Last week, the State Department announced it had discovered a listening device planted in a secure top floor conference room by Russian intelligence agents. The bug had been concealed in a piece of chair rail molding, carefully crafted to look like the original, and was placed by an intruder who had repeated access to the room, which requires special security codes and is used by senior State Department officials to discuss the most sensitive matters.
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security discovered the bug when a Russian diplomat, Stanislav Borisovich Gusev, was caught roaming the streets just outside. U.S. counterintelligence officers discovered a receiver hidden beneath a box of facial tissues in his official Russian Embassy car, which he had carelessly parked down the street.
These revelations are disturbing enough in themselves, since they reveal a serious breach in our defenses against foreign spies. The White House is going to pin the blame on the FBI and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. They also undoubtedly will blame the Republican Congress, for cutting the State Department’s overall budget in the past. Both accusations are not only wrong; they are an attempt to cover up the real responsibilities of the White House and administration appointees at the State Department.
Neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Diplomatic Security have bought on to the politically correct line of the Clinton-Gore administration that Russia has become America’s best friend, and that the days of Cold War spying are over. On the contrary, in the years since Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991, they have witnessed a resumption of Russian spying against the United States, and have kept a watchful eye on the activities of Russian intelligence agents operating in Washington and elsewhere around the country.
Intelligence operatives do not like to get caught, even if punishment is limited to getting expelled from their host country. Planting a bug inside a secure conference room at the State Department shows a brazenness on the part of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) that suggests they knew they could get away with it.
On Saturday, The Washington Times reported that changes in security procedures at the State Department a year ago had left the building “wide open” to any intruder who possessed a card with a properly coded magnetic stripe. Quoting State Department sources, The Times reported that the department had dropped a requirement that people entering the building on weekend and after hours on weekdays had to show their picture identification cards to a guard before swiping them through the electronic lock.
That seemed to point in the direction of an inside job; after all, not just anyone can get a properly coded State Department access card. Right?
Wrong. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, the former head of counterespionage at the Central Intelligence Agency, Paul Redmond, revealed the stunning fact that the State Department had given Russian diplomats “no escort” magnetic cards, allowing them to enter the building by themselves, without identifying themselves to guards, and to roam the building at will. “There was a spasm of naivete at the end of the Cold War that we’re now all friends,” Mr. Redmond said politely. If that’s not enough of a shocker, Mr. Redmond added that the Defense Intelligence Agency had taken a similar move, issuing magnetic passes to Russian military attaches that allowed them free access to DIA headquarters at Bolling Air Force base.
Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican and a former CIA officer who now chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, added that security inside the most sensitive areas of the State Department building was so deplorable that someone had gained access to the personal office of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright two years ago and swiped her classified daily briefing book “right off her desk.”
Mr. Goss vowed to hold hearings to determine who was responsible for such grotesque security lapses. But if the case of the suspected Chinese nuclear spy, Wen Ho Lee, is any example, the administration will use every stalling technique in the book to frustrate congressional inquiry, and will use sympathetic journalists to spin the story into other, less dangerous areas.
Congress needs to find out who gave the order to issue magnetic access badges to Russian diplomats, and who was aware of it. They need to find out whether this order came from the White House or from the State Department. If the State Department alone was involved, why did the DIA issue a similar order? They need to find out how many badges were issued, and whether they can now be forged. A total reassessment of security at all U.S. government facilities must now be undertaken. This will be time-consuming, and costly. But it must be done.
Only someone at a very senior level could have issued such an order. Was that official acting out of naivete? Or did he or she have a more sinister purpose?
In September, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott told a Russian journalist that the future of U.S. national missile defense would be decided by Russia, not the U.S. people. Earlier last year, he noted that the United States would not exist in the coming century, because world government will make the nation-state a thing of the past.
These are not cavalier or incautious statements: They reflect the mindset and underlying philosophy of this administration. In such an atmosphere, issuing permanent security badges that allow Russian spies to roam secure government offices at will must seem like a natural thing to do. In a previous era, Americans would have called it treason. Today we just wring our hands, and say it’s time for grown-ups to return to government.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a contributing editor for Reader’s Digest magazine.