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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2003

The FBI punts another one

Revelations about the FBI's latest scandal, this one involving an alleged Chinese spy, bolster the notion that a complete overhaul is due of the agency, especially its counterintelligence operations.

It's a juicy tale, but another shameful chapter exposing FBI ineptitude in the international spy game.

Katrina Leung, 49, a pretty Chinese-American socialite and Republican Party activist in Southern California, has been arrested on suspicion that she was a double agent, passing U.S. secrets to the Chinese government while she was supposed to be delivering information as an FBI informant.

Among the secrets allegedly betrayed: the botched effort by U.S. intelligence agents to plant espionage devices in an airliner being refurbished for the Chinese government in 2001. The Chinese quickly discovered the bugs, creating an international incident.

Add this to the list of other FBI missteps, including the mishandling of the Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1999 and mistakes in the probe of Zacarias Moussaoui, which might have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Throw in the agency's inexplicable failure to maintain a modern computer system, plus the embarrassment of the Aldrich Ames debacle, and the list seems to go on forever.

In the case of Ms. Leung, she was an FBI informant for nearly 20 years. For most of that time, she reportedly was involved in a sexual relationship with her contact, an agent named James J. Smith, who was the top expert on Chinese counterintelligence in the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

Moreover, Ms. Leung also was involved sexually with a former FBI agent who became security director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government national security and scientific study facility near San Francisco.

Such relationships, had they been known, would have been a warning to Smith's FBI superiors that something was amiss. Where was the strict supervision that counterintelligence demands?

Some in the intelligence business argue that little can be done to protect against an agent who betrays his country. Nonetheless, published reports indicate that the Leung case may move the agency to make changes in how it recruits and handles informants. That is imperative, even if damage to national security turns out to be less than now believed.

Whatever changes are made should be part of a wider overhaul of the bureau and its top officials. After more than a decade of poor management and a string of bungled spy cases, many Americans must be wondering what it will take to get reform at the FBI.

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