Accuracy in Media

The worst spy in FBI history, Robert P. Hanssen, was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 2002. Hanssen’s crimes have been widely reported and even documented in several books and a made-for-television movie. But the magnitude of the FBI’s culpability for Hanssen’s misdeeds, and especially its Pollyannaish attitudes toward internal security, have only recently been revealed.

More than two years ago, Congress tasked the Department of Justice’s Inspector General (IG) to review the Bureau’s performance in the Hanssen case. Just released is a declassified version of the IG’s final report intended to “provide a public summary of the main findings.” Regrettably, this version fails to identify those Bureau senior managers, including former Directors, most responsible for allowing Hanssen to escape detection for more than twenty years.

The report says that Hanssen betrayed “some” of the country’s most important intelligence, counterespionage, and military secrets. He routinely “surfed” the Bureau’s computer systems seeking details on espionage investigations and the identities of key FBI human sources working for the Soviet KGB. He compromised the identities of dozens of these sources. The report says that his actions were responsible for the execution of at least three of these men. He gave the Soviets “thousands” of pages of highly classified materials covering topics as diverse as U.S. strategies for nuclear war, major military weapons developments, and very expensive intelligence-collection programs. The report concludes that Hanssen didn’t do it just for the money, although over the years Hanssen was well paid, especially by KGB standards.

Two things stand out. Contrary to the Bureau’s initial depiction of Hanssen as a master spy, it is surprising just how reckless he became over the years. Hanssen made plenty of blunders that could have tipped off the Bureau to his activities. For example, he deposited large sums of KGB cash in a bank account less than a block from the FBI’s downtown Washington headquarters building. He used an FBI telephone and answering machine for contacts with Soviet military intelligence agents. And he routinely queried the Bureau’s computer system trying to determine if the FBI was on to him.

Over the years, the Bureau received many indications of Hanssen’s unsuitability to hold security clearances. He racked up numerous security violations. These included repeated disclosures of sensitive espionage investigations to unauthorized persons?including members of the press. He assaulted a female Bureau employee and, in the early 1990s, he hacked into his boss’s computer. The common thread of all of this was his management’s willingness to look the other way. Most of these violations were never recorded in his files nor acted upon by his supervisors.

Hanssen was subjected to exactly one security reinvestigation during his 25-year career. That is extraordinary given that every other national security entity requires security reinvestigations every five years. Moreover, Hanssen was never required to file a detailed financial disclosure statement. He later told interrogators that had he been required to do so, this would have been “the greatest deterrent to his espionage.” Hanssen was never polygraphed. The Bureau’s “most senior managers” refused to polygraph their own personnel “because of concerns regarding false positives.” Given that the Bureau is always eager to use the polygraph on any outsider, that is supremely ironic.

And perhaps worst of all, FBI officials simply refused to consider that the source of its staggering losses could be inside the Bureau itself. Instead, it wasted valuable time trying to pin the losses on a CIA officer. Even after Hanssen was arrested and the CIA officer exonerated, the Bureau’s senior counterintelligence official, David Szady, refused to admit that the Bureau had been mistaken. In a CBS News’ 60 Minutes interview, Szady offered no apologies and told interviewer Lesley Stahl that the Bureau’s focus elsewhere was “entirely justified.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller released a statement saying the Bureau “has already taken significant strides” in cleaning up the problems enumerated in the IG report. But the IG report concluded that “some of the most serious weaknesses” investigators had uncovered are still not remedied. The report concluded that these weaknesses continue to “expose the FBI to the risk of future serious compromises by another mole.” The report will encourage those who believe that the Bureau is incapable of conducting effective espionage investigations. Washington is awash in proposals for reorganizing the nation’s counter-intelligence responsibilities. This report makes the clearest case yet for careful consideration of these proposals.

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