How a double agent defeated the FBI to Russia
With tensions between the United States and Russia at levels not seen since the end of the Cold War and likely not to abate no matter how the war in Ukraine turns out, our national security depends on integrity of our intelligence community. The FBI and CIA must be able to securely plan covert operations and hire Russian double agents to carry out them.
In this context, imagine a top-secret US FBI agent writing this letter to the Russian intelligence chief based in Washington:
“Soon I will send a box of documents. They come from some of the most sensitive and highly organized projects of the US Intelligence community. All are original and support to verify their authenticity. Please acknowledge for our long-term interest that there are a limited number of people in this field. As a collection they showed me, I trust that one of your experienced staff will handle them appropriately. I believe they are sufficient to justify a payment of $100,000 to me.”
Sounds far-fetched? Cannot? Think again, because Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent tasked with counterintelligence and top secret secrecy, began nearly 20 years of spying for the Russians with a letter that closely resembles this one. Hanssen, who began spying in the 1980s, is in federal custody and will remain so for the rest of his life. But he is responsible for the betrayal of our double agent in Moscow, and for leaking a steady pipeline of American intelligence to Russia for two decades. The legacy of his betrayal continues to reverberate to this day.
As the daughter of an FBI agent and a third-generation federal prosecutor, I grew up believing that the men and women of the FBI have always been good people, fighting crime, and working hard for their cause. The ultimate goal is to keep us all safe. My father was the FBI type, and so were the people I worked with. My father said that the Hanssen case was a devastating black spot for the Bureau.
While so many people are working hard to keep Americans safe, Robert Hanssen is also working hard to betray the agency he swore allegiance to and the people and country to which he swore. will protect. Selling his state secrets to the Russians cost his life, including Dmitri Polyakov, one of our most productive Russian assets, and gut-wrenching operations critical to security nation.
According to a Webster Commission report made after Hanssen’s arrest, Hanssen asked the FBI to build a file containing top-secret and special-access program information about “an extremely important program to use.” in response to a nuclear attack”. The report places a value of ten billion dollars on the information he provided to the Russians. In the process, he also drained the FBI’s reputation and branded it in ways that still resonate: it was an agency under siege, an agency unable to regulate itself from within. and a vulnerable organ. A 2003 report by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice harshly criticized: “[The FBI] suffered from a lack of cooperation with the CIA and from a lack of attention from senior management… The FBI did not cooperate with the CIA to address the cause of these losses or to thoroughly investigate whether an FBI figure could be responsible. responsible for these failures. In short, the FBI failed to police itself.
“I have no reason to believe that the FBI, CIA and DOE are not currently recruiting.”
– FBI Agent Jack Thompson
Hanssen is where he should be, spending the rest of his life in prison, but much of it remains questions about his motives, his psyche, and the damage he’s done; whether the FBI has blinded itself to the lessons it should have learned; and whether we are better protected today against a new Robert Hanssen than we are from the man who actually gutted America’s secrets.
When writing my book, A Spy in Plain Sight, about Hanssen and the damage he caused to the FBI and to our country, I interviewed numerous past and present FBI and CIA agents, and I asked them all the same question. : “Could there be another Hanssen today?” The answer is yes!” This answer is often followed by an even colder qualifier: “And probably already was.”
These agents knew that the FBI and CIA had implemented more procedural safeguards because of Hanssen, including increased analysis of spies and extensive financial disclosure. But the fractured domestic policies and politics that encourage today would be espionage. For example, when the Republican majority refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, or when seasoned senators and House minority leaders continue to paint the 6th attack. January 2021 into the US Capitol as a tourist prank. disappeared, the fabric of the nation weakened.
These fissures quickly become wide rifts, not only for American politicians but also in places like the FBI that defends the Constitution and is on the front lines of upholding the rule of law. Such a ferocious attack has an exponential divide, as it essentially depletes morale and activity. It provides a tacit license to people in such organizations, who may be having financial problems or unhappy with their career advancement or exist on the fringes of subcultures — or just simply seeking the thrill of improving a life bound by bureaucracy — to yield to their own worst instincts, the dark angels in their souls.
Once that boundary is crossed, you can generate all the graphs you want, run all the credit checks imaginable, but there will always be a special agent with high security. , who slips through the net, collects some important secrets, and writes a letter to the Russians.
For a recent example of how this line is crossed, consider Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, the Maryland couple arrested last year for trying to sell some of their most closely guarded nuclear submarine secrets. America. Jonathan Toebbe, a nuclear engine expert who worked for the US Navy as a civilian, is accused of trying to sell secrets about nuclear engines to an undercover FBI agent through a series of messages. Rumor has it that memory cards are hidden in peanut butter sandwiches, Band-Aid wrappers, and packets of gum.
Toebbe allegedly sent a brown envelope to an unidentified foreign government in April 2020. Inside the envelope were sensitive US Navy documents and instructions on how the country – considered by security experts to be an ally of the United States – will respond with an encrypted email service.
In Toebbe’s case, a foreign government turned over the contents of his envelope to the FBI, starting a covert operation to arrest him. But what if Toebbe sent envelopes to the Russians? Did the Russians turn over valuable information to the FBI? I think not.
Of the 150 U.S. citizens convicted or charged with espionage since the start of World War II and shortly after Hanssen’s arrest, 42% of them were government employees. As Dave Szady, the former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, told me: “Will it happen again? Well, was the bank robbed again? Will someone be killed again? How about corruption? You would think politicians would know that corruption is not a good idea, but do you think it will happen again? Of course it will. People commit crimes and they won’t stop. And espionage is a crime.”
FBI Special Agent Jack Thompson, who was involved in the Hanssen mole hunt, said, “After 30 years in the FBI, 17 of which were Department of Energy (DOE) counterintelligence agents, I don’t have one. No reason to believe there isn’t. “Currently the FBI, CIA and DOE are not hiring.”
And, if the FBI has a mole, how can it act effectively against another Hanssen or Toebbe? Even in a mature democracy, the rule of law can be hung by a thin thread. The FBI’s failure to police adequately on its own or to subvert its mandate or abuse its vast investigative powers may be the only difference between a government of, of, the people and a government of the people. of a few autocrats.
Oddly enough, a special agent or officer could have crossed that fateful line and sold the secret to the Russians. And this time it’s not just US assets and operations abroad that are at stake – but democracy itself.
The only way to strengthen organizations like the FBI and CIA is to restore integrity and trust in the rule of law. To do that, we must stop politics from bleeding into the intelligence agencies. Political rifts should always be secondary to the importance of the Constitution and democracy.
When analyzing Hanssen’s motives for spying, money is certainly an important factor. However, according to his psychiatrist, Dr David Charney, and his best friend Jack Hoschouer, Hanssen was also driven by the glitz of a James Bond-type character, by the constant need was highly regarded for his stellar work, and misled the perception that by passing secrets to the Russians, he would somehow make America stronger in the long run. These dynamics are hardly unique to Robert Hanssen – they are universally applicable.
One source I can only identify as one of the nation’s leading authorities on advanced forensics — the kind of expert that both Fortune 100 companies and government agencies rely on to avoid hacking. and find the culprits as they happen – told me, “Once you” are cleared and you’re in the FBI or CIA or NSA, you are trusted, so no one is tracking you and you can do whatever you want. The kind of information you had access to at the time would blow anyone away. It’s better than trust. “
Real life, not belief, is warning us: we should better learn from past failures, like Hanssen, not let history repeat itself.
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