Report: Spy Gained From FBI Laxity
Being 'Mediocre' Didn't Hold Hanssen Back, Justice Dept. Inspector General Says
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2003; Page A04
Convicted FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen, who provided U.S. secrets to the Soviets and Russians for more than 20 years, was a reckless and "mediocre agent" who succeeded because of the bureau's poor oversight and lax security, according to a review of the case released yesterday.
The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that Hanssen, who compromised some of the United States' most vital intelligence and military secrets, repeatedly advanced on the career ladder despite weak performance, poor management skills and awkward relations with colleagues. One supervisor called him the "strangest person" he had ever encountered at the FBI.
The inspector general's findings, outlined in a 31-page executive summary, appear to differ sharply from previous characterizations by many Justice Department and FBI officials, who had sought to portray Hanssen as a savvy and experienced counterintelligence agent who outwitted pursuers.
Instead, the report depicts Hanssen as an erratic and bumbling spy who managed to avoid capture primarily because the FBI was not paying attention. In fact, Hanssen committed numerous security breaches that went unpunished and, for the most part, unnoticed, including disclosing classified information to a Soviet defector in one case and to the British intelligence service in another, the report said.
"Although Hanssen escaped detection for more than 20 years, this was not because he was a 'master spy,' " the report said. "Hanssen escaped detection not because he was extraordinarily clever and crafty, but because of long-standing systemic problems in the FBI's counterintelligence program and a deeply flawed FBI internal security program."
The inspector general's investigation, which was begun shortly after Hanssen was arrested in February 2001, is the latest in a series of internal and public reviews of the case, which is considered one of the most significant espionage breaches in U.S. history and which prompted an avalanche of promised reforms at the FBI.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in a statement yesterday that "the FBI has already implemented many new measures" aimed at improving security and "has reformed and refined its capabilities to detect and deter those who would betray the United States." FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said, "The FBI has built, and continues to improve, a comprehensive, centralized and forward-looking security program."
But the report found that the FBI has still failed to address many of the systemic problems that allowed Hanssen to spy during five presidential administrations, including a computer system that "remains insecure and vulnerable to misuse."
"Many of the traditional tools of internal security are still not really in place," said Paul G. Gardephe, a former federal prosecutor who led the team that produced yesterday's report. "It's been more than two years since Hanssen was arrested, and the reality is that a lot of this stuff still hasn't been done yet."
FBI officials said a new computer system set to launch in December will vastly improve information security. They also said that numerous other steps -- from the implementation of random polygraphs to the creation of a Security Division -- have significantly increased the chances of detecting espionage and other security breaches.
Hanssen began his spying career in 1979 and is blamed for giving the Soviets information leading to the deaths of three people who spied for the United States in exchange for $600,000 in cash and diamonds and promises for about $800,000 more. He pleaded guilty to espionage charges and was sentenced to life in prison in May 2002.
The summary contains only a small part of the inspector general's report, which took more than two years to complete and totals 674 pages in the most highly classified version. A less sensitive 383-page version has been more widely circulated in the intelligence community. Neither version will be released publicly.
The report's findings are somewhat similar to the conclusions of a commission headed by former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster, which said in April 2002 that Hanssen's success was partly the result of a "pervasive inattention to security." FBI officials said yesterday that an internal damage assessment of Hanssen's activities had been completed, but declined to provide details.
The inspector general's report, based on more than 200 interviews and 368,000 pages of documents, said the FBI repeatedly refused to consider the possibility that one of its employees was responsible for a security breach. After CIA spy Aldrich H. Ames and others were arrested in the early 1990s, authorities in the intelligence community remained convinced that another "mole" must be responsible for serious intelligence losses to the Soviet Union.
In searching for a mole, however, the bureau focused almost exclusively on the CIA, eventually pursuing and -- according to new details released yesterday -- nearly charging an innocent CIA officer, despite top brass's serious doubts. Hanssen's espionage was discovered in late 2000 through an audiotape that many FBI investigators had suspected would include the voice of the CIA officer. Instead, Hanssen's voice was on the tape.
"This report proves what we've been saying all along: that they were wearing their institutional blinders," said John Moustakas, a Washington attorney who represented the wronged CIA officer. "They couldn't conceive of the notion that it could be one of them. . . . All of their spin about Hanssen being a master spy was nonsense to cover up their own incompetence."
During his 25-year FBI career, Hanssen was never given a polygraph test and was the subject of only one cursory background investigation.
Among the security lapses by Hanssen noted in the report was a 1987 incident in which he disclosed classified information to a Soviet defector during a debriefing; a similar unauthorized disclosure to the British intelligence service in the early 1990s; and an incident in which he hacked into the computer system to access Soviet counterintelligence documents, then reported himself under the guise of performing a security check.
Hanssen's brother-in-law, an FBI agent in Chicago, told superiors in 1990 that Hanssen's wife had found an unexplained $5,000 in his dresser drawer; Hanssen's supervisor dismissed a request for action.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent critic of the FBI, said the Hanssen case demonstrated "arrogance, a lackadaisical attitude about internal security and a mindset that the FBI could not be penetrated."
The inspector general report's authors concluded that "what is needed at the FBI is a wholesale change in mindset and approach to internal security. The FBI must recognize and take steps to account for the fact that FBI employees have committed espionage in the past and will likely do so in the future."
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