August 15, 2003
F.B.I. Failed to Act on Spy Despite Signals, Report Says
ASHINGTON, Aug. 14 — F.B.I. officials knew as far back as the mid-1980's that Robert P. Hanssen, the longtime agent and convicted Russian spy, had repeatedly mishandled classified data and violated procedures but did nothing to prompt an investigation, a Justice Department report released today states.
The report from the department's inspector general provides many previously undisclosed details about how the F.B.I. missed numerous signals that could have led to Mr. Hanssen's capture years earlier.
The report concluded that even today, more than two years after Mr. Hanssen's arrest on espionage charges, the F.B.I. has not done enough to fix gaping holes in its internal security. The findings are likely to prompt renewed pressure from Congress for a further overhaul of security procedures.
"We've heard a lot from the F.B.I. about how `we plan to do this, and we're in the process of doing that,' " Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general, said in an interview. "But I believe they still have a long way to go."
Robert S. Mueller III, F.B.I. director, said today that the bureau had already made "significant strides" to correct security problems, including increased use of polygraph tests and financial disclosure statements for thousands of employees.
But Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said he was alarmed to learn from the report that the F.B.I. remained vulnerable to espionage within its own ranks, and he pressed for greater oversight.
The inspector general's report sought to debunk the widely held belief that Mr. Hanssen, regarded as the most damaging spy in F.B.I. history, managed to elude detection for so long largely because of his craftiness, his computer savvy and his ability to avoid face-to-face meetings with his Russian handlers.
"Although Hanssen escaped detection for more than 20 years, this was not because he was a `master spy,' " the report concluded.
The report states that by the mid-1980's it had become obvious to his F.B.I. colleagues and supervisors that Mr. Hanssen had repeatedly mishandled classified data and exhibited brazen and reckless behavior. But because of cultural and systemic problems at the F.B.I — and a mindset of denial that an F.B.I. agent could possibly be a mole — nothing was done to investigate his behavior, the report says.
That failure, the inspector general said, allowed Mr. Hanssen to give the Russians reams of secret data that led to the execution of several Soviet moles and compromised some of the most important military, nuclear and intelligence operations of the United States from the time he began spying for the Russians in 1979 through his arrest in 2001.
In one missed warning around 1987, the report says, Mr. Hanssen committed "a serious security breach" by disclosing information to a Soviet defector he was debriefing.
As a result of that incident, Mr. Hanssen's colleagues "recognized that he could not be trusted with highly sensitive information," the report says. But it also says that the Soviet breach was never documented and that no formal action was taken against him, nor was his access to classified data restricted.
Mr. Hanssen was promoted, and after becoming chief of the F.B.I.'s National Security Threat List unit in 1992, he committed two more "serious and flagrant security breaches," the report says.
He hacked into the F.B.I.'s computer system, gaining access to highly sensitive Soviet documents. He reported it to supervisors under the guise of detecting a security flaw, the report says. Supervisors accepted his explanation.
In a second episode, a violation of policy, he disclosed a sensitive F.B.I. investigation to the British intelligence service.
While the incidents severely hampered Mr. Hanssen's chances for career promotion, they did not lead to a formal espionage investigation, the report states.
In 1993, Mr. Hanssen sought out a Russian agent in a parking garage and tried to give him a package with classified data, the report says. The overture was "remarkable for its recklessness and self-destructive quality," it says, and the Russians were so concerned that they were being set up that they filed a formal protest with the United States government. But the investigation never led to Mr. Hanssen.
In investigating a series of deadly security breaches in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980's, F.B.I. officials were so convinced that no one at the bureau was responsible that they focused almost exclusively on a C.I.A. officer and even recommended that he be prosecuted for espionage, the report says.
"We now know that the F.B.I. was on the wrong track from the beginning, because the mole the F.B.I. was looking for was Hanssen, an F.B.I. employee," the report states.