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Panel Demands Answers, Solutions in Spy Case

Senate: Committee questions intelligence heads over how best to prevent future espionage. 'I don't think there's any silver bullet,' one senator says.

March 01, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders on Wednesday demanded to know how the FBI failed to catch a suspected Russian spy in its ranks for 15 years and what steps authorities will take to prevent a recurrence of the worst spy scandal in the agency's history.

At a three-hour closed-door briefing with the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee mulled possible spy-catching remedies that included more aggressive use of polygraph tests, financial audits and computer surveillance of FBI agents to detect suspicious activity, officials said.

But lawmakers stressed that there may be no single solution in avoiding the type of national security threat brought to light by last week's arrest of Robert Philip Hanssen on espionage charges.

"I don't think there's any silver bullet, that you do one thing and you solve your problem," Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

"It tends to be an accumulation of techniques," he said. "It might be polygraph plus lifestyle studies plus computer surveillance plus financial records audits and more, which collectively begins to form a picture . . . [and] might send up some signals that that picture says you've got a problem" with an agent.

Hanssen, a senior FBI agent responsible for catching Russian spies, was arrested on espionage charges Feb. 18, minutes after FBI agents said they saw him leave a cache of secret documents for his Russian handlers at a park near his home in suburban Washington. He is accused of spying for more than 15 years in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. He intends to plead not guilty to the charges.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who testified before the panel, has already initiated a broad review of the agency's counterespionage measures in the wake of the Hanssen case, but members of the intelligence committee made clear that they want to press for answers on their own.

Based on what the committee heard Wednesday, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the head of the Intelligence Committee, "we're not satisfied with anything at this point. . . . This is a very, very grave, serious case.

"This committee is going to hold Director Freeh, the director of the CIA, the attorney general, the Justice Department--whoever might be involved in any aspect of this case--we're going to hold them accountable," Shelby said.

Even so, Shelby and other members of the Intelligence Committee said they have continued confidence in Freeh's ability to lead the FBI.

"Nobody's perfect. He can't do everything. But I think he's been pretty candid with us," Shelby told reporters.

Some critics wonder, however, whether the FBI director has gotten a free ride from Congress in the wake of this latest scandal.

In his eight years as director, Freeh has emerged largely unscathed despite a series of controversies that included the FBI's handling of the Branch Davidian standoff, the Richard Jewell-Olympic bombing investigation, the Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation and now the Hanssen case. He has remained popular among Republicans in large part because he sought an outside counsel to probe campaign fund-raising abuses during the Clinton administration.

Author Ronald Kessler, who wrote a critical column this week about the Hanssen case in the Washington Post under the headline "Fire Freeh," said in an interview that he believes the FBI director has learned how to control his media image to his advantage. But he said that "when people begin to tie together" the Hanssen case and some of Freeh's past failings, "I think they'll start thinking differently about his situation."

Freeh refused to speak with reporters after Wednesday's briefing.

A bureau official who asked not to be identified would say only that "we're fully cooperating with the congressional committee, and we clearly have the same objectives."

While committee members would not discuss details of the classified briefing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said she found the discussion "very open and candid."

She added that the FBI appears willing to consider a number of different steps to improve its spy-catching methods, including the use of required polygraph tests.

The CIA, the Energy Department and other federal agencies with access to sensitive data have required regular polygraph tests of their employees in response to security breaches, but the FBI has successfully resisted such a policy in the past. It requires polygraphs only for prospective employees, with follow-ups on a case-by-case basis as warranted.

Graham compared the polygraph tests to a metal detector at an airport. While it is not foolproof in catching someone in the act, he said, its greatest value may come in deterring a person from considering wrongdoing in the first place for fear of getting caught.

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