- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Leave it to a mole for the Russians to expose a multi-million dollar, underground tunnel that the U.S. government built to eavesdrop on Kremlin diplomats in Washington. The New York Times reported Sunday that federal investigators believe that alleged spy Robert Hanssen may have tipped off his handlers about a tunnel that was built under the Soviet embassy in Washington. The tunnel was run jointly by the FBI and the National Security Agency and appears to have become operational in the 1980s, just around the time Mr. Hanssen exposed it to the Soviets.

Many experts were quick to blame FBI Director Louis Freeh after a mole was discovered in his agency. It now appears those experts were right to a certain degree. Like Mr. Hanssen, it would appear Mr. Freeh was a victim of arrogance. Since Mr. Freeh had excessive confidence in his own leadership and the loyalty of his top people, he failed to take some constructive steps that could have made the bureau less vulnerable to espionage. A high-ranking intelligence insider told editors at The Washington Times that Mr. Freeh "fostered an attitude in the bureau that no one in our inner sanctum is going to be a spy."

There is no measure or even combination of measures that would have guaranteed detection of Mr. Hanssen's spying. But had the bureau adopted some inexpensive and potentially effective security initiatives, Mr. Hanssen's espionage goals could have been challenged and possibly deterred.

The FBI, for example, frequently employs a technique commonly referred to as mail cover, in which the bureau asks the U.S. Postal Service to photograph the front and back of envelopes delivered to known foreign agents. But the FBI didn't use mail cover for all KGB officers, and Mr. Hanssen was in a position to know which ones were not being covered.

In 1985, Mr. Hanssen made his initial contact with the Soviets by writing a letter to Kremlin officer Viktor Degtyar. In that letter, Mr. Hanssen offered out his fee-based spying services and identified three KGB officers who were collaborating with the FBI, two of whom were later executed by the Soviets. Had this medium not been open to Mr. Hanssen, he would have been much harder-pressed to approach the Soviets without revealing his own identity to them.

Polygraph testing is also an inexact but useful tool. But Mr. Freeh failed to require routine polygraphs for his employees and Mr. Hanssen was never required to take a lie detector test. Furthermore, the FBI completes background checks, including financial reviews, of its employees every five years. These reviews should take place at least once a year.

Interestingly, Bill Clinton had recommended some reorganization of the intelligence apparatus, including the naming of a czar to oversee counterintelligence spending by all agencies and identify the most sensitive technologies, weapons and other national assets. One wonders if the former president had caught wind of the mole hunt before leaving office.

While the good news is that Mr. Hanssen was caught, the bad news is that he was discovered only after a windfall of documents from Russia were turned over to the FBI. Certainly, Mr. Freeh has much thinking to do, and he will hopefully be just as critical of himself and the bureau as he was of the CIA after the Ames debacle.


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