WASHINGTON — On Aug. 1, 1985, Vitaly Yurchenko, a high-ranking KGB official, walked into the U.S. Embassy in Rome and defected to the CIA.
Whisked to a safe house in Northern Virginia, Yurchenko revealed to his CIA debriefers that the agency harbored a mole, code-named Robert, who had been slated to go to Moscow but was yanked off that assignment at the last moment. The three FBI agents also at the debriefing had no clue about the identity of the mole. But the CIA officers knew right away: Yurchenko had to be talking about Edward Lee Howard, a clandestine officer the agency had fired two years earlier after he failed a lie-detector test on the eve of his scheduled departure for Moscow. Angered at his dismissal and drinking heavily, Howard sold the secrets of the CIA's Moscow station to the Russians.
The CIA had suspected Howard for more than a year, but never tipped off the FBI. And for five days after Yurchenko's revelation, the CIA still did not tell the FBI that it knew the identity of the mole. During that delay, Howard flew to Zurich and Vienna, where he would have had ample time to meet again with his Soviet handlers, who surely had to be concerned about what Yurchenko might be saying. Howard returned to the U.S., but a month later he eluded FBI surveillance in New Mexico, vanished into the desert and surfaced in Moscow, where he still lives.
In 1988, in the wake of the Howard disaster, William H. Webster, then CIA director, signed a secret "memorandum of understanding" with William S. Sessions, who had succeeded him as FBI chief. The goal was to bring about cooperation between the two rival agencies. The agreement required that the CIA provide "timely notification" to the FBI whenever it had a "reasonable belief" that a CIA employee or former employee might be thinking about "espionage, defection or other compromise of classified information."
But unknown to American counterintelligence officials, five months before Howard fled, an even more damaging CIA mole, Aldrich H. Ames, had begun peddling the names of the agency's Soviet spies to the KGB. Ten were shot, many others imprisoned. Ames was caught in 1994, convicted and is serving a life sentence.
Despite the 1988 agreement, another three years elapsed before the CIA and the FBI joined forces to uncover the mole who turned out to be Ames. Historically, the two agencies have not gotten along well, because their cultures and missions are different. The CIA is primarily interested in spying and running covert operations. The FBI's job is to gather evidence and arrest spies.
In the aftermath of the Ames case, President Bill Clinton, in 1994, made another attempt at improving coordination among the bureau, the CIA and other intelligence agencies. He issued a presidential directive creating an interagency National Counterintelligence Center headed by an FBI man. In addition, he ordered that the counterespionage group within the CIA's own internal counterintelligence center be headed by an FBI agent.
Although CIA and FBI officials insist that this has resulted in much closer cooperation, it hasn't satisfied congressional critics or caught a lot of spies. The government managed to botch its case against Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has yet to explain why he downloaded nuclear secrets onto missing computer tapes.
Almost forgotten in the storm over the Lee debacle is the fact that he originally fell under suspicion after the CIA learned that China had acquired the details of the W-88 warhead, the most secret weapon in America's nuclear arsenal. Lee was fired by the Department of Energy. He pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling classified information, but was not charged with espionage. The spy who stole the secrets of the W-88 has never been caught.
Moreover, a series of recent security lapses has embarrassed the State Department. First, an unknown "man in a brown tweed jacket" strolled into an office six doors down from that of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and in plain view of two secretaries, walked off with a batch of classified documents. Then the Russians managed to plant a bug in the wall of a State Department conference room. And laptops, at least one containing highly sensitive nuclear secrets, have been disappearing from the department at a dismaying pace.
Against that background, on Jan. 5, the White House announced yet another attempt at reorganizing counterintelligence. Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive CI-21, an effort to centralize spy-catching under a new counterintelligence chief.
This counterintelligence reorganization has been in the works for more than a year, supported by the Senate Intelligence Committee and, in particular, by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), as well as by FBI director Louis J. Freeh and CIA director George J. Tenet.