We will find spies and we will prosecute them," said President Bush at his first press conference last week. But catching a spy red-handed, as the FBI apparently did with agent Robert Hanssen this month, is like trying to dazzle a master magician with his own magic trick. Something extraordinary is called for.
The FBI itself failed to detect Mr. Hanssen's alleged dealings with the Russians for 15 years. Was that the agency's fault or a result of the fact that he was a 27-year veteran specializing in counterintelligence?
Up to now, the FBI has been reluctant to regularly use one tool in its bag of tricks - lie detectors - to catch employees who breach national security.
The agency has generally put an individual's right to privacy and a need to maintain a climate of trust above the government's need to know.
Lax use of these polygraph machines at the FBI has been cited as one possible reason why agent Hanssen was allegedly able to remain undetected for so long. The FBI gives such tests to all applicants as a matter of course, but does not do routine testing of agents, in sharp contrast with the CIA.
Now, an investigation of the Hanssen matter by William Webster, who has been director of both the FBI and CIA, will take a detailed look at FBI policies. One recommendation might be that the agency conduct systematic polygraph tests of workers dealing with the most sensitive security information, while also setting up fair procedures to take into account the limitations and risks of such tests.
There are those rare persons who can fool (ex-spy Aldrich Ames, for one), and be fooled by, the machine. Regular tests might be difficult for those who signed up to serve at the FBI when taking such tests wasn't part of the bargain. And some current workers might see the tests as a constitutional invasion of privacy.
But used judiciously, polygraphs will be useful if they are not personally invasive and stick to examining the professional aspects of the job (as in "Did you spy for the Russians?").
Test questions can be refined with more focused questions, and operators giving the test should be fully trained. Mr. Webster, a former federal judge, will have to balance each of these issues, especially the constitutional ones.
Nothing can replace the practice of hiring honest agents, paying them well, and having wise managers who can judge a worker's truthfulness. But lie detectors are a useful tool, if applied fairly, in the spy-buster's box.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society