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Blind Mole Hunters

August 20, 2003

There's more frustration than shame when an intelligence agency, on occasion, gets outwitted by a master spy. But to be deceived for decades by an ill-supervised mediocrity in your own ranks is something else. And that's exactly what happened to the FBI in the case of turncoat agent Robert Philip Hanssen, concludes Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general.

Hanssen, who pleaded guilty to espionage charges and was sentenced in May 2002 to life in prison, spied with mind-boggling ease for the Russians for decades.

The inspector general's report provides excruciating detail about the agency's slackness: Hanssen used an FBI telephone line and answering machine to communicate with his Russian handlers; he searched the FBI's computer system for references to himself and his drop and signal sites; he deposited KGB cash in a passbook savings account at a bank one block from FBI headquarters.

As the FBI searched for the mole, it focused on the CIA. In his only background reinvestigation in 1996, Hanssen didn't have to file a detailed financial disclosure form. The main investigators didn't even get access to his personnel file or credit reports.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has responded to the report, emphasizing steps the bureau has taken to avoid another Hanssen, including instituting new audits and a financial disclosure program that will cover all FBI employees and contractors with access to sensitive information. But the inspector general rightly says the FBI's most serious security weaknesses have not been fully rectified and leave it open to treachery.

The report, with its 21 recommendations, calls for a "wholesale change in mind-set and approach to internal security." That means the FBI must rid itself of its lingering bunker mentality regarding reform and do more than shuffle paper.

The report recommends that Justice Department criminal division staffers be part of any counterintelligence investigations. This would help ensure there's no complacency about wrongdoing by FBI personnel. The report also says the very computer system Hanssen relied upon for espionage remains "insecure and vulnerable to misuse" and that restrictions on its access must be improved and enforced.

These are no-brainer remedies, but then Hanssen was never regarded in the FBI as anything more than a "mediocre" employee. His mendacity, though, is believed to have betrayed some of America's most important counterintelligence and military secrets at the Cold War's end, including the identities of dozens of U.S. spies and informants, at least three of whom were executed.

No agency can be made traitor-proof, but the FBI must act to show it won't again turn a blind eye to espionage in its midst.

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