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FBI Security Reform Sees More Use of Polygraphs

Espionage: Demands for bureau's director to make changes likely will intensify after a panel reports on Hanssen saga.

April 04, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — FBI officials said Wednesday that thousands of employees may be subjected to polygraph tests in an effort to plug holes in security--holes so glaring that even convicted spy Robert Philip Hanssen now says he should have been caught years earlier.

Catching in-house spies and guarding national security interests were "not a priority" at the bureau in the past, FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged to reporters. "Any employee should recognize in the wake of Hanssen that we have to emphasize security more than we have."

Mueller's stark assessment of the FBI's failings comes days before a high-level commission is expected to deliver an even harsher critique of why the bureau failed for more than two decades to realize that it had a spy among its ranks.

The Webster Commission, headed by former FBI and CIA Director William H. Webster, is expected to release its much-awaited report on the Hanssen debacle later this week, probably Friday.

The report concludes that the Hanssen episode--the worst case of espionage within the FBI in the bureau's history--grew out of "a pervasive inattention to security. . . . In the bureau, security is often viewed as an impediment to operations, and security responsibilities are seen as an impediment to career advancement," according to an official familiar with the report.

The report also says the FBI needs to establish a workplace culture "that recognizes security lapses as significant, restricts access to particular items of classified information to those who need them to perform their jobs and makes disloyal employees more quickly visible," the official said.

In several days of interviews with Webster Commission investigators, Hanssen appeared to almost taunt his interrogators with his ability to elude detection for 22 years after he began spying for Soviet Union in 1979.

For instance, Hanssen noted that he had given conflicting accounts to the FBI during his career about where he got the money for a home addition, yet the FBI did not pursue the discrepancies. Hanssen told the Webster Commission that "if they [the FBI] had done a simple background investigation, they would have caught me," the official said.

The report also says that, in the early 1990s, at a time when Hanssen appears to have taken a sabbatical from his espionage work, he approached a Russian diplomat in a parking lot, but the Russian rebuffed his offer to work for them. The Russian later formally complained to the United States, saying that a disgruntled FBI agent had contacted him, according to people familiar with the report. But the tip never led the bureau to Hanssen.

Demands for reform at the FBI seem certain to intensify once the Webster Commission formally releases its findings, with Webster already scheduled to discuss his report at a hearing next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In an interview Wednesday, Webster said the FBI "can do a lot and they have done a lot. The important thing is to build within the tradition and culture of the bureau a greater appreciation for the role that security must play. It represents a cultural evolution."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that, while he is heartened by Mueller's willingness to embrace reform, "the challenge for the FBI is to make sure that new bells and whistles for internal security don't distract FBI leaders from the fundamental scrutiny required to catch spies" within the bureau.

The FBI moved Wednesday to slow the drumbeat for further reform by rolling out for reporters what a senior official called "a total remake of the [security] program from top to bottom."

Although some details in the plan still are being worked out, Mueller and Kenneth H. Senser, a CIA security specialist who has been assigned to the FBI as an assistant director to lead the make-over, said they are committing to plugging the security leaks at the bureau.

Senser said the FBI has "accepted too much risk" in its security operations, with a "fractured" or nonexistent hierarchy for overseeing security, inexperienced security investigators and poor training.

One key recommendation from the Webster Commission is expected to center on the expanded use of polygraphs for employees who have access to sensitive information.

The FBI, which for years resisted giving its employees routine polygraph tests, agreed last year in the wake of the Hanssen controversy to begin polygraphs for a small group of about 700 employees who work in intelligence operations.

That trial run has worked well, Senser said, with a passing rate of 99% for those tested. Those few employees whose tests came back "indeterminate" are being subjected to closer scrutiny and follow-up reviews, but no disciplinary action has been taken against anyone, he said.

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