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Scrutiny intensified after tactical missteps

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh announced the arrest with much fanfare during a February 2001 press conference at FBI headquarters - the bureau had taken into custody one of its own as a spy for Russia and the Soviet Union.

Special Agent Robert Hanssen, a veteran FBI counterspy, had for more than 20 years given Moscow hundreds of top-secret U.S. intelligence documents that jeopardized America's national security, including the names of at least three KGB officers who secretly were working with U.S. intelligence, two of whom were executed later as U.S. spies.

Working in an environment in which FBI senior executives paid little attention to significant deficiencies in the bureau's internal security system, Hanssen - who used the code name "Ramon" - collected a paltry sum of $600,000 in cash and diamonds from his Russian handlers, much of which the married father of six spent on a stripper.

The Hanssen story is just one of several controversies at the FBI in which the planning, tactics and procedures used by field agents and their managers have come under question.

Unable to explain how Hanssen had operated as a spy for two decades while remaining undetected, Mr. Freeh nonetheless praised the work of federal authorities who ultimately caught the longtime agent red-handed as he tried to leave a package of classified documents for his Russian counterparts at a "dead drop" in Foxstone Park in Northern Virginia, within walking distance of Hanssen's Vienna home.

A 13-month investigation by a seven-member commission headed by former CIA and FBI Director William H. Webster later concluded that investigators looking for a "mole" inside the U.S. intelligence community were hampered by a fragmented and uncoordinated internal security system and that FBI executives even ignored warnings that Hanssen was a spy.

The commission also found that the FBI never questioned Hanssen when he requested that the hard drive on his computer be fixed and they found a private software package used to hack into computer systems. No questions were raised when officials at the Russian Embassy in the District lodged a formal complaint in the mid-1990s, saying Hanssen had attempted to hand over secret information.

Mr. Freeh asked Mr. Webster to review the FBI's security programs shortly after the Hanssen arrest. He also ordered sweeping changes in internal security measures, including expanded use of polygraph tests for FBI employees.

The request came after weaknesses in the FBI's internal security system had been exposed by the arrest, including a policy of not requiring regular polygraph tests for its agents.

Hanssen, like most veteran agents at the time, never underwent routine polygraph examinations that might have detected his activities sooner. FBI officials also missed numerous telltale signs of Hanssen's spying activities, including his extravagant spending habits.

Now 64, Hanssen was charged with giving secret national security information to Russia and the former Soviet Union. As part of a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

His spying has been described as one of the most damaging intelligence failures in U.S. history.

Memo confusion

The Hanssen case was not the first time that Mr. Freeh, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who gave up a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court in New York to accept the FBI director's job in 1993, was at the center of a controversy. Nor was it the last time the bureau found itself in that position.

In May 2002, Minneapolis FBI agents who unsuccessfully had sought a warrant nine months earlier to search flight school student Zacarias Moussaoui's computer did so after learning that FBI agents in Phoenix had outlined similar concerns about other suspected terrorists in Arizona three weeks earlier.

Despite information that suspected al Qaeda terrorists were involved in flight training in two states, the warrant request - coming a month before the Sept. 11 attacks during the Freeh regime - was rejected by FBI officials in Washington for a lack of probable cause.

That decision, according to government sources, so infuriated the Minneapolis agents that they joked among themselves that Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda network planned and carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, must have planted a mole inside the FBI.

The Minneapolis agents had arrested Moussaoui in August 2001 after questions surfaced about his flight training. The French-Moroccan has since been convicted in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed at least 3,000 people.

The Phoenix memo, by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams, alerted bureau executives in Washington in July 2001 that followers of Osama bin Laden were training at an Arizona flight school. He said eight suspected terrorists were training, but senior FBI officials did not follow up on the information.

The decision to reject the Moussaoui warrant was criticized in a 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III from Minneapolis agent Coleen Rowley, who said senior FBI officials created a "roadblock" to derail the probe. She said the agents were so frustrated by the lack of response by senior officials that they sought to bypass the chain of command and directly notify the CIA - but were reprimanded.

In June 2005, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General questioned in a 371-page report the handling by FBI supervisors of the Phoenix e-mail and the memo from FBI agents in Minneapolis.

The IG's report said Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the hijackers who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center, traveled to San Diego after arriving in the United States in January 2000 and met with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who had been under investigation by the FBI for two years.

The report said the two men rented a room from an FBI informant whose "handler" was an agent in San Diego and who remained as an FBI "asset" until the agent retired in 2002. The unidentified informant declined to be interviewed for the report.

According to the report, the FBI did not discover that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the United States until "shortly before the September 11 attacks," but a follow-up investigation was done "without much urgency or priority."

It said that although FBI agents in New York wanted to pursue information they received in August 2001 that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the city, they were "specifically prohibited from doing so" by supervisors concerned about keeping criminal and intelligence investigations separate - which the report described as "the wall."

Ruby Ridge

In November 2002, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General reported that senior FBI executives received cash bonuses and promotions while under investigation for suspected misconduct during an internal bureau review of the August 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that claimed three lives.

The Inspector General's Office said the bonuses and promotions went to former FBI Deputy Director Larry A. Potts, who later was demoted and suspended for improper oversight of the deadly siege, and E. Michael Kahoe, a senior FBI executive sentenced to prison for destroying a critical Ruby Ridge document.

Other cash awards and promotions went to Danny O. Coulson, former deputy assistant director who worked for Mr. Potts; and three senior FBI executives - Charles Mathews, Robert E. Walsh and Van A. Harp - accused of not conducting proper after-the-fact investigations to determine what happened at Ruby Ridge.

In the Ruby Ridge case, Vicki Weaver was killed Aug. 22, 1992, by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi acting on shoot-on-sight orders, although it has never been determined who authorized a change in the bureau's rules of engagement that allowed the shooting.

Her son, Samuel, 14, and Deputy U.S. Marshal William F. Degan died in a separate shootout involving deputy U.S. Marshals a day earlier.

Mrs. Weaver's husband, Randy, had been sought on weapons violations. He and a family friend, Kevin Harris, also were wounded. They were charged in Mr. Degan's death but were acquitted by an Idaho jury.

Mr. Potts and Mr. Coulson, who directed the siege from Washington, denied ordering changes in the bureau's deadly force policy, but Eugene F. Glenn, who headed the Salt Lake City office and was the on-site commander at Ruby Ridge, and Richard Rogers, head of the FBI's hostage-rescue team, disputed their claims.

The IG report said Mr. Potts was named by Mr. Freeh as acting deputy director in 1994 before the completion of an internal investigation into government conduct during the Ruby Ridge siege. The report said that despite Mr. Potts' receipt in January 1995 of a letter of censure in the Ruby Ridge matter, he was named deputy director in May 1995.

Branch Davidians

In August 1999, the FBI reversed a long-held position and admitted that agents fired incendiary devices into the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, during an April 1993 siege before the compound was destroyed by fire, killing 86 sect members, including 24 children.

The raid occurred during the tenure of FBI DirectorWilliam S. Sessions, who left office in July 1993.

Bureau officials said they regretted misleading Congress and the public, but they denied the FBI was responsible for the deadly, wind-swept blaze. The FBI scrambled for a day to issue a public statement following new information that agents had fired at least two potentially flammable tear-gas canisters into the wooden compound.

FBI spokesman John Collingswood said the bureau regretted that "previous answers to Congress and to the public ultimately may prove to be inaccurate" but that evidence collected by the FBI showed that the incendiary devices "were not directed at the main, wooden compound" and that the rounds "were discharged several hours before the fire started."

Attorney General Janet Reno and Mr. Freeh, who took over the bureau in September 1993, ordered an inquiry to determine the circumstances under which military-type tear-gas canisters were fired. More than 40 agents had been assigned to re-examine the evidence and re-interview all those involved in the siege.

The unprecedented reversal became necessary when an FBI official acknowledged for the first time that at least two tear-gas canisters that could have been responsible for the fire had been used by agents during the 51-day siege at the compound.

Mr. Coulson, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News, said two military ordnance M651 CS tear-gas grenades were fired at "the pit," an underground structure that led to tunnels opening into the compound, on the morning of April 19, 1993 - just hours before the structure was consumed in a blaze.

His comments followed statements a month earlier by the civilian head of the Texas Rangers who questioned FBI claims that agents did not start the fire.

James B. Francis Jr., chairman of the three-member Public Safety Commission that oversaw the Texas Rangers, said at the time that items found at the site were "problematic or at least questionable" in corroborating FBI claims that its agents did not fire a single shot or use incendiary devices.

Seventeen of the children who perished in the fire were younger than 10 years old. The Rangers, the chief state law enforcement agency in the state, were assigned to investigate the siege and its fiery conclusion, which also killed Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

In July 2000, special counsel John C. Danforth, who headed the Davidian investigation, said it was "puzzling" that FBI officials withheld information from the Justice Department concerning the bureau's use of pyrotechnics because none of the information showed any criminal misconduct.

Mr. Danforth, a former three-term Republican senator from Missouri, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee his investigation would continue to determine why the information was not turned over. He said the failure to do so was "disastrous" and had "shaken" the public's confidence in its government. He said that lack of confidence had resulted in his appointment and in an investigation that cost taxpayers at least $12 million.

Mr. Danforth said his 10-month investigation concluded that government agents did not start the Waco fire, did not shoot at the Davidians, did not improperly use the U.S. military and did not engage in a conspiracy or cover-up. He said the Branch Davidians started the fire and spread fuel throughout the complex.

He also said there was no evidence that Miss Reno, Mr. Sessions or Mr. Freeh "in anyway misled anybody intentionally." However, he said, questions remained as to why the FBI did not disclose for six years that three rounds of pyrotechnic tear gas had been fired into the Davidian compound.

"The fact that any pyrotechnics were used was not disclosed, and the opposite was told to various people, including members of the Congress," he said. "And so the issue is, why were they not told? Why was this something that was withheld?"

Atlanta Olympics

During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Richard Jewell became the FBI's key suspect when a pipe bomb exploded, killing one woman and injuring more than 100 others. A cameraman also died of a heart attack while running to cover the incident.

Mr. Jewell, working as a security guard, discovered the bomb, alerted police and helped evacuate the area before it exploded. Initially labeled a hero, he later was identified as a suspect.

Three days after the July 27, 1996, blast, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the FBI was treating him as a possible suspect, based largely on a "lone bomber" criminal profile.

The media focused on Mr. Jewell for the next several weeks, portraying him as a failed law enforcement officer who planted the bomb so he could discover it and be labeled a hero.

In October 1996, U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander sent Mr. Jewell a letter saying he had been cleared "based on the evidence developed to date."

Nine months later, Miss Reno expressed regret over what she described as a leak by the FBI to the news media that led to the widespread presumption of Mr. Jewell's guilt. "I'm very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak," she said.

At the same time, Mr. Freeh was telling a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that Mr. Jewell's constitutional rights were not violated during an hour-long interview a year earlier "because he didn't say anything" to incriminate himself, but had he done so, the failure to advise him of his rights would have led to the suppression of any information the agents might have obtained.

"He didn't say anything to inculpate himself, and he immediately called his lawyer, and his lawyer told him to leave, and he left. And the agents facilitated that conversation," Mr. Freeh said at the time.

Mr. Freeh ordered that Mr. Jewell be advised of his rights after the questioning began, but Michael Shaheen, head of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, said the agents maintained the pretense that the interview was being videotaped as a training tool and "presented the Miranda warnings in such a manner that a reasonable person could have thought the warnings were only part of the framework for the training video."

The Justice Department, in a report, said the agents made an "error in judgment" when they questioned Mr. Jewell under the training-film pretext, and Mr. Freeh recommended that three agents involved be censured.

On April 13, 2005, Mr. Jewell was exonerated when Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to carrying out the bombing at the Centennial Olympic Park as well as three other attacks across the South.

Mr. Jewell, who suffered from diabetes, heart and kidney disease, died on Aug. 29, 2007. He was 44.

Improper authority

In March, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General said in a report that senior FBI counterterrorism officials had improperly issued blanket national security letters for 3,860 telephone numbers to cover up the fact that they already had improperly obtained the information.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said those who had prepared the letters relied on outdated data and now-prohibited procedures, but they were approved by an assistant director, a deputy assistant director, two acting deputy assistant directors and a special agent in charge.

Mr. Fine said the letters, a form of an administrative subpoena demanding data or information on a person without probable cause or judicial oversight, included pre-USA Patriot Act language now prohibited under law.

He also said none of the letters complied with internal FBI policy requiring the preparation and approval of memorandums establishing the existence of an open investigation and the relevance of the numbers and the information being sought.

Notice of the improper letters was listed without emphasis starting on Page 129 of the IG's 163-page report. None of the FBI officials who approved them was identified. But the report described the finding as "troubling," noting that the FBI had disregarded a secret court's constitutional objections and obtained private records for national security probes, including telephone records or credit-card data.

"We questioned the appropriateness of the FBI's actions" in disregarding the court, the IG's office said.

Generally, the report said the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain personal information on U.S. citizens in terrorism and espionage investigations rose in 2006 after Justice Department auditors found violations of law or rules in the bureau's use of the letters during the previous three years.

The report also identified a case in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court twice refused to authorize a warrant based on concerns that the investigative target was protected by the First Amendment. It said the FBI got the information it sought by using a national security letter without further review.

In responding to the IG's report, Mr. Mueller called the abuses "unacceptable" and ordered corrective measures. He called he report "fair and objective," saying the bureau sought to exercise its authority "consistent with the privacy protections and civil liberties that we are sworn to uphold."

Mr. Mueller said that though the report found no intentional misuse of authority, it identified several areas of inadequate auditing and oversight as well as inappropriate processes.

Questionable lab work

In April 1997, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General said in a lengthy report the FBI's crime lab - renowned throughout the world - had made serious mistakes in dozens of criminal cases, including the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich said his office concluded following an 18-month inquiry that there were "extremely serious and significant problems" inside the lab - discovered after what he described as an investigation that focused on explosives-related cases, "including some of the most significant cases handled by the department."

"The allegations implicated fundamental aspects of federal law enforcement: the reliability of the procedures employed by the laboratory to analyze evidence, the integrity of the persons engaging in that analysis and the objectivity of the testimony given in cases by laboratory examiners," Mr. Bromwich said at the time.

The initial accusations of wrongdoing inside the lab came from Frederic Whitehurst, a scientist employed in the laboratory, but the IG's office also investigated other claims that arose during its probe.

"Our investigation did not substantiate the vast majority of allegations concerning laboratory examiners, including allegations of perjury and fabricated evidence," Mr. Bromwich said. "However, we found deficient practices in several cases handled by the laboratory, such as scientifically flawed testimony, testimony beyond examiners' expertise, improper preparation of laboratory reports, insufficient documentation of test results and an inadequate record-management system in the laboratory."

Although the investigation exonerated most of the examiners whose actions were reviewed, Mr. Bromwich said his office found "serious deficiencies" by several examiners and recommended transferring specific examiners from the lab and relieving others of supervisory duties.

In a letter, Mr. Bromwich said Mr. Freeh's testimony implied that the IG's office had recommended in a draft report that Mr. Whitehurst be put on administrative leave, saying his report "contains no such recommendation, nor can it be fairly construed to imply that such action should be taken while the draft was being reviewed."

Mr. Freeh testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee that Mr. Whitehurst was suspended with pay "solely and directly on the basis of the recommendation by the inspector general and their findings with respect to Mr. Whitehurst." He told the subcommittee, headed by Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, that Mr. Bromwich did not object to the suspension.

In May 2000, Miss Reno said she had considered the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate accusations that Mr. Freeh had testified falsely before Congress on the Whitehurst suspension.

Miss Reno ultimately decided that although Mr. Freeh's testimony was inaccurate, there was no evidence he knew it was false or that he purposely misled the House subcommittee.

Beginning in 1995, Mr. Whitehurst said lab colleagues had slanted testimony and fabricated evidence in high-profile trials. He said some had tailored the "science" to fit the conclusions of prosecutors and investigators.

His concerns later led to the FBI crime lab's agreeing to 40 major reforms, including undergoing an accreditation process.