- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

So Robert Phillip Hanssen has been a mole within the FBI for 15 years, at the top of our critical anti-spy unit where he compromised more sensitive information than any previous U.S. agent. The FBI's answer is a commission and business as usual. Fortunately, Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, will hold a hearing today, hopefully to give the matter the attention it deserves.

Contrary to those on the right, it is not the Russians. After all, one of our spies on them uncovered Mr. Hanssen. The fact is, the U.S. government is not serious about its internal security program. The sinews of the system are the initial employment background investigation and the periodic reinvestigation, both nominally under the control of the Office of Personnel Management. No secrets are more important than those of the Department of Defense. Yet, during my early tenure, DOD simply refused to undertake more than a cursory initial investigation of military officers or to perform reinvestigations at all for military or civilian officers. Every DOD official refused to enforce the OPM requirements until a visit to the secretary himself, at the time Caspar Weinberger, produced the necessary order. Even then, they dragged their feet for years.

Almost every other government agency was as lax, for two main reasons. As Secretary of State Henry Simpson said in 1929, when he closed his code-breaking unit, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." It is not just gentlemen. Civil servants would rather mangle their right hand in a shredder than imply that any colleague might be doing something wrong (since he may retaliate); so a reinvestigation of someone already on board is just not done. The second reason is that, when budgets are tight, investigations with few line officers serious about it are easy to cut. With a world war won, the War Department actually closed its counterintelligence unit in 1920. Two years before World War II, William Bullitt absolutely opposed using spies against the Soviet Union, because the left-leaning ambassador told State that honesty was the best policy with communists. With the close of the Cold War, Bill Clinton's nuclear energy secretary changed its "classification office" to the "declassification office." The culture is, Why worry?

But commission chairman William Webster said Mr. Hanssen was "an unusually skillful person who knew all about the procedures the bureau had in place" and he "took the appropriate steps not to trip" the alarms. With all respect, there were few any fool could not avoid. According to one news report, Mr. Hanssen never had undergone a polygraph examination. The FBI finds them not effective because top CIA spy Aldrich Ames fooled two such exams. But the CIA concluded they had not performed them often enough and began regular re-tests in 1993. Yet, polygraphs are almost besides the point. The normal reinvestigation procedures use only financial and personal material. The disgrace was that Mr. Hanssen never received even that level of scrutiny.

After every spy is caught usually by foreigners, not U.S. agents the appropriate agency head is as shocked as FBI Director Louis Freeh at the "betrayal of trust" and the surprise over how he escaped the "personnel security procedures in place." Congress huffs and puffs. But nothing happens, as the numbers attest: Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff uncovered in 2000, CIA officer Harold James Nicholson 1996, CIA's Ames (the equal of Mr. Hanssen in infamy) in 1994, State's Felix Bloch in 1989, National Security Agency specialist Ronald W. Pelton in 1986, Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard in 1986, CIA officer Edward Lee Howard in 1985, and the incredible Navy Walkers John, Michael and Arthur, and Jerry A. Whitworth just going back to 1985. One can be sure there are more who remain undetected.

Although the Venoma papers make it clear that many communists did in fact spy for the Soviet Union, the reaction to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's zeal in pursuing them was so severe that critics demanded a civilian agency supervise the policy to avoid abuse. That is how OPM won the assignment. When passions subsided, OPM delegated much responsibility back to the agencies, while supposedly retaining control of policy. By 1981, when Ronald Reagan entered office, this division of policy and administration had resulted in a serious decline in the reliability of the investigations product. Reform was fought all the way. In 1984, a congressional rider sought by a defense bureaucrat delayed reforms for a year. Only the seriousness of the Walker case thereafter allowed the policies to go forward.

The history of the U.S. government screening its own employees has been abysmal. Few take it seriously. The new president and Congress must insist that personnel security be given the priority it deserves or the Hanssens, Ameses and Walkers will continue to compromise the nation's most important secrets. And the only ones to blame will be ourselves.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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