With National Security
Reporter Vernon Loeb
Friday, March 9, 2001; 1 p.m.
Washington Post reporter Vernon Loeb covers national security issues and
writes a biweekly column exclusively for the Web. His newspaper
column, 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.
On Wednesday, March 7 Loeb took questions on the Hanssen case for
the full hour. Read a transcript
On Friday, March 9 at 1 p.m. EST, Loeb will continue to answer
questions about the Hanssen case and other national security issues.
A transcript follows.
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.
To read the most
recent responses, click "Get New Responses"
or select "Automatically
Welcome to the second part of Vernon Loeb's discussion of the Robert
Hanssen case and other national security issues. You can find a
transcript of the first part of the discussion by clicking on the link
in the introduction above.
Vernon Loeb: Hello again. Welcome to the Hanssen Hour, part
II. Lets get going here, and I'll try to answer as many of your
questions as I can. And will the participant who asked me on Wednesday
about possible radio transmissions please contact me here at the paper.
I'd like to chat further.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:
How often does it happen that a breach of security occurs at a friendly
secret service which is being penetrated, compromising intelligence
operations or the security of agents in the field, of another service?
e.g. British or Israeli services vis-a-vis their US-counterpart.
And, can it be discovered independently?
Finally, in last Wednesday's discussion of national security issues
you mentioned that betrayal of one's country can take place for any of
the "standard reasons (in rank order): 1. Money. 2. Revenge. 3.
Ideology. 4. Intrigue."
What about sex? Or has it been omitted intentionally because it is
Vernon Loeb: This probably goes without saying, but for the
record, let me make this perfectly clear: Sex is not passe. Since
Wednesday's chat, I was reading a piece by former CIA Profiler Jerrold
Post on the psychology of betrayal, and he quoted a former Soviet intel
officer named Stanislav Levchenko as saying that the KGB had identified
"four patterns of vulnerability" in Western officials: money, ideology,
sex, and ego. So that is probably a better formulation of the top four
motivating factors for traitors than the one I used on Wednesday.
If you think the primary motivation for the Russian mole to turn Hanssen
in was money, that would mean the Russian was either high level, or that
lower-level agents knew all about Hanssen. In the intelligence
community, do all agents know who double agents are? I frankly think
that there must have been an agreement with the U.S. press and the
government to downplay the issue of the Russian mole who turned Hanssen
in for security reasons. Am I right?
Vernon Loeb: Actually, we ran a piece on this subject today,
so there is certainly no agreement between the US Government and we
reporters on downplaying the identity of the mole. But you ask a good
question. No, I don't think most low level counterintelligence officers
know who the moles are. Most experts I talk to believe that the Hanssen
case file was extremely tightly held, and for that reason, the Russians
most likely have a short short list of potential suspects, if they
haven't identified their mole already. I guess I basically feel that the
U.S. source has to be safe now, either in the U.S. or in some third
country (or possibly deceased). Otherwise, the prosecutors wouldn't have
shown so much of their hand in the affidavit filed shortly after the
arrest of accused FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen on Feb. 18.
How could someone send a letter to a Soviet Agent, by US mail, to make
the initial contact, and the letter not be screened by the FBI. I get
the impression that the agent who received the letter was a very high
ranking agent and known to the FBI. Wouldn't his letters be routinely
Vernon Loeb: As former FBI counterintelligence analyst Paul
Moore told me, in explaining the theory behind accommodation addresses:
You can't monitor everything. I don't think the KGB officer to whom
Hanssen began writing was a senior official. But he was a known KGB line
officer, and several CI experts have said that they believe the failure
to monitor his mail was a critical error.
I'm really puzzled by one aspect of this case: How could Hanssen have
hoped to conceal his identity from the Russians -- couldn't they have
photographed him (as you suggested in one of your answers on Wednesday)
-- or followed him and thereby identified him after he made one of his
drops? What am I missing?
Vernon Loeb: I'm similarly puzzled. FBI Director Louis J.
Freeh flatly asserted in the Feb. 20 press conference announcing
Hanssen's arrest that the Russians didn't know his identity until the
FBI made it public that morning. I have my doubts. Like you, I cannot
believe they didn't photograph Hanssen clearing a drop, or at least
surveil him to see what he looked like. If they did that, then figuring
out his name wouldn't have been hard. And they would have wanted to
know, just to make sure he wasn't a dangle. I suppose it can be said
that they never photographed him or surveilled him out of respect for
his security--because doing so could have compromised him. So, as you
say, it's mystery.
Ames in the CIA. Hanssen in the FBI. Things happen in threes they say,
so I'm wondering if in your web of contacts and interviewees you have
heard any speculation that there is a spy within the NSA. It seems the
one agency that hasn't discovered to have been compromised.
Vernon Loeb: I have heard nothing along those lines. And if
there were a mole suspect in the NSA, I doubt I would hear anything
about that (or else security in the U.S. Intelligence Community would be
truly pathetic, which, despite what you may hear on Capitol Hill, it
clearly is not). The NSA has certainly had it's spies in the past. And
human nature being what it is, I think it's only prudent to assume that
over the next decade, all of the big three will probably find traitors
in their ranks. The trick will be in catching them quickly, as in the
Nicholson case, and minimizing the amount of damage they are able to do.
How could Soviet Agents go to local parks, make, and pickup "dead drops"
for 15 years and never be followed by the FBI? If they had followed an
agent even one time, they would have gotten a wind of the spying
activity. This seems to me to be totally inconceivable.
Vernon Loeb: Good point, and this is specially true in light
of the fact that Hanssen used the same dead drops (in your home town)
over and over again; made far more drops than he had to; and used the
same drop as his handler (instead of him using one site, and they
another). So it is hard to understand. The Soviets probably used
different people all the time to clear the drops, and they probably went
to extreme lengths--given Hanssen's value--to clean themselves of
surveillance before clearing a drop. But perhaps William Webster will
identify this as yet another FBI mistake.
Somewhere I read that the entrance to the tunnel was in a nearby
townhouse. Has the location been revealed? I live in the same
neighborhood and there are a few "strange" houses in the area (curtains
always drawn, no one is seen outside the houses during the day, etc.).
But these are more than a few blocks away from the Russian compound. I
don't want to give the exact addresses for fear of "Men In Black"
showing up at my door. Maybe these houses have some other purpose--what
is a "safe house"?
Vernon Loeb: The exact address of the tunnel townhouse has not
been revealed. I'd love to talk with you further about strange events in
the neighborhood. Maybe you could call me. (Just like spies, I'm always
Since the disclosure of the tunnel under the Russian Embassy there has
been less coverage of the Special Collections Service angle of the
Hanssen by the media. Do you think this "tunnel story" was deliberately
leaked by the government to divert media attention from the Special
Vernon Loeb: I do not believe the tunnel story was
deliberately leaked by the government. I think the government would much
prefer that it had not come out. If the government had leaked the story,
presumably the "government" would have been more forthcoming with me
about the tunnel, which I can assure you, it was not. My conversations
with current government officials about the tunnel ended very quickly,
indeed. And I don't believe they're trying to deflect attention from the
Special Collection Service. I mean, it is basically known that the
Special Collection Service exists as a means of combining human spies
and techies--a means of getting up close and personal to targets by
fusing HUMINT and SIGINT. Hanssen can't compromise the Special
Collection Service--it's an agency, or unit. He could, and probably did,
compromise some of its operations. But I've seen nothing specific on
such a compromise.
I would be curious to know if you had ever heard any rumors of the
alleged tunnel under the Russian Embassy before the story that ran on
Monday. Is The Washington Post now investigating from which particular
row house it emanated? Finally, if you had been made aware of its
existence while it was still a "secret," would you have argued in favor
of printing the story? Best regards.
Vernon Loeb: I knew nothing about the tunnel until James
Risen, my extremely worthy competitor for The New York Times, broke the
story. If I had learned of its existence while it was still secret, any
decision to publish a story about it would have been very, very
interesting. The Washington Post's policy is that we reserve the right
to reveal classified information, but always entertain requests from
officials not to publish information in cases here publication would
harm national security. In this case, officials clearly would have asked
us not to print a story, and I can't believe we would not have agreed to
withhold the story. But, that's a decision that's made way, way above my
Los Angeles, CA:
Is there a danger of rushing to judgement similar to the Wen Ho Lee
situation? It seems as if Mr. Hanssen has been convicted in the media,
yet will still plead "not guilty."
Also, what is your take on the Deutch receiving a pardon while Lee
did not, despite President Clinton being "deeply troubled" by the
Vernon Loeb: Rushing to judgement is always something to worry
about. It seems the evidence against Hanssen is very, very strong. But
it always bears repeating: he's innocent until proven guilty. I don't
make much of the fact that he says he's pleading not guilty--it's a
matter of tactics for the moment. But again, for now, he's
innocent--merely accused of spying. As for the Deutch pardon, I think
it's defensible on the merits, but highly questionable for the way it
came down--without any warning to the prosecutors, who had just finished
negotiating a misdemeanor guilty plea with Deutch--and who, after all,
were only doing exactly what Clinton's attorney general asked them to
do. As for pardoning Wen Ho Lee, I don't believe he should have been
pardoned--on the basis of Justice Department criteria.
Has anyone done an assessment concerning how much secondary damage might
have been done inside the U.S. by people like Hanssen? I find it hard to
believe that the damage was done only to persons inside the Soviet Union
and Russia. Did the FBI investigate otherwise innocent persons inside
the U.S. who had potential access and were used as cover by the real
spy? How much damage did the FBI do to people on their "bigot lists?"
Vernon Loeb: I have seen no assessment of such damage. And a
complete damage assessment in this case will take years, if it can ever
really be done comprehensively. (Aldrich Ames's damage is still not
fully assessed, after all).
College Park, Md.:
Keep up the good work (Pincus, too)!
To what extent did Ames and Hanssen damage the well-being of the US?
It seems to me that their treachery undoubtedly harmed our intellegence
efforts, but that's not the same thing as harming the country itself.
Vernon Loeb: Yes indeed, the U.S. won the Cold War, and the
Soviet Union lost, in spite of Hanssen. On super-macro terms, his damage
couldn't have been that great. On the other hand, he was able to give
the Russians an awful lots of secret plans and analysis from inside the
U.S. government that went beyond just the identities of U.S. agents in
place. So I think his damage exceeds that of spy-vs.-spy. To an extent,
it's hard to estimate in retrospect. If some type of confrontation had
developed back at the time he was allegedly spying, his compromises
could have been enormous.
Do you think this latest disaster will force the FBI and other agencies
to start using lie detectors? I look at it as one step up from reading
entrails, but it's CYA, if nothing else.
Vernon Loeb: I think it's virtually a certainty that the FBI
will go to periodic re-polygraphs, just like the CIA and the NSA. (The
FBI already uses the polygraph to screen all job applicants).
Personally, I don't like polygraphs. I wouldn't want to take one as a
condition of employment--because I think the most honest people have the
most trouble with them. And I think using the shaky "science" of
polygraphy to deny people employment in particular government agencies
is wrong and unconstitutional. Having said all that, if I were a
counterespionage official whose job it was to search for spies within
the government's ranks, I would want to use polygraphs. They scare
people, they probably deter people, and they are very effective
Besides polygraphs, aren't there any other "lie detectors" out there?
Also, don't you think that polygraphs are more of a "psych warfare"
instrument to deter misbehavior?
Vernon Loeb: Yes, as I just said, the main utility of
polygraphs comes in their deterrent effects, and in their use as
interrogation tools. They scare the hell out of people, who have
basically come to believe in the myth of their exactitude. And once
you're scared, you're in trouble on the box. There are certainly
alternative technologies out there that are more reliable than
polygraphs, or so say their proponents. One of them involves reading
To follow up on Albany, NY's question, your paper recently did a story
about a CIA agent who was under suspicion and now may be cleared. Any
Vernon Loeb: As far as I know, that agent hasn't been
cleared--and may never be. There could always be other moles in place,
right? There is no end to paranoia and suspicion, which on same very
basic level is what counterespionage comes down to. Everyone, on some
level, is a suspect. Many, many officers at the CIA have had their
careers ruined hydrous such suspicion. After Ames' arrest, 350 CIA
officers couldn't get through polygraph examinations. Does this mean
they were spies? Absolutely not, but proving the negative is impossible.
So many of them got cashiered. I know of another guy whose career went
down the drain because he married a Ukrainian woman without permission.
To sum up, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that officer we
wrote about who has been suspended with pay for 18 months never gets
cleared by the FBI. Government agencies often have a hard time admitting
their mistakes, especially in a world where everyone--by definition--is
I got the impression, reading the affidavit, that in one drop, Hanssen
did not receive his money. Is it possible that an ordinary citizen
could of found the drop by mistake, and taken it? What would the
Soviets had done in that case?
Vernon Loeb: I know there was one drop that the KGB put under
the wrong corner of a footbridge,and Hanssen allegedly failed to see it.
Had a KGB drop to Hanssen been stolen, what probably would have
happened--just as happened in the case I mentioned--is that Hanssen
would have backed off for several months and tried to assess the
situation to see if it had been compromised, and then re-established
contact by writing again to an accommodation address.
I see you already referenced the unfortunate forthcoming of an expansion
of the polygraph program, but I am wondering if you have had any
discussions with sources within the Bureau or other intelligence
agencies to get a flavor of how the actual employees feel about this? Is
not anyone within the government willing to publicly oppose responding
in a knee jerk fashion simply because of a public outcry for use of a
device most people don't understand does not work?
Vernon Loeb: Well, the scientists at the national labs went
ballistic (forgive the pun)at the prospect of being polygraphed--and
succeeded in getting the program put on hold. I think people at the CIA
are pretty much resigned to being polygraphed--they don't like it, but
the vast majority get through it without too much trouble, and they're
realists--they know their bosses aren't going to give it up. I suspect
FBI agents would react similarly.
From a legal perspective, how can any evidence, except the last dead
drop, be used against Hanssen? How would the prosecutor confirm
evidence in the dossier to be accurate? How would the government
confirm its authenticity in a court of law? Who would the defense
Vernon Loeb: Good question. Prosecutors would probably have to
put the source of the documents on the witness stand. Failing that, they
would have to call another former KGB officer to testify that he saw
these exact same documents within KGB channels. Failing that, they would
call a CIA officer or FBI agent to testify about how the documents were
obtained. Most legal experts think the actual source would have to
testify. Remember, the CIA did produce one of its clandestine sources to
testify at the Pan Am 103 trial last year.
The Hague, The Netherlands:
In the wake of the Hanssen case, the FBI has decided to greatly increase
its use of polygraphs to screen employees. This comes despite repeated
warnings from the Bureau's top scientific expert on polygraphs that the
procedure has no validity whatsoever and that anyone can be taught to
beat this kind of "test" in a few minutes.
If this is right, then by increasing our reliance on polygraphs, we are
undermining national security, not enhancing it. The Washington Post,
along with other major newspapers, has been silent on this point. Has
The Post been exercising self-censorship in covering polygraph policy?
Vernon Loeb: Not at all. You make a very valid point which I
have addressed in past articles, and which we will be addressing in
future articles. The Washington Post takes absolutely no position in the
polygraph debate and would never agree at the request of government
officials to ignore that debate or silence those on one side or the
Someone remarked that the Hanssen case means that the FBI will shortly
have to go to Congress for funding to recruit and train a MASSIVE number
of new agents--on account that virtually EVERY agent in CI or who was
ever involved in CI over the past 15 years is now hopelessly
compromised. Your reaction?
Vernon Loeb: I don't see that happening. Hanssen didn't really
compromise FBI CI agents. They are who they are. They can still do their
On a scale of 1 to 100, what would you rank the chance of Hanssen
actually being a triple agent? Somebody was saying that since his
lawyers have made it clear that he will be pleading not guilty, which
bodes for a looooong trial and appeals process, that the longer he
doesn't face the death penalty, the higher the chances are that this was
all in fact a gigantic disinformation plot to fool the Soviets, and the
time came to simply pull the plug on the operation.
Vernon Loeb: I don't think he's a triple agent, and I doubt
there will be a trial.
How long do you believe it will take to bring this case to trial and
Vernon Loeb: I bet they have a plea negotiated in three-six
months. How's that for a not-very-exact answer.
As much as a slimeball as I think Hanssen is, I feel sorry for his
Will Bonnie and the six kids still get retirement benefits from the FBI?
Vernon Loeb: I think he will forfeit his pension, which means
his wife and kids will get nothing. I could be wrong, but that is my
understanding. It's one of the risks he took, and it's one of the things
that makes his alleged betrayal of his family all the more outrageous.
New York, N.Y.:
Everyone seems to be so puzzled about Hanssen's motive. Is anyone in the
investigation considering the possibility that, despite the anti-Soviet
philosophy that Hanssen espoused at work, he may have actually believed
in what he was doing? That is, is anyone entertaining the notion that
Hanssen may have been a true supporter of the USSR and of the Russian
Federation on political grounds?
Vernon Loeb: I'm sure people will ask Hanssen about that. But
I would be shocked to find that he is a USSR sympathizer. His friends
still believe that on some level, his anti-Soviet rhetoric was genuine.
Somewhere, USA [From Wednesday]is incorrect about the government not
being able to execute Hanssen. The case he cites does not prevent
capital punishment from being inflicted on one who does not actually
kill someone else. People who contract for the murder of others can be
executed, such as drug kingpins, and people who participate in a felony
that lead to the death of someone can be convicted under the felony
Vernon Loeb: That's what I thought. Hanssen, if he is proven
guilty of causing the execution of human agents, or of compromising
nuclear secrets, could have the death penalty.
Vernon Loeb: Well, I think my time is up. The hour flew by,
and I thought your questions were fantastic. You all should be talk show
hosts. We'll continue this discussion next month. By then, we'll
undoubtedly know more about the mysterious Mr. Hanssen. Thank you all
Get New Responses
© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post