a straitjacket that will hamper our intrepid intelligence-gatherers from carrying out their duties in an era of deepening danger to American security. The president is now pushing not just to limit Congressional oversight of intelligence activities but to legalize and codify a whole range of "acceptable" practices that threaten both domestic civil rights and foreign sovereignty.
After Congressional reports of the mid-'70s showed exhaustively how an unrestrained intelligence community not only repeatedly violated American and foreign freedoms but also failed to deliver good information to American leaders, no one could doubt the need to charter the various intelligence agencies. But in today's over-charged atmosphere, Carter has decided that "flexibility" must come first, accountability second. He is pressing senators to pass charters that would allow intelligence agencies to use journalists, academics, and clergymen as agents, and reduce the number of types of covert operations agencies that must report to oversight committees.
Several senators, including Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), have proposed making it a crime for officials to disclose the names of intelligence agents or for private persons, including journalists, to do so with intent to harm intelligence activities. Senate sources say there is even support for explicitly permitting agents to burglarize Americans' homes or to open their mail if they are suspected to have "positive intelligence" about foreign governments.
Particularly disturbing is Carter's call to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from some provisions of the (1974) Freedom of Information Act, to allow citizens to request information only about themselves. Revelations of CIA misconduct have come not from such personal inquiries but from the general requests the act permits, and without them the public will be even less able to find out whether its intelligence agencies are obeying the law.
If the Senate thinks before it acts it will reject Carter's requests and continue to seek effective, responsible restraints on intelligence activities. Intelligence agencies have a legitimate need to gather information, but all covert operations should be subjected to rigorous oversight by Congress, and the public should have the legal right to receive information about intelligence activities.
What politicians in Congress and the White House do today to exploit the current mood of public frustration will otherwise return to haunt American foreign policy for decades to come, the way the mistakes of the past decades have created our current predicament. A more flexible intelligence policy will mean not more information for our leaders but more headaches; more covert operations means more Irans.