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FBI Still at Risk to Infiltration, Investigators Say

The bureau has failed to fix security issues that led to the Hanssen spy case, a report shows.

August 15, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than two years after the espionage prosecution of former agent Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI has failed to rectify a number of internal security breakdowns that allowed the turncoat to operate with impunity for years, Justice Department investigators said Thursday.

Hanssen, a Soviet counterintelligence specialist, pleaded guilty to espionage that spanned much of his 25-year FBI career. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 2002.

He was charged with betraying some of the nation's most important counterintelligence and military secrets in the last stages of the Cold War, including the identities of dozens of spies and informants for the U.S., at least three of whom were executed.

But his ability to escape detection for two decades had less to do with his own craftiness than wholesale bumbling by the FBI, the report by the Justice Department's inspector general said. Officials released an executive summary of the 674-page report, which remains classified.

The report further details shortcomings in the FBI's investigation of Hanssen that were first identified last year by a blue-ribbon commission led by William H. Webster, a former FBI director and CIA chief.

"In our review, we observed serious deficiencies in nearly every aspect of the FBI's internal security program, from personnel security, to computer security, document security, and security training and compliance," the report said.

According to the report, Hanssen had virtually unchecked access to classified information, and he spent hours reading Soviet espionage files or hacking into an antiquated FBI computer network, even though he was widely considered a "mediocre" employee.

He was never given a polygraph examination or required to file a financial disclosure statement, which might have turned up some of the sudden riches that he had gained from his Soviet handlers. The payments included more than $500,000 in cash that funded everything from private schooling for his children to a year-long fling with a stripper, for whom Hanssen bought a Mercedes-Benz and once took on an FBI-paid business trip to Hong Kong.

But his FBI supervisors largely ignored his indiscretions. "Hanssen received minimal supervision in most of his positions, was not required to produce significant work product, and had ample time to plan and commit espionage while on duty," the summary found.

The report includes 21 recommendations for the FBI aimed at improving its ability to deter, detect and investigate potential espionage. They include giving more polygraph tests to FBI employees, conducting more rigorous background investigations of potential employees and requiring bureau employees to make financial disclosures.

While the FBI has made progress on a number of fronts, "some of the most serious weaknesses still have not been fully remedied" and "expose the FBI to the risk of future serious compromises by another mole," the report said.

The report's publication comes as the FBI wrestles with the separate case of a former top China counterintelligence expert in its Los Angeles office who has been accused of mishandling classified data in dealing with an alleged double agent.

The FBI continues to have problems in accounting for its most sensitive documents, the report said, and its computer systems, currently being upgraded, remain "insecure and vulnerable to misuse."

Some involved in the report said the FBI was not moving fast enough to address the issues. Paul Gardephe, a lawyer who worked on the report, described the response from the FBI as: "We are implementing this. We are planning to implement this. We contracted to do this."

"It has been almost 2 1/2 years since the Hanssen arrest. Granted, there is a lot going on," Gardephe said, alluding to the Sept. 11 attacks, "but many of the problems that we talk about were known and have been known about for a long time.

"It is going to take a sustained effort on the part of the Department of Justice and the intelligence community to make sure that these recommendations and improvements actually take place."

In a statement responding to the report, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the bureau has made "significant strides" in many of the areas identified by the inspector general.

The bureau has set up a centralized security division, expanded polygraph testing and, this summer, launched a program requiring senior executives to make financial disclosures.

Mueller also noted that the bureau has created a full-time unit within the counterterrorism division to investigate allegations that spies have penetrated the organization.

According to Gardephe, the authors of the report think the unit should have broader powers. But they said the FBI appears reluctant to make the commitment.

"The structural issue boils down to whether the FBI is willing to consider or accept the possibility that FBI agents and employees are capable of committing espionage," Gardephe said.

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