U.S. intelligence failures: The buck stops nowhere

The Argument

An outpouring of serious books about espionage reveal the CIA and the FBI as incompetent in policing spying both inside and outside their agencies.


January 20, 2002|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

A splashy run of spy cases -- including the first-ever FBI agent convicted of espionage for the Russians, and the first CIA agent to defect -- led Time to label 1985 as "The Year of the Spy." Now, 2002 is shaping up as the Year of the Spy Book. Before Groundhog Day, five major new espionage books are already out.

Three feature FBI double agent Robert Hanssen, an extraordinarily damaging spy who went undetected for over 21 years, and was then caught only because a Russian gave him up. The other two trace the massive and ultimately unsuccessful government persecution of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Together, these books -- and an increasing flock of more peripheral ones -- offer a sweeping survey of two decades of U.S. intelligence successes and failures. They also reveal a deeply troubling culture in the FBI and CIA in which secrecy routinely shrouds incompetence, bureaucratic inertia stifles action and the buck stops nowhere.

Bob Hanssen spied for the Russians because he was not appreciated by the FBI, after a childhood in which he was belittled and abused by his father, a Chicago cop. It's pure pop-psych, but Hanssen's deep need for Dad's recognition may well have motivated him to start spying.

But it's also clear that Hanssen's spying continued because the FBI made it absurdly easy. The bureau adamantly refused regular lie detector tests for agents (which the CIA has long required), and Hanssen was able to hack into a vast array of sensitive documents on his computer. Once, he bragged to a supervisor that he could hack into any document, then proved it, printing a classified document from the supervisor's computer. No warning flags, nothing happened.

At his father's urging, Hanssen studied dentistry, then accounting, then joined the Chicago police force (Dad did not approve). After a brief stint in internal affairs, he moved on to the FBI, and soon started serving up to the Russians a deadly cornucopia of classified secrets from virtually every U.S. intelligence agency.

Hanssen was a mare's-nest of contradictions. The prudish, religious (he confessed to at least one priest that he spied for the Soviet Union) father of six cavorted with a Washington stripper (who accompanied him on an FBI inspection trip to Hong Kong -- no one noticed), but also tried to persuade her to quit stripping and go to church. Liberal ideas expressed in "Doonesbury" were enough to make Hanssen "vomit," but he posted sexually explicit material about his wife on the Internet, using his real name. The very mediocrity of his FBI career -- and the fact that he was often left alone with documents -- contributed to his unprecedented success as a spy.

The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History, by David A. Vise (Atlantic Monthly Press, 272 pages, $25) traces the superficially parallel careers of Hanssen and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Joining and leaving the FBI that "one loved and the other loathed" at about the same time, they were both members of the same Roman Catholic church, both were active in Opus Dei, a conservative, secretive movement within the Catholic church. But Hanssen and Freeh in fact had no direct interaction, and so Vise's structure occasionally seems forced, as the more compelling Hanssen spy story is interrupted by Freeh's career highlights.

Nevertheless, The Bureau and the Mole is a carefully researched and compelling account, with a startling bombshell: in 1990, Hanssen's brother-in-law and fellow FBI agent Mark Wauck reported to his FBI superiors in Chicago that Hanssen was spending far beyond his bureau salary, had thousands in cash hidden in his home and that Wauck suspected Hanssen was spying for the Russians.

Incredibly, the FBI did nothing. Hanssen's spying continued another 10 years. It was a criminal blunder, no one accountable, a bureaucratic indifference that supports Freeh's charge that the FBI's "hollow middle" (time-serving bureaucrats between eager new agents and skilled senior management) is susceptible to shoddy work and worse.

Unfortunately, such bureaucratic bumbling is not limited to the FBI. In The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History, by Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman (Little, Brown & Company, 256 pages, $26.95), the authors recount how CIA agent Aldrich Ames came under suspicion of spying after he began driving around in a white Jaguar and paid cash for a $540,000 home.

A preliminary inquiry quickly disclosed that Ames had received recent wire transfers totaling about $40,000. But before anyone traced the transfers, the investigator was ordered into a routine training program. After that, the probe was forgotten, and Ames sold secrets to the Soviets for three more years.

The Spy Next Door is a highly readable account that strips away Good Bob's straight-arrow facade, to reveal a Bad Bob who betrayed his country on an unprecedented scale.

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