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Counterintelligence Run Amok

March 07, 2001|JAY TAYLOR | Jay Taylor was deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence coordination in the Reagan administration

Fear of foreign spies was already inordinately high in the United States when the sensational espionage charges against Robert Philip Hanssen hit the headlines. The media and the public, always starved for drama, have been captivated. The executive branch is planning tough-sounding remedies, including new super organizations. Existing counterintelligence bureaucracies have exploited the "crisis" to grow and expand. And counterspy measures, resources and personnel are already greater than they were during the height of the Cold War.

President Bush is expected soon to approve establishment of a new counterintelligence policy board headed by a counterintelligence czar who will report to a new counterintelligence board of directors. This, despite the fact that there is no more KGB, no more Soviet Union.

Judging by discussions in the media, the new so-called proactive measures being planned are those that monitor our own people and control sensitive documents. An example of one of these measures is the explosion in job opportunities for internal security agents in the State Department. If former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's plan is carried out, State will hire 500 new security agents, bringing the total of such officers in the foreign service to 1,500. This compares with a total of only 2,500 foreign service officers who perform the department's core work of diplomacy--reporting, analysis, advocacy and negotiation on bilateral and international issues--including ambassadors, their deputies and other program direction officers.

While security expands, some 700 other foreign service positions remain vacant because of lack of funding. Some of the work normally done by diplomats is now being performed by officers in our foreign missions from the CIA and the Pentagon, neither of which have a comparable budget problem.

Yet the current danger we face from foreign espionage is a mere fraction of that posed from the 1930s to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The mighty KGB's successor, the SVR, like the Soviet Navy and all the other wings of the old Communist regime's security establishment, is a shadow of its former self. For eight years, the SVR did not even contact Hanssen, one of the best-positioned moles in the United States the old KGB ever had. Except for Cuba, the SVR has lost all of the KGB's sister services, including the once extraordinarily effective East German Stasi. Moreover, since the emergence of Russia as a relatively open but very strained society, the ability of Western services to penetrate the SVR has geometrically increased. The double agent in the SVR who exposed the apparent double-crosser Hanssen apparently handed over the entire KGB file.

The deeds of our counterspy turncoats resulted in the deaths of some of our Russian moles and are deserving of harsh punishment, but the consequences of their actions had no critical impact on vital U.S. interests. Notably, the FBI tunnel under the Russian Embassy in Washington reportedly revealed by Hanssen apparently produced no major intelligence. (Likewise the previous big American tunneling exercise, the famous 1950s CIA dig in Berlin, was a bust from the start. A Russian mole in London tipped off the KGB to the project before it even began.)

To declare to the press, as some intelligence sources are doing, that Hanssen and Aldrich Ames brought about the "greatest losses in the history of American intelligence" is to focus on damage to the counterspy organizations themselves and not to basic national interests, as for example was the case in the theft of nuclear secrets or submarine codes.

The massive spying and internal security apparatus of the KGB did not save the Soviet Union. Why now, when we face no such monolithic monster, do we need a counterintelligence czar, expanded polygraphs, more intrusive monitoring of personnel, a draconian "official secrets act" and many more internal security agents in the State Department and elsewhere?

We won the hot and cold wars the old way, by maintaining a reasonable level of internal controls but concentrating on offense--penetration, mole implantation and communications intercepts. We need to safeguard counterintelligence and other sensitive information, but the possibilities and the consequences of both foreign espionage and counterspying should be kept in perspective.

As George F. Kennan, architect of America's Cold War containment policy, once observed, counterintelligence takes on aspects that cause it to be viewed as a game, played in its own right. The fascination it exerts, he concluded, tends wholly to obscure, even for the general public, the original reasons for it.

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