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FBI Polygraph Policy at Issue in Spy Case

Security: Agency's hesitancy to test its own agents needs examining, says ex-director Webster.

February 22, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Former FBI and CIA chief William H. Webster said Wednesday that he plans to examine whether the FBI--long reluctant to require periodic polygraph testing of its agents--should use polygraphs more aggressively to ferret out possible spies.

Webster, who will assess the fallout from one of the biggest cases of suspected espionage in recent U.S. history, made the comments in an interview as new details began to emerge in the investigation of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, arrested as a suspected spy for Russia.

While security breaches have prompted other agencies such as the CIA and the Energy Department to adopt widespread use of polygraph exams, the FBI "has wanted to steer away from the heavy bureaucracy" of such testing, Webster said.

"There's an attitude: 'If we picked [employees] carefully and trust each other, why do we have to do this?' But I think that's got to be examined now," Webster said.

He cautioned, however, that the allegations against Hanssen depict such a careful and "wily" spy that there were few "red flags."

Living a modest and devout lifestyle, with no apparent problems with money, adultery, alcohol and drug addiction or other traditional warning signs, Hanssen simply did not fit the standard FBI profile of a spy, particularly one whose work for the Russians allegedly spanned 15 years, Webster and other intelligence experts said.

"You try to screen out people who would do such a terrible thing, and in this case it didn't work," said James K. Kallstrom, former head of the FBI's New York office, who knew Hanssen. "It's beyond belief. . . . It just blows the lid off reason."

Hanssen, an FBI counterintelligence officer assigned to help root out Russian spies, was accused Tuesday of having passed top-secret information to the Russians since 1985 in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. He allegedly used "dead drop" spots at parks near his home in suburban Washington to leave computer disks and thousands of pages of data for his Russian handlers, including information that allegedly led to the unmasking of three Soviet double agents working for the United States. Two were executed.

News of the allegations triggered "a lot of anger and resentment" on Wednesday from FBI agents around the country, said John Sennett, a New York-based agent and president of the FBI Agents Assn. "There are a lot of glum and deflated FBI agents, many of whom are worried that a lot of counterintelligence cases they worked, and that they're very proud of, may in fact have been compromised because of Hanssen's treachery."

Amid the hand-wringing, investigations are already underway into what could prove the most damaging U.S. spy case since 1994, when it was discovered that CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich H. Ames had been spying for the Russians for nine years.

The FBI has given polygraph tests to all prospective employees since 1994, but officials said that testing for employees is done on a case-by-case basis, with no scheduled or routine testing similar to what the CIA does. FBI sources blame the bureau's resistance to expanded testing in part on the expense, the potentially debilitating effect it could have on morale and the perception that the tests may produce too many false positives.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh handpicked Webster, a long-revered intelligence guru, to examine the FBI's internal security measures less than two months after outgoing President Clinton ordered a restructuring of counterintelligence operations to prevent security breaches. The FBI itself is also seeking to assess the damage, scouring the many secret cases to which Hanssen had access. Agents on Wednesday searched his home, even raking through leaves and yard debris.

Now that Hanssen is in jail awaiting court proceedings, said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson, the FBI "can work a little more overtly in determining the damage done. We're working to find out how deep the impact was." Hanssen is expected to plead not guilty.

FBI agents are particularly interested in finding out more about what Hanssen was doing from 1991 through 1999, when there is no trace of communication between him and his alleged Russian handlers.

"We just don't know what he was doing" in those years, said an FBI official who asked not to be identified. "There was either a cooling-off period or he was continuing during that time and we just haven't found it."

One thing Hanssen is alleged to have done during this period, however, was to repeatedly search the FBI's internal case files beginning in 1997 to see whether he was under suspicion. Webster said that is another issue he wants to explore, to determine whether the bureau can find ways to pick up on such internal snooping.

Congressional oversight committees also want to examine the Hanssen episode, as questions intensify about how the alleged spying went on undetected for so long.

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