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Too many spies, too little intelligence

Five years after the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy labors under the weight of a spy system as anachronistic and misdirected as that of the czars. There has not been a foreign policy event since that the president could not have understood better by reading the daily press than by relying on the CIA.

The United States can and should be the principal architect of a more stable, prosperous and just international order. In that evolving role, it is not the proven, highly qualified Anthony Lake's CIA nomination that merits intense scrutiny from the Senate, but the clashing, overburdened machinery of foreign policy, which is a major obstacle to an intelligent redefining of our role.

In the first place, far too much of our foreign policy dollar is spent to acquire "intelligence" _ that is, information. What handicaps our policymakers is not too little information but too much. It is simply impossible for a senior official to keep up with the unending flow of highly classified telegrams, secure telephone calls, raw intelligence and contradictory analytical reports that flood in from competing bureaucracies. The real challenge is to reduce this flow by separating the essential from the ephemeral, the important from the trivial, the factual from the fanciful.

To supply our country's basic informational needs, the first requirement is to have embassies and consulates in every country headed by capable ambassadors who enjoy the confidence of the president and other high Washington officials. The diplomatic and consular offices should be staffed by Foreign Service officers trained to a keen understanding of the host country's people, language and problems.

Second, there should be a central intelligence agency located in Washington with no policy or operational responsibilities, staffed by a corps of knowledgeable analysts.

And, as befits an open, democratic society, there should be interaction between the government and a network of university research centers whose independent analyses can refresh the thinking of policymakers who spend too much time inhaling one another's recycled conceits.

It is one of the primary tasks of an ambassador to report accurately and in depth on issues of consequence to Washington. This is not as difficult as it may first appear. Government officials, business people, politicians, religious and social leaders _ all want to understand the policy of the United States toward their country. It is the give-and-take of these discussions that enables the Americans to assess the capabilities and intentions of the host country.

By presidential order dating from early Cold War days, embassies must provide cover for CIA operatives, although that cover usually is deliberately transparent. Operating out of embassy precincts, CIA agents buy information from sources who often tailor it to what they believe the paymaster wants to hear. Or as the intelligence testing pioneer Alfred Binet once said, "Tell me what you are looking for, and I will tell you what you will find."

Only in a small minority of countries where authoritarian governments rule closed societies is clandestine collection of information necessary. The CIA's directorate of operations has, however, proved itselfnotoriously weak in penetrating these countries.

There is also a role for an intelligence agency in monitoring threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Instead of concentrating on the threats to our national security, the swollen bureaucracy of the CIA has imposed huge numbers of its operatives on U.S. embassies in countries with open societies. In many overseas posts, CIA officers outnumber legitimate diplomats. Just as the government does not require two weather bureaus, neither does it require two separate sets of information gatherers.

Information acquired through non-clandestine sources and without payment should be preferred; it is free of the risk of betrayal. Yet in the competition for the foreign policy dollar, overt diplomacy has come up the loser and covert activity the clear winner. Budget cuts have forced the State Department to close more than 30 embassies and consulates and shut down 25 percent of the U.S. Information Agency libraries around the world, while the budgets of intelligence agencies sail through Congress.

The Israeli statesman Abba Eban was surely correct when he recommended "a less deferential attitude to clandestine diplomacy in all free societies. These are more colorful than regular statecraft and far more productive of best-selling novels and investigative journalism, but they rarely affect the large currents of history. More work for foreign offices and less for intelligence agencies would give mankind a measure of relief."

Robert E. White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Special to the Los Angeles Times