Investigator warned FBI chief a mole was likely within ranks

Interviews reveal course of a botched search

April 22, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Two years before the arrest of a veteran FBI agent accused of spying for Russia, a senior investigator at the FBI concluded in a still-classified report that Moscow might have recruited a mole in the bureau's ranks, current and former bureau officials say.

In early 1999, FBI Director Louis Freeh was told by Thomas Kimmel, the investigator, about his findings. In response, the officials said, senior bureau officials convinced Freeh that Kimmel's reasoning was flawed, and investigators focused their hunt for a mole at the CIA, not the bureau.

But with the arrest in February of bureau agent Robert P. Hanssen on charges of spying for Moscow, Kimmel's suspicions proved correct. In the aftermath of Hanssen's arrest, Kimmel's findings, which have not been previously disclosed, have emerged as a warning within the bureau. The warning first came even as the bureau's spy hunters were searching in the wrong place.

Since the arrest, the bureau and its director have been criticized for failing to detect the betrayal within the agency's ranks for so long. The case has forced senior bureau officials to re-examine their performance in their search for a mole. And, in a series of recent interviews to discuss their actions, they provided insights into the investigative effort that ultimately led to Hanssen.

Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran and counterintelligence expert, was arrested in a Virginia park on Feb. 18, after the government said he left a package of secret documents for his Russian handlers at an agreed-upon spot, known as a dead drop site.

The government said he handed over some of the nation's most closely guarded secrets to the Russians, including the existence of a tunnel under the Russian Embassy in Washington.

The government has charged that Hanssen began to spy for Moscow in October 1985, about five months after a CIA officer, Aldrich H. Ames, offered his services as a spy for the Soviet Union. Yet, the government says, Hanssen eluded investigators for years after Ames' arrest in 1994.

Kimmel said in an interview that he had never warned Freeh or other bureau officials that he suspected Hanssen. "I wasn't saying that I knew there was a mole in the FBI," Kimmel said. "I was saying, in effect, `You can't rule out that possibility.' I thought it was more of a possibility than they did."

Yet Kimmel said he did believe strongly that the evidence was persuasive enough to have prompted an intensive counterintelligence examination of bureau operations.

Neal Gallagher, the bureau's assistant director for national security, who has jurisdiction over all counterintelligence investigations, said in an interview that Kimmel's belief that there was a spy in the FBI was "a gut instinct," not a well-reasoned position.

Gallagher said that Kimmel never provided substantive evidence or investigative leads to support his assertion.

At the time, he said, bureau officials considered the possibility of a mole within the senior ranks of the FBI, but discounted it because the strongest evidence indicated that there was a spy at the CIA.

John Collingwood, an FBI spokesman, said that Kimmel's ideas were taken seriously. He said that Freeh asked Kimmel "to organize his thoughts and provide them" to the bureau's National Security Division.

Publicly, after Ames was sentenced to life in prison in 1994, Freeh and his advisers celebrated their success. But privately, they were unsettled by new intelligence showing that it was highly likely that there were more Russian spies in the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy, the officials said.

The information came in bits and pieces from several Russian agents. But when taken together, the evidence led the spy hunters to suspect that there were at least two more moles. One was believed to have burrowed into the CIA; another was thought to be at the FBI.

The reports seemed to confirm the growing suspicions among U.S. counterintelligence experts that Ames could not have been responsible for all of the losses that U.S. intelligence had suffered, since he did not have access to all of the information that had been compromised.

In response, senior bureau officials organized a new mole-hunting unit, recruiting more than 60 agents from the bureau's offices around the country. The existence of the secret unit was kept from all but a few top officials at the FBI and the CIA.

A new mole-hunting team, similar to one that helped uncover Ames, was also created inside the CIA's counterespionage group within months of Ames' 1994 arrest. The mole hunters' search included a look for possible suspects in the FBI's New York office.

As the New York investigation wore on, at least one Russian source provided enough information to identify Earl Edwin Pitts, an FBI agent who had offered his services as a spy for Moscow in 1987. Pitts was arrested in 1996 and in 1997 was sentenced to 27 years in prison after pleading guilty to espionage.

Kimmel discovered that Pitts had told bureau officials after he pleaded guilty that he thought the Russians might have another spy in the FBI.

On Feb. 12, 1999, his work completed, Kimmel was ushered into a seventh-floor conference room at the bureau's headquarters to discuss his findings on the Pitts case with Freeh, FBI officials said. At the meeting, which was also attended by Gallagher and other senior FBI officials, Freeh asked Kimmel whether he believed there were other spies in the bureau, according to Kimmel's notes.

But the CIA remained the focus of the spy hunt until late 2000. At that point, another secret FBI operation to find new Russian agents by offering big cash rewards in exchange for information produced startling results - ultimately leading investigators to Hanssen.

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