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.
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.
"The world is a different place today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and there are different social and peer pressures," says Lee Colwell, former deputy director of the FBI and now director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. "The FBI, like all other investigative and law-enforcement agencies, is confronted with the same problems that private organizations are. There's more competition for people's hearts and minds."
FBI agents, like journalists, tend to work independently, says Mr. Colwell. This makes it all the more important to build in an institutional identity from the first day on the job.
With this in mind, Webster says his main task in looking to prevent future in-house spying is "to minimize the risk without destroying morale or procedures."
Spying in age of Palm Pilots
While there no doubt will be spies and counterspies as long as there are nations with competing interests, the business of espionage is becoming more complicated in an age of hand-held computers and digital cameras. (In one communication with the Russians, the FBI says Hanssen discussed his need for a more-advanced Palm Pilot with Internet capability.)
"One thing's for sure. Technology is getting better at an ever-increasing rate," says Bruce Berkowitz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-author of "Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age."
Spying is a deadly serious business, but even though the exchanges were anonymous (at least as far as Ramon was concerned), communications developed a personal tone over the years.
About five years into the relationship, according to the FBI affidavit, the Russians wrote: "Dear Friend: Congratulations on your promotion. We wish you all the very best in your life and career. Thank you and good luck. Sincerely, Your Friends."
At one point, Ramon characterized a $40,000 cash payment as "too generous." Last March he mused: "One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I'd answer neither. I'd say insanely loyal. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers."
According to the affidavit, in the same letter (which he now signs "Ramon Garcia"), he reveals that "I decided on this course when I was 14 years old." Writing with evident humor and irony to his Russian contacts, he mentioned that he had read the autobiography of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole inside the British intelligence service.
The escape plan
Despite the precautions, the Russians' prime intelligence asset knew it was highly risky business. "Eventually, I would appreciate an escape plan," he wrote. "Nothing lasts forever." Hanssen always carried his passport, according to the FBI, presumably in order to leave the United States on short notice.
Still, he remained confident in his abilities to continue a long and lucrative relationship as FBI spy-catcher by day and Russian spy at night.
"So far I have judged the edge correctly," the FBI says he wrote. "Give me credit for that." Only for a few more months, as it turns out.
Last Sunday night, about to drop off another plastic trash bag filled with classified information at a park in Vienna, Va., Ramon was surrounded by armed FBI agents, read his legal rights, and driven away to jail.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society