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Vernon Loeb

Online Column: Intelligencia
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With National Security Reporter Vernon Loeb

Friday, March 9, 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, 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 here.

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.


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washingtonpost.com: 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 now passe?

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.


Washington, D.C.: 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.


Alexandria Va: 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 monitored?

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.


Baltimore, Md.: 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.


Fairfax, Va.: 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.


Vienna Va: 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.


Washington DC: 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 recruiting sources).


Washington, D.C.: 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 Collections Service?

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.


Southampton, England: 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 pay grade.


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 matter?

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.


Albany, NY: 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.: Hello Vernon,

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.


Herndon, Va.: 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 interrogation tools.


Montreal, Canada: 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 brain waves.


Sacramento, CA: 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 further news?

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 under suspicion.


McLean Va: 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.


Washington, D.C.: 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.


Vienna Va: 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 attorney cross-examine?

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 other.


Washington, DC: 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 jobs.


Arlington, Virginia: 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.


Walden, NY: How long do you believe it will take to bring this case to trial and conclusion?

Vernon Loeb: I bet they have a plea negotiated in three-six months. How's that for a not-very-exact answer.


Washington, D.C: As much as a slimeball as I think Hanssen is, I feel sorry for his family.

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.


Washington, D.C.: 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 murder rule.

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 very much.


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