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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Panel Urges Return to CIA Past

WASHINGTON -- A private, blue-ribbon task force is urging policy-makers to consider allowing the CIA to resume sending out spies posing as American journalists or members of the clergy and lifting the ban on certain covert actions such as those designed to prevent terrorist attacks or support the overthrow of hostile regimes.

The Council on Foreign Relations panel also says the government should accept that CIA clandestine operations could require work with people with "unsavory reputations" who may have committed crimes, according to a draft of its report, which is to be released early next month.

The task force urged the agency's overseers in Congress and elsewhere to allow the CIA to engage in "risk-taking" in its covert activities, as long as its actions were legal under U.S. law.

The panel is suggesting that the embattled CIA should undertake more spying and covert activities abroad despite its "record of operating with questionable legality and judgment," the report says.

"No matter how controversial this might seem," said Richard N. Haas, the council's project director and a former senior member of the Bush National Security Council staff, "it is worth taking a look at without prejudice."

The task force included former Ford and Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; former Air Force chief of staff General Merrill McPeak; Morton Abramowitz, former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research; former Army chief of staff General Gordon Sullivan; and Paul Gray, former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The task force "hoped to stimulate a serious debate on these issues," Haas said.

Saying that certain potentially productive CIA clandestine activities are restricted by "legal and policy constraints," the panel said that "at a minimum ... a fresh look be taken at limits on the use of nonofficial 'covers' for hiding and protecting those involved ... and rules that can prohibit pre-emptive attacks on terrorists or support for individuals hoping to bring about a regime change in a hostile country."

Since the 1970s, the agency has been barred by executive order from recruiting American journalists, members of the clergy and Peace Corps volunteers as agents or using such cover for case officers in the field. The CIA has also been prohibited from engaging in an operation that could result in the assassination of the leader or top officials of a foreign government.

The Bush administration, for example, was talked out of allowing the CIA to undertake a covert action to kidnap then-Panamanian President Manuel Antonio Noriega because agency officials could not assure congressional critics that no one would be killed in the operation, one former intelligence official said. "The end result," this former official said, "was that we invaded with American military forces and captured Noriega with more lives lost."

Twenty-three Americans were killed and 322 were wounded in the operation.

The panel also recommended that "annual funding for the intelligence community should be declassified, as should information on basic elements of the intelligence program" -- a proposal that has been unsuccessfully pursued for the past several years in Congress.

The recommendations come as the CIA's Directorate of Operations, which handles clandestine activities, has drawn criticism and punishment for past failures, including the cases of confessed spy Aldrich Ames and embarrassing operations in Guatemala and France. These have led in recent years to a cutback in clandestine operations.

"Contrary to widespread impressions, one problem with the clandestine services has been a lack of initiative brought about by a fear of retroactive discipline and a lack of high-level support," the draft said.