The U.S. Government Knew of Spy

Friday, February 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – For a number of years, U.S. intelligence officials have had evidence that Russia had a significant pipeline from the U.S. government, yet the FBI failed to conduct a rigorous internal review of its own personnel, current and former government officials say.

The conclusion that Moscow had somehow penetrated the U.S. government, perhaps with a well-placed mole or some other intelligence technique, was drawn by these officials from older threads of evidence in a series of seemingly unrelated breakdowns. Those included the collapse of the 1989 espionage investigation of Felix S. Bloch, a State Department employee, and the unexplained failures of technical intelligence operations aimed at the Russians.

In fact, highly sophisticated electronic surveillance programs against the Russians were compromised in a loss that officials said could have cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars.

Several current and former officials said there were relatively recent concerns, which they declined to detail, that led them to believe there might be a Russian spy. Those suspicions were confirmed late last year when the FBI obtained what now appears to be virtually the entire Russian case file that it says gives full details of Robert Philip Hanssen's espionage career.

Until then, Mr. Hanssen had failed to arouse suspicions, even though he once was caught at FBI headquarters breaking into the computer of Ray Mislock, then a supervisor of a classified unit responsible for Russian counterespionage operations, officials said.

Suspicions grew that another mole was still operating deep in U.S. intelligence in the aftermath of the espionage case against Aldrich H. Ames, the CIA officer sentenced in 1994 to a life term as a spy for Moscow.

Investigators did not believe, for example, that Mr. Ames could have been responsible for the compromise of the Bloch case, and officials said he did not have direct access to the technical operations that were inexplicably blown.

Counterintelligence officials said that the unwillingness of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to require wider use of polygraphs to screen employees for possible security problems was partly responsible for making it more difficult to reveal Mr. Hanssen's alleged work as a spy for Moscow.

To be sure, polygraphs are not always reliable, are not admissible in court, and their use in law enforcement cases has become increasingly disputed. Still, Mr. Hanssen was never given a polygraph, and under current FBI procedures only prospective employees, employees already under suspicion or those assigned to special programs are given polygraph examinations.

By contrast, CIA officers have to undergo periodic polygraph examinations throughout their careers.

Mr. Freeh has already asked William Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, to lead a review of the bureau's internal procedures after the disclosure that Mr. Hanssen's alleged espionage went undetected for more than 15 years.

The current and former officials said the bureau allowed a fairly free exchange of information within the counterintelligence units and agents in the unit were allowed wide access to classified data banks.

Thursday, law enforcement officials said that Mr. Freeh was preparing to announce changes in security procedures in response to the Hanssen case. Among the changes will be more restrictions on access to classified computer databases and more intensive audits of computer use. President Bush, at a news conference Thursday, expressed concern about the alleged penetration of the FBI by a spy, but also said he had confidence in Mr. Freeh. ""I'm pleased that they caught the spy. Now the courts must act."

Mr. Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran and counterintelligence expert, was arrested Sunday in a Virginia park. The government alleges that he was leaving classified material for his Russian contacts.

The FBI charges that he volunteered to the KGB in 1985 and immediately began betraying highly classified information. Officials allege that Mr. Hanssen also betrayed highly classified and tightly compartmentalized technical intelligence programs that were being used against the Russians in the United States.

Former U.S. intelligence officials said that the losses of some highly sensitive technical intelligence programs raised nagging questions among investigators about whether there was yet another mole after Mr. Ames was arrested. One former official said he always believed the idea that Mr. Ames could have betrayed such programs so far outside his own area was "a stretch."