Spy case reveals flaws in hiring, monitoring

`Something wrong with the system,' private expert says

October 07, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The federal investigation into a former White House and FBI employee alleged to have stolen classified files raises serious questions about the government's vetting in hiring workers and monitoring them on the job, former intelligence officers said yesterday.

The former employee, Leandro Aragoncillo, 46, is pursuing a plea agreement, according to court documents. A former Philippine police official, Michael Ray Aquino, 39, alleged to be an associate of Aragoncillo, was indicted yesterday and charged with passing classified information to present and former officials in the Philippines.

"These things happen when there is something wrong with the system," said James Carafano, a security specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

The case might also prompt government officials to rethink policies designed to broadly disseminate information throughout the government in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Aragoncillo, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in the Philippines, and Aquino were arrested last month and charged in a criminal complaint with stealing classified information and acting as agents of a foreign government.

The FBI began investigating Aragoncillo after it got a tip from the Homeland Security Department last spring.

The FBI audited Aragoncillo's computer activity and found that he had accessed classified documents that he was not authorized to see, despite his "top secret" security clearance at the FBI. He also took files home, according to court papers.

In total, he took 101 classified documents from the FBI, the government said. The files were related to the Philippines, and he sent information, which included embarrassing details about at least one former Philippine president, to a contact in the Philippines to help out the opposition party.

The FBI is still investigating what documents Aragoncillo might have taken while at the White House, where he worked for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney from 1999 to 2001, a government official said.

ABC News reported last night that Aragoncillo, who had personal financial problems, was recruited with money and appeals to ethnic pride in the summer of 2000 to feed secret information to the Philippine opposition.

The network said employees of Cheney's office are being interviewed by federal agents, who are also looking into the possibility that Aragoncillo might have given information to a second, unspecified country as well.

Several former intelligence officials said that if the allegations are true, it indicates that there is a significant problem with the White House system to protect classified information.

"This means the White House has no system of monitoring people's computer activities," one such source said. "The only word for that is shocking."

The White House refused to comment on the investigation.

At the FBI, there is a system that signals a security alert if someone tries to get into a database without proper authorization. But Aragoncillo did not trigger it because he did not tap into "crown jewels," super-sensitive information, a federal official said.

ABC reported that Aragoncillo passed multiple lie-detector tests.

A former FBI official said the FBI's vetting process should have uncovered Aragoncillo's alleged theft at the White House before he was hired by the FBI as an intelligence analyst. FBI job applicants are given lie-detector tests that include questions such as whether they provided classified information to a foreign power.

In 2001, after the FBI discovered that one of its agents, Robert Hanson, had sold secrets to the Russians, the government moved to beef up the effectiveness of its checks of FBI employees, both before and during their employment. It required lie-detector tests and background checks of criminal records of all employees every five years, as well as requiring financial disclosures. The FBI also hired more and higher-qualified people to conduct the checks.

But those measures have never been fully implemented, a former FBI official said.

That former official also said he was concerned that security officials who are not employees, such as private contractors and state and local law enforcement, have full access to FBI databases through local task forces, but they are not required to take lie-detector tests.

Post-9/11 pressures to improve access to information throughout the federal government curtailed some information security measures that would have restricted access within the FBI and outside of it, one U.S. official said.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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