The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
If the government's allegations against FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen are accurate, his disclosures to the Soviet Union and to Russia constitute a betrayal of breathtaking scope. The government claims that Mr. Hanssen, who was arrested Sunday evening on espionage charges, has been spying since 1985 and, during that time, "compromised numerous human sources" of intelligence, including three Russians who were also given up by former CIA officer Aldrich Ames. Two of these men were later executed. Mr. Hanssen is also alleged to have "compromised dozens of . . . classified documents," "technical operations of extraordinary importance and value," and "numerous FBI counterintelligence investigative techniques, sources, methods, and operations." Mr. Hanssen was arrested while allegedly dropping off documents in Fairfax County, Va., and FBI agents recovered $50,000 apparently intended for him. If even a fraction of these allegations proves true, the case is grave.
The investigation that led to Mr. Hanssen's arrest appears to have been impressive -- particularly given the care he allegedly has taken over the years to avoid capture. FBI Director Louis Freeh claimed Tuesday that Mr. Hanssen withheld his identity even from his Russian handlers and routinely checked FBI records to verify that he was not under suspicion. His greed -- his supposed motive for spying -- was at times checked by caution. According to the government's accusation, he was a particularly intelligent mole.
Yet Mr. Freeh's triumphalism about the case seems misplaced; he called it "the direct result of a counterintelligence coup by the FBI." That may be true in the immediate, investigative sense, but it is surely not true of the longer-term failures that must have taken place if such espionage occurred. Indeed, the duration and severity of Mr. Hanssen's alleged activities raise many questions. Were there warning signs that should have tipped off officials earlier -- as in the Ames case? Were the FBI's security procedures ripe for evasion? Are there other double agents still lurking? What long-term damage may the alleged disclosures have caused?
Mr. Freeh has asked William Webster, the former FBI and CIA chief, to examine whether the bureau's security procedures failed and how they might be improved. That's a good first step. Agents recruited by American intelligence deserve better than to be given up by those sworn to protect them.
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