Congressman aims to close down the CIA: The intelligence agency is under severe pressure after the Ames affair, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

STILL REELING from the Aldrich Ames disaster, a beleaguered CIA is bracing itself for a torrid and painful summer, featuring an unprecedented grilling in Congress, probable budget cuts and greater outside supervision - not to mention serious study of whether the 47-year-old intelligence agency should not simply be abolished altogether.

The first shots in what will be a savage political and bureaucratic battle were fired last week, when President Clinton signed an executive order creating a National Counterintelligence Policy Board. Its job will be to improve co-ordination and thus reduce the risk of a repeat of the Ames case, which was unearthed in February and is acknowledged to be the most damaging spy scandal ever to hit the US.

By having representatives of both the CIA and FBI on the new body, the White House hopes to achieve an organisational solution to the turf wars between the two agencies which have long bedevilled US spycatching and which helped Ames to escape detection for so long. But the move is unlikely to satisfy the growing band of CIA critics on Capitol Hill, led by the Arizona Democrat Dennis DeConcini, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Pointing to a string of spy fiascos pre-dating the Ames affair, Mr DeConcini has tabled a bill giving the FBI statutory control of all counter-intelligence within the United States. That proposal is arguably the least of the problems facing the CIA Director, James Woolsey, over the next two months.

Some are of Mr Woolsey's making, stemming from a domineering style and a refusal to punish operatives involved in the Ames case - seen by agency foes as one more example of the CIA blindly protecting its own. Others go deeper. They range from the small attention paid to the CIA by the Clinton administration compared with its Republican predeccessors, to basic questions about the role of an intelligence service in the post-Cold War world. 'There is no sense of mission,' says Richard Helms, CIA director in the mid-Seventies.

In a stream of appearances before Congressional panels and on television, Mr Woolsey has disputed this thesis, listing the changed priorities of preventing nuclear proliferation and fighting drug traffickers and international crime. Espionage, he has said, 'is harder not easier' after the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed Russian and Soviet business is reckoned to absorb barely a tenth of CIA energies today, compared with 40 per cent only three years ago. For opponents, however, that merely strengthens the argument for drastic surgery.

In 1993 Mr Woolsey successfully fended off pressure for deep inroads into a reported dollars 28bn ( pounds 19bn) intelligence budget (spent less on the CIA proper than on the National Security Agency's electronic eavesdropping and the ultra- secret National Reconnaissance Office which runs US spy satellites). But that was before Aldrich Ames was uncovered.

Fewer than ever of the CIA's congressional overseers will be impressed with Mr Woolsey's claim last year that cuts already made have 'decimated' the CIA's ability to do its job. According to experts, he will be hard pressed to avoid cuts equal to those imposed on defence spending in general. And some would go further still.

The Ames case, whose implication is that the US would have been better off without any intelligence operations against Moscow for the last 10 years, has given new momentum to calls by the New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan - now head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee - that the CIA be disbanded.

Under the Moynihan proposal, the agency's analysis and research sections would be transferred to the State Department, while its clandestine and paramilitary functions would go to the Defence Department. Thus far Mr Moynihan has been a lone voice, but no longer.

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