FBI taken to task in report on double-agent

Review of the Robert Hanssen spy case blames agency's lax security culture.

Since his arrest last year, it's been known that FBI agent Robert Hanssen betrayed dozens of America's priceless secrets for a couple of Rolexes and $643,000 in cash and diamonds.

But now, after the release of an in-depth report on the case, Congress is delving into how exactly the 27-year veteran was able to perpetrate such treason – often with minimal effort – and how to ensure it never happens again.

Mr. Hanssen, for instance, rarely had trouble gathering valuable information for his Soviet and Russian handlers. He told the report's authors, who interviewed him extensively, that sometimes he would simply "grab the first thing [he] could lay [his] hands on," and pass it along.

He easily skirted fire walls in the bureau's main database and did word searches for things like "drop sites" and "Hanssen" – to see if investigators were on to him, says the report, which was presented to senators yesterday.

He once spirited a top-secret book out of FBI headquarters, photographed its pages in his car, and returned, unnoticed. It's instances like this that led the report to fault the FBI for a "pervasive inattention to security."

Its chief author, former FBI and CIA Director William Webster, told senators yesterday: "The depth of Hanssen's betrayal is shocking, but equally shocking is the ease with which he was able to steal classified material."

Snoozing on the job?

The revelations are already leading to changes at the FBI, including plans for more polygraph tests, closer financial scrutiny of agents, and an improved computer system. The report outlines these and many other steps. Congress, too, may mandate reforms.

"I worry that when some of these wake-up-calls come, the institutional reflex hits the snooze button," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. He's sponsoring a bill that would, among other things, mandate a separate FBI security division, boost pay for the bureau's internal police force, and enhance whistleblower protection for employees.

But, overall, many observers say the outlook for FBI reform is good, mostly because Hanssen's case surprised so many agents, who had long assumed spies would never lurk in their close-knit ranks. "We all just thought that if you were a part of the FBI, you were a loyal American," says former agent Don Kidd. "There was too much trust in the system," he says. "Now that's going to change."

Relaxed security

Indeed, Hanssen took advantage of a culture that prizes information sharing as a means to cracking open criminal cases. Now, the report says, the bureau must develop an approach more like the CIA's, which involves hoarding and compartmentalizing knowledge. Yet in the post-Sept. 11 era, when "information sharing" is a major buzzword as government agencies attempt to work together to catch terrorists, this may prove difficult.

In the old, information-rich culture, Hanssen would frequently walk, uninvited, into meetings where top-secret information was discussed. Or he would return to offices he had worked in years before and gather data on double agents – unchallenged.

A picture also emerges of Hanssen as a tech-savvy computer user who downloaded "reams of highly classified information." Yet he rarely, if ever, had to hack his way into secure computer areas – because so much was readily available. "Any clerk in the bureau could come up with stuff on that system," he is quoted as saying. "It was pathetic."

He sometimes even searched for seemingly random names, including Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. And he once tried to get his handlers to buy Palm Pilot devices so he could beam them information. They balked.

Close shaves – many of them

In a culture that didn't police its own members, Hanssen eluded detection for years – despite some close calls. After one hiatus in spying activity, he tried to reestablish contact with his handlers in 1993. But Russian agents didn't recognize his pseudonym. And, following diplomatic procedures, Moscow lodged a formal complaint with the US government about a "disaffected FBI agent" contacting a Russian intelligence officer in a Washington parking garage. The bureau opened an inquiry – but never followed up. Meanwhile, Hanssen tracked the case on the FBI's computer system. The FBI even failed to listen to the suspicions of Hanssen's brother-in-law.

All these things could happen in a culture in which every employee is given "top secret" clearance, the report says. Even janitor contractors are given "secret" clearance, because information is stored in open areas in bureau offices. Furthermore, the report says, responsibility for security is spread out between eight departments. And, as of August 2001, just 174 employees – or 0.64 percent of the bureau's staff – were in security-related jobs.

It was a tip-off by a Russian double agent that led the FBI to investigate Hanssen. In February 2001, he was caught trying to leave classified documents at a drop point near his home.

Some say the FBI has learned its lesson. Even in a post-cold-war age, treason is still a danger, says former agent Kidd. "If somebody's got a lot of money, they figure they can buy a lot of secrets."

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