- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Lurking somewhere in the halls of the FBI's Pennsylvania Avenue fortress, the spirit of the late Bill Sullivan must be gnashing its teeth in dismay over the continuing saga of embarrassments from the Robert Hanssen case.

Never in his wildest dreams could the rumpled old spy-catcher and counterintelligence genius have conjured up a scenario of ineptness as devastating as that which continues to unfold around the FBI agent who sold out to the Russians for nearly 20 years while his clueless cohorts looked everywhere but in their own organization for a culprit. Now it turns out that even when the Russians complained that an FBI agent was trying to sell them secrets, it took the bureau eight years to find out it was Hanssen.

Before he was killed by an errant hunter in the New Hampshire woods 25 years ago, Sullivan, who had openly defied J. Edgar Hoover even to the point of ignoring his dress requirements, confided he always had been as concerned about the possibility of the corruption of one of the bureau's own as he was about those put here by the Soviet bloc. Like his counterpart at the CIA, James Angleton, Sullivan worried about internal security a lot. But even when he was the second man in charge at the bureau, he never was able to overcome the institutional arrogance that he accurately believed would ultimately lead to just this kind of disaster.

It is now becoming clear with the release of a report by a commission named to investigate the Hanssen case just how disruptive to counterintelligence efforts has been the FBI's failure to monitor its own agents and to realize its other security weaknesses. The commission revealed that Hanssen's perfidy had been far more extensive than first thought. He actually had compromised the identities of more than 50 FBI informants in addition to the three Russians working for the FBI previously reported, forcing the bureau to halt a number of technical programs and projects. It already had been disclosed that a tunnel dug beneath the Russian Embassy here had been rendered useless from the start because of Hanssen. But what has become increasingly obvious in this debacle is that a string of Hoover successors, including Louis Freeh, who had the job until recently, have bought into the FBI myth of infallibility at a huge expense to the nation.

In a classic bit of Washington irony, one of those former bureau directors who wasn't paying a lot of attention to the agency's own security needs, it seems, was William Webster, who now heads the commission investigating the matter. Hanssen began his spying activities on Mr. Webster's watch and continued during the regimes of two other directors after Mr. Webster resigned to take over the CIA. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the man heading the investigation may have been partly responsible for the problem he is investigating.

The Webster task force report cites "pervasive inattention to security," including a failure to monitor the computer use and financial activities of its agents as having enabled Hanssen to operate undetected for so long. The computer system, the report said, was so insecure that New York field office agents refused to input intelligence information as required by regulations. Their concerns were heightened by the fact an intern was able to break into restricted files in one afternoon.

"Simply put, security is not as valued within the bureau as it is in other agencies," the report stated. "Security policies are too often viewed as a nuisance to negotiate around." There certainly is nothing terribly new about that conclusion. It is exactly what Sullivan once saw it for the policy of arrogance, of "it can't happen here."

The danger, he said, is that the bureau refuses to understand that its screening and training and security processes never were as good as they were cracked up to be, no matter what the vaunted FBI propaganda machine would have us believe. Sullivan believed the bureau was always too quick to claim credit it didn't deserve and too slow to take the blame when it did deserve it.

The current director, Robert Mueller, seems determined not to fall into the same traps as Mr. Webster and the other predecessors. It is to be hoped he will be successful. Someone reported recently that the supreme irony in all this is that when the CIA had its problem with "mole" Aldrich Ames, an FBI "expert" was dispatched to help the agency with its security. In the Hanssen debacle, a CIA expert now has been assigned to the FBI for the same reason.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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