Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Tasks for American Spies

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Tasks for American Spies

Article excerpt

WHAT'S a spy to do when there's nobody to spy on? This is the predicament that faces the American CIA (as well as the the formerly Soviet KGB).

As our spies begin the New Year looking for work, it is useful to reject some things that have been suggested.

They ought not to get into gossip. Robert M. Gates, the new director of the CIA, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would like to enliven CIA reporting with the kind of thing one hears at cocktail parties.

The president is the most important recipient of this reporting, and most presidents like titillating morsels about the private lives of their foreign counterparts. But these rarely have much relevance to the national security of the United States. Collecting such tidbits seems beneath the dignity of the world's best intelligence service.

The CIA ought not to compete with news services. In congressional testimony, Mr. Gates seemed to take it as an affront that policymakers get their news from CNN before the CIA. He ought to rejoice that by reporting so much, CNN is relieving the CIA of that burden. The CIA ought to use its resources to learn things that CNN cannot know.

Finally, the CIA ought not to get into the kind of economic intelligence that is a euphemism for industrial espionage. Macroeconomic intelligence (for example, the relative importance of the components of China's gross national product) is a legitimate intelligence collection target. Industrial espionage (new tech- nologies of European or Japanese companies) is not.

Yet there is growing pressure for the CIA and the intelligence community generally to concern themselves with these matters. The community, to its credit, is resisting. The argument for such involvement is that this is how to keep America competitive, that other countries are spying on our businesses and we need to spy on their businesses in self-defense. Hard times at home and accompanying protectionist temptations in trade policy add political appeal to the argument.

It is a fallacious argument put forth to support a thoroughly bad idea. The US government has no business engaging in the clandestine collection of this kind of information. …

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