WASHINGTON — Top FBI officials may have done "substantial" damage to the bureau's internal security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by rushing to lift restrictions on secret intelligence information that was once tightly guarded, officials told members of Congress on Tuesday.
A little-noticed FBI decision last October allowing wider access to material obtained through top-secret wiretaps has made it much easier for thousands of agents around the country to chase down terrorist leads and probe possible links to the attacks.
At the same time, however, that decision has made secret documents available to many agents with no legitimate need to see them--and has risked a repeat of the consequences of last year's Robert Philip Hanssen spy case, according to a newly released report on FBI security. The report, from a commission headed by former FBI and CIA director William H. Webster, got its first public airing Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
The disclosure of yet another security vulnerability at the FBI gives added ammunition to congressional critics who are frustrated by the slow pace of reforms at the bureau and are pushing for wide-scale changes.
The issue also underscores what Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called the "inherent tension" between the FBI's sometimes conflicting roles as the country's chief investigative agency and the keeper of many of its national secrets. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) even suggested that Congress consider splitting the FBI, making one part responsible for law enforcement and the other for intelligence functions, as the British do.
At issue is the way the FBI maintains records and intelligence collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law giving the FBI the power, by order of a secret court, to eavesdrop on individuals considered possible agents of hostile governments.
Such material generally cannot be used in criminal prosecutions, and as a result its use had been closely guarded within the FBI and segregated from other case files. But agents pursuing terrorist ties after Sept. 11 complained that they were frustrated by their limited access to files that could be relevant, and under an October directive approved by Director Robert Mueller's former top deputy, the FBI significantly loosened those restrictions.
But Webster noted in his report that the FBI's senior security officials were never consulted about the far-reaching decision, and he called it another example of how "operational imperatives often trump security needs."
The problem is so severe, Webster told the committee, that agents in the New York FBI office have been reluctant to enter information into the bureau's computer system because "they knew that then it was available to anybody."
There have been no known security breaches so far, officials said. But Webster said that if secret information should get into the wrong hands, the identities of confidential government sources could be revealed and--as happened at least three times in the case of Hanssen, the FBI agent-turned-Russian spy--agents working secretly for the United States could then be killed. The Hanssen case was the impetus for the creation of the Webster Commission.
"I think there's a substantial risk of damage here," Webster said.
FBI officials said that the change in restrictions had not produced "wholesale" access to top-secret material, but they acknowledged that they may have overlooked critical security issues while pressing the war on terrorism.
"Did [top FBI officials] create a vulnerability? Yes. Should they have consulted with the security people? Yes. But we don't have any indication of any damage caused by that," an FBI official who asked not to be identified said in an interview.
FBI officials said Webster's concerns have prompted several recent "modifications" to the system, including labeling material that originated with a foreign intelligence warrant and once again "locking down" some non-terrorist material that had been released for bureau-wide use since October.
The FBI's explanations did little to appease Democrats or Republicans on the judiciary panel, several of whom angrily suggested that the FBI had failed to take the lessons of the Hanssen debacle to heart.
A frustrated Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said at the hearing that he was deeply concerned by the potential damage that the FBI's security changes could cause. "I cannot underscore how much attention I want given to this," he told senior FBI officials testifying before him.
Leahy said it was ironic that even after the FBI convinced Congress last year to give it broader powers to monitor foreign agents--with the assurance that such information would be tightly guarded--"they've put a lot of that on the computer system that just about everybody in the FBI could get hold of."
Committee members said the issue fit a troubling pattern of inattention to security at the FBI, as documented in the Webster report.
The 13-month study found that the FBI missed numerous warning signals that could have tipped them off to Hanssen's 22-year career as a Russian spy. Hanssen was found to have hacked into a supervisor's computer, but he explained at the time that he did it to show how vulnerable the computer system was--and FBI officials believed him.
For their part, FBI agents said they feel caught in a Catch-22 situation. The public is demanding more aggressive terrorist probes and more information on the government's terrorist alerts, while Congress is demanding ever-tightened security, some agents say.
"This is just one of those situations where we can't win," one veteran agent said after the hearing. "You have big-city police chiefs claiming that the FBI is sitting on [terrorist] information, then you have congressional . . . committees suggesting that we have been too open with the information. It's tough to know what to do."