In 1991, the FBI says, it learned through a wiretap that one of its key intelligence informants, a Chinese-American woman named Katrina Leung, was giving classified information to the Chinese.
The FBI alerted Mrs. Leung's handler, James Smith. He asked her to take a lie-detector test. When she refused, the government says, Mr. Smith told his bosses in Washington that she had taken the test and passed. In 19 evaluation reports he filed later, Smith reported that Leung was a reliable informant.
Smith, who ran the FBI Chinese counterintelligence squad in Los Angeles, and another FBI agent were also allegedly having affairs with Leung. The government claims she removed and copied sensitive classified documents from Smith's briefcase, sending them on to Chinese intelligence.
The allegations are contained in federal indictments of Smith and Leung last week. He is charged with gross negligence and wire fraud; she, with illegally copying and keeping national-defense documents. Lawyers for the two deny the charges.
An FBI intelligence "asset" is a covert operative, usually in the United States, who provides detailed information about the politics and plans of foreign governments, organizations, or terrorist groups. FBI counterintelligence often pays them big bucks - Leung got $1.7 million over two decades. She traveled often to China and met with senior officials there.
But it's against the FBI's rules for handlers to develop sexual relationships with such informants. Agents also aren't supposed to meet alone with "assets" to deliver payment, but the FBI for some reason waived that rule in Leung's case.
The embarrassed Bureau is now scrambling to review its thousands of intelligence sources to double-check their reliability. It's revisiting old China-related investigations and working to identify and fix management lapses.
Smith is the third FBI counterintelligence agent since 1984 to be charged with crimes related to spying. The recent case of Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia, also brought about needed internal reforms.
But a more systemic issue looms, and that's the larger problem with the FBI's culture. When serious mistakes occur - whether it's the mishandling of the Waco incident; the shootings at Ruby Ridge, Idaho; the cozy relationship between the Boston FBI office and local mob informants; bad testimony from the FBI lab; or espionage cases - senior officials rarely seem to pay a price. That record has some questioning whether the Bureau is up to the task in the war on terrorism.
Congress should undertake a thorough review of the FBI's counterintelligence practices - behind closed doors if necessary. Lawmakers must ensure that management is tightened and that managers are held accountable for failures on their watch.