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An espionage tale unfolds

The case against an alleged FBI mole shows loyalty may be harder to come by today.

By Brad Knickerbocker Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2001


Signals for the dead drops were made with white adhesive tape on a sign post near the wooden foot bridge in suburban Virginia. One vertical mark from "Ramon" meant "I am ready to receive your package." The Russians signaled back with one horizontal mark. When it seemed safe, plastic garbage bags filled with highly classified intelligence material were exchanged for bags full of old $100 bills, as much as $40,000 at a drop.

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Though told in dry bureaucratic lingo in a federal affidavit, the case against FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, alleged to have used his skills to become a master spy for Russia, reads like a John Le Carre novel: Times and dates set in code. Phony newspaper ads for a used car to signal a call to a phone booth. Diamonds and computer disks. Foreign bank accounts. The case makes plain just how hard it is to catch a spy who is cautious and precise, who is not greedy, and who above all is an expert insider skilled in the black arts of espionage and counterintelligence.

Yet it also shows how societal and cultural changes in this country may be making it harder to expect and enforce loyalty among FBI and CIA agents (just as it is in private corporations). And it illustrates how new technologies not only make it easier to obtain intelligence but also increase US vulnerability to foreign spying.

The phantom 'Ramon'

Part of the problem for the US was that, for the 15 years they worked together, Mr. Hanssen's Russian contacts knew him only as "B" or "Ramon" (the way he signed his letters to them), according to the FBI.

"The Russians didn't even know who he was," says William Webster, former head of both the FBI and the CIA who will lead a blue-ribbon panel looking for what went wrong and how to prevent future episodes. "The difficulty is that if a mole becomes established and doesn't have to have any physical contact with his handlers, it's very difficult to discover."

Ever since CIA agent Aldrich Ames was discovered to have been a Russian spy (he was caught in 1994), US intelligence had suspected another mole.

"Since [Ames's] arrest and trial, there had been a sense that somebody else was out there," says Francine Mathews, a former CIA analyst. "When certain operations start being betrayed, then you know somebody's betraying them."

US officials began "walking back the cat," as they say' seeing who on the inside might have had access to information known to have been passed to Russia. It was important to find out, because the presence of a mole was harming US intelligence efforts.

"It's pretty hard to recruit somebody [to be a US spy] when something like this comes along," says John Beam, a 27-year CIA veteran who now consults on security matters to corporations.

"Both sides play this dangle game in which they try to get in close," says Mr. Webster.

The FBI tries hard to instill loyalty and integrity in its 28,000 employees, and with just three known Russian spies over the years it's been largely successful. But in an age when most Americans change jobs and careers many times over a lifetime, that is becoming increasingly difficult.