Nearly four years before the FBI arrested Robert P. Hanssen on charges of spying for Moscow, it got a tip that he had compromised the bureau's computer security system. The source was former FBI agent Earl Pitts, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to spying for Russia and was sentenced to 27 years in prison. During post-plea questioning Pitts was asked whether he knew of any other espionage within the bureau. He said he didn't but then mentioned an "unusual" computer hacking incident involving Hanssen.
The incident occurred in the early 1990s. Pitts said he was told that Hanssen, a counterintelligence specialist, had broken into the classified computer of another official. But the FBI knew about the break-in before Pitts mentioned it and had bought Hanssen's story that he was simply testing the computer system's security. The FBI's dismissal of Pitts' suspicion as old stuff and its failure to put Hanssen under close scrutiny allowed the hemorrhaging of its secrets to continue. Not until last February was Hanssen arrested -- after, the government alleges, 15 years of espionage and $1.4 million in payment for his services.
It was up to the FBI to heed the alarm bells that should have clanged loudly when Hanssen hacked into a computer whose contents were none of his business. The departure of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, whose tenure was marked by a notable number of organizational blunders, offers the opportunity for an institutional shakeup that seems long overdue.
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