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Published: 8/21/2003

A spy's legacy

FBI agent Robert Hanssen began spying for the Soviet Union within three years of his hiring. He stayed at it for 22 years before he was caught. Three of our spies in foreign countries were executed because of information he provided. Huge hunks of the structure of our intelligence operations were compromised.

Hanssen didn't succeed at betrayal because he was clever. A report summary from the FBI's inspector general found that he had been a mediocre agent with weak managerial skills. As a spy, it said, he was reckless and without expert knowledge of the ways and means of spying.

He lasted and prospered and did so much damage for so long because of a Mr. Magoo-shortsightedness on the part of the FBI itself. Its officials could not imagine one of their own turning on the agency and the nation. As a result, it had few internal checks on its agents after they were hired to assure their integrity.

For example, it had no way to track the documents Hanssen took. It never gave regular polygraph tests to him or, one can assume, others. And only once did it check on his personal finances. Had the FBI done so, it might easily have seen that he lived well beyond his means.

The inspector general's summary is a distillation of a 383-page classified report, which itself summarizes a top-secret one of 674 pages. It offers 21 recommendations to assure that the FBI can better detect moles in its midst. They include setting up a computerized central information bank to analyze data about agents in sensitive jobs and annual financial disclosures. The agency said it had begun incorporating these proposals, along with random polygraph examinations and more extensive background information-gathering on new agents.

Security is a carefully detailed business that requires consistent and thorough habits. It can seem boring and rudimentary, like oil changes on one's car or preventive maintenance on public infrastructure. But without it, things fall apart.

Robert Hanssen's longevity as a spy in the FBI's midst has marred its reputation and that of every agency director who came and went during his tenure. Worse yet, it has sorely diminished people's trust in the institutions of governance.



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