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Back Channels With Vernon Loeb

Wednesday, March 7, 2001 1 p.m. EST

Washington Post reporter Vernon Loeb covers national security issues and writes a biweekly column exclusively for the Web. His newspaper column, Back Channels is also carried by this Web site.

In his latest articles and columns, Loeb writes about the case against accused spy veteran FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen; the embassy bombings trial involving alleged members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the appointment of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Vernon will be back online this Friday, March 9 at 1 p.m. EST to continue answering your questions. A transcript of Wednesday's discusssion appears below.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome to our monthly discussion of national security issues with Vernon Loeb. We've got lots of questions so let's get started.

Vernon Loeb: Greetings. We've certainly got a fascinating case to talk about this month. On the spy beat, it's kind of been all Hanssen all the time since the arrest of FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen in the middle of last month. Fire away.


Philadelphia, PA: Something the media seems to overlook on the Hanssen coverage is whether the FBI agent's alleged actions were done for revenge. The Intel Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997 noted that Intel Community staff were reduced by 22.5 percent in the 1993-1999 timeframe. In that environment, even the survivors must swallow their resentment and accept low pay raises, poor job security, negative treatment by managers,etc. The media seems to overlook that the Intel Community is a federal bureaucracy like the IRS, and that work in the community doesn't provide marketable job skills of value in the commercial sector. How many middle-aged employees out there are seething with hatred because their years of dedication put them in a very deep hole when the Congressional budget cuts hit? Congress did nothing significant (e.g., GI Bill) to help people make the post-Cold War transition. In fact, Congress raised the H1B visa limit so that employers could hire 800,000 foreign professionals over the next few years.

Nothing justifies treason, but has Congress's treatment of the Community created hundreds of Hanssens?

Vernon Loeb: You raise an excellent point. I don't know whether Congress has created hundreds of Hanssens or not. I mean, the risks of what he did are enormous, no matter how pissed off one might be. But it's certainly possible that Hanssen was motivated at least partially by revenge. He surely did consider himself to be pretty smart_probably smarter, in his mind, than most of those around him. And clearly, he wasn't going any higher than GS-15, and he knew it. As you point out, Congress needs to be cognizant of the impact of its "reforms" on employees. I certainly believed that the introduction of polygraphs in the national labs in reaction to the Wen Ho Lee case certainly had the potential for pissing a lot of scientists off_and possibly creating greater security problems than they solved. And certainly the same would be possible in the bureau, if the post-Hanssen "reforms" end up making it harder for agents to do their jobs, to be professionals.


Killingworth, CT: I read your article, and was wondering about the proximity of the Metro system tunnels, and/or the Vice President's house at the Naval Observatory to the Russian Embassy? It seems to me that construction of the subway tunnels, or "re-modeling" of the Vice President's home, would be a perfect "cover" for removing tunnel debris. Didn't both these activities take place during the subject time period? I lived in Bethesda in 1977-78, and can recall passing subway tunnel sites along Wisconsin Avenue on my way into or out of the city late at night which were very active with construction activities, apparently around the clock.

Vernon Loeb: You're thinking like a spy. Good work. However, it's my impression that the FBI-NSA tunnel under the Soviet embassy was dug well after completion of the Metro, so I'm not sure there would have been opportunities for smuggling dirt out of a Metro construction site. But you may well be onto something. Clearly, the agencies were able to build the tunnel without anyone knowing it_anyone, of course, but the Russians, who apparently learned of it thanks to Mr. Hanssen. I guess part of the cost-benefit analysis of any multi-million intelligence operation has got to be that it could be compromised from the inside. A lot of very expensive ones certainly have been. That's not necessarily a reason not to do them, but it is clearly a risk factor that should be factored in up front.


Walden, NY: What do you think was the motivation for the Russians to turn over the information that makes up most of the affidavit that was used to make the case against Hanssen. Do you think that it is possible that he was set up by the Russians?

Vernon Loeb: I doubt Hanssen was set up by the Russians. He was far, far too willing a mole for that. I suppose anything is possible. But my guess would be that he was betrayed for any of the standard reasons (in rank order): 1. Money. 2. Revenge. 3. Ideology. 4. Intrigue. Probably some combination of the four. But my bet would be on No. 1--lots of it, millions perhaps, plus a nice defection package that includes annual stipend, health insurance, housing, etc.


Ventnor, NJ:
Hi Vernon,
I recall that after the Ames case, the CIA got blasted by members of Congress and the press for its handling of the case. How would you compare this to the congressional comments and media coverage of Hanssen, who, after all, was reportedly spying for almost twice as long as Ames?

Vernon Loeb: The contrast, which you point out, is striking. The comments made by Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, were basically complimentary of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh after the first recent hearing on the case. The overall tenor of the reaction on Capitol Hill has also been much less harsh. Part of it undoubtedly has to do with Freeh's excellent relations on the Hill--relations that then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey did not necessarily enjoy. And I think, quite frankly, that the CIA is kind of everyone's favorite whipping boy, certainly on the left, and even on the right (especially when Clinton was in office). And, in fairness, part of the muted reaction now has to do with the fact that Hanssen, unlike Aldrich Ames, wasn't leaving obvious signals all over the place that he was living beyond his means. The FBI didn't miss obvious signs_it only missed subtle ones. But I would argue that the bureau is at least as guilty now of the mentality that the agency was guilty of then--that one of ours wouldn't do this, despite the fact that Earl Pitts showed them shortly after Ames that one of theirs could do this. It clearly was a lesson not learned. Had the bureau taken the steps the agency took after Ames, it's at least conceivable--though perhaps not likely--that they would have caught Hansen sooner, on their own.


Vienna, Va: Just curious, if the wife and children of Robert Hanssen had any idea of what he was doing? Media hasn't said much about the family yet. Any thoughts?

Vernon Loeb: From what I gather, Mrs. Hanssen and all six kids knew nothing. Mrs. Hanssen has hired an attorney, a former CIA station chief named Bruckner. One thing I've thought a lot about is how Hanssen, with all his professed morality and piety, could have done this to his family (not to mention his employer and his country). I guess he just thought he's never get caught. Hanssen's friends swear that he's not a sociopath. Rather, they suggest, he's more like a split personality--somebody living a highly compartmented life. But I wonder.


Washington, CT: Does the FBI affidavit give any insight into what other programs were compromised?

Is there any indication he tipped anyone else off about impending investigations other than Bloch?

They always say "This is devastating. He gave away the crown jewels". What is left to give away? With all of the moles (past, present future) are there any real secrets left? The only thing we do not seem to publish on a current basis is NSA transcripts of intercepts.

Vernon Loeb: There have been all sorts of reports about what Hanssen may have compromised beyond the Bloch investigation and the three Russian assets_the tunnel, programs of the Special Collection Service, all sorts of FBI counterintelligence operations, etc. etc. My bet is, as detailed as the FBI affidavit is, they know a lot more about compromises than they're letting on--and they've admitted that there's still a lot they don't know about what Hanssen did between 1991 and 1999--the gap in the affidavit. We know he was couriering documents from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research to FBI headquarters for the past six years. If he was compromising some or all of those documents, the losses could be enormous. As you point out, this spy-vs.-spy game the U.S. plays with its adversaries, particularly Russia, does tend to make one cynical. Is any of this information valuable? Or is it just spies chasing other spies in a game that is of little national security consequence? I tend to take it more seriously than that. As long as we're going to have an espionage service, and a signals intelligence capability, and spy satellites--and I don't see any of those things going away any time soon--they absolutely must be kept as secure as humanly possible. So security and counterintelligence is critical--otherwise, it all really is a joke.


South Hadley, MA: Under what circumstances can a traitor such as Mr. Hanssen be executed?

Vernon Loeb: Hanssen could be executed if it is proven in court that his actions resulted in the executions of human agents, or if he compromised nuclear secrets.


Rockville, MD: Any word on how Hanssen's wife and children are doing?

Vernon Loeb: None. As far as I know they haven't been quoted anywhere. Most of the children--4 of 6, I think--are grown and living away from home. The oldest has two children of her own. I can only imagine that they are devastated.


Huntingtown, MD: There has been a lot of speculation that the death penalty may be used in this case. Considering this is one of the most prolific espionage cases on record, what do you think the real chances of Mr.Hanssen biting the proverbial bullet over this one are?

Vernon Loeb: I think it's unlikely that he will get the death penalty, because I think it's likely he'll ever go to trial. I'm sure the government will be perfectly willing to bargain away the death penalty in return for a full explanation of what Hanssen compromised. If Hanssen isn't happy with life imprisonment and insists upon a trial--and, after all, this guy is capable of anything--then he's rolling the dice on death. Given the government's case, I wouldn't take that chance.


Washington, CT: He had sophisticated radio transmitters in his house. Any indication intelligence was encrypted and transmitted from his house?

Vernon Loeb: I haven't heard that there was. But that doesn't mean there wasn't. He certainly was thinking along those lines. In one of his last letters to his handlers, Hanssen suggested that a Palm Pilot VII could possibly have been of some use in transmitting encrypted data. So what you raise is certainly within the realm of possibility.


Somewhere, USA: Your response to South Hadley is wrong. See the Supreme Court case of Coker v. Georgia, where the Court held that one could not be executed for committing rape where the rape victim did not die, thereby implying that you must personally kill someone to receive the death penalty. The gov't's plans to kill Hanssen are empty threats.

Vernon Loeb: That is not my understanding. But no having read the case you cite (and being far from a legal expert), let me answer your question in hopes that somebody else out there can add something to the debate.


Vienna, VA: We live near one of the alleged spy drop parks, and recent events have set me wondering.... If I had happened to see somebody leaving a plastic-wrapped parcel under a bridge, what should I have done? I have a feeling that if I had contacted the FBI, they would ungratefully have opened up a file on ME.

Vernon Loeb: Well, first I think if you had found such a bag, you absolutely should have called the FBI. Secondly, I doubt the FBI would have opened a file on you if you don't work for the government and have no access to classified documents. On the other hand, if you worked for the CIA and had a security clearance, you would have been, I'm afraid, caught between a rock and a hard place. Though again, depending upon your access, you probably could have talked our way out of it.


Tempe, AZ: Much of the reporting I have seen speaks about the "failure" to identify or detect traitors in the system. Isn't the American public being too unrealistic in their expectation level of agencies such as the CIA or the FBI? After all, traitors have been with us since the beginning of our country. I am not excusing such behavior mind you, just posing the question of just how "secure" these agencies can be without taking on a fortress mentality.

Vernon Loeb: Absolutely. As I said earlier, additional checks by the FBI might have caught Hanssen earlier. But they probably would not have. If someone is bound and determined to commit espionage, and is as smart as Hanssen was, and knows the system as well as Hanssen does, he is almost impossible to stop. You're right. Traitors have been with us. And they're going to be with us. You can almost book it--within the next 10 years, somebody will be caught at the CIA, or the NSA, or the FBI, committing espionage. And over that same period, the CIA and the FBI will recruit hundreds of new spies, which means hundreds of people will be committing treason against their countries.


Moscow Russia: What do you think about Robert P. Hanssen's legend as a phony spy? No photos of him exist outside the court. His links with "SVR" are funny and not proved. The affidavit consists of gaps and pages of different stories. By the way, could you tell us where Mrs. Rosario Ames is now? Finally, what is your opinion about chain of events with Hanssen and around him till May 21? Best wishes and thank you!

Vernon Loeb: I don't think Hanssen is a phony spy. There may well be photos of him (I can't believe the KGB never took his picture clearing a drop), and the gap probably just reflects a gap in the KGB dossier, and in the FBI's knowledge. And, as I understand it, Rosario Ames is back in Colombia.


Walden, NY: How can the FBI make its case without compromising both people and procedures? Will they have to go for lesser charges than what they started with in order to protect assets?

Vernon Loeb: A lot of legal experts believe the FBI is signaling, in the affidavit, that it is willing to put the source of the KGB documents on the witness stand, if need be. Certainly, the FBI had to know that by putting so much info in the affidavit, it was compromising that source. So the source, most people think, is already living the good life in the U.S. of A. However, one expert told me today that he read the affidavit the other way--that the FBI put all that specificity in the affidavit to scare Hanssen, so the source WOULDN'T have to testify. We'll see. I have my doubts about grey mail in this case. Judges, particularly judges in Northern Virginia, tend to be very sympathetic to the government in big spy cases like this.


Washington, D.C.: Has anyone connected Hanssen's perfidy at the State Dept. to the surveillance equipment that the Russian agent was using when he was apprehended? Was Hanssen the guy that installed the equipment?

Vernon Loeb: The FBI does not believe he is the guy who planted the bug in the conference room, because he explicitly says in one of his letters to his SVR handlers that he knew about the bug and that the FBI was onto it--but didn't know who planted it. He actually yelled at his handlers for not alerting him to the operation--and then apologized for not having been able to warn them before they got caught.


Washington, CT: What responsibility does Louis Freeh have for this debacle? Is he the savior because he caught him or the dupe because he didn't administer polygraphs to the CI people? Should Bush keep him?

Vernon Loeb: I don't cover Freeh directly and thus I am not really very knowledgeable about his record as a manager. I'm not ducking the question. I'm just not qualified to answer it. But I will say this: to the extent that FBI misdeeds are found to have compounded the disastrous consequences in both the Hanssen and Wen Ho Lee cases, Louis Freeh should be held accountable. They happened on his watch. I think he would agree.


Amherst, New Hampshire: Philadelphia raises a good point about the 800,000 H1-B's. Many of them are working with highly confidential, company private data. Since they are only here temporarily, doesn't the FBI or CIA consider them a serious risk to our technology infrastructure?

Vernon Loeb: I think both agencies are concerned about that, and the companies for which they work need to think about these issues.


Vernon Loeb: Well, it looks like I'm out of time. I'm told that I may be back for a return engagement later this week.


washingtonpost.com: Due to the high level of interest in this subject, Vernon will be back online this Friday, March 9 at 1 p.m. EST to continue answering your questions. Please check back then for more on the Hanssen case and other national security issues.

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