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Lots of intelligence lessons

By BOB GRAHAM Special to the Times
Published May 28, 2007


Breach recently left theaters after a long run on movie screens across the nation. For those who have yet to see it, Breach tells the true story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who for 15 years doubled as a Russian spy. His treachery led to the assassination of at least three Russian intelligence agents who provided valuable information to the United States. His treachery and the efforts to detect him cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

It took Hanssen's own arrogance to bring him down after a protracted FBI internal investigation repeatedly failed to snare him. Two scathing reports issued after Hanssen's arrest - one from the Justice Department inspector general, the other from a commission headed by former CIA and FBI director William Webster - found numerous mistakes that contributed to Hanssen avoiding capture for many years.

For example, the FBI failed to utilize recent lessons in spy detection. When CIA double agent Aldrich Ames was caught in 1994, the agency received well-deserved criticism for failing to scrutinize Ames' personal finances. Six years later, the FBI made the same mistake. It knew about but never pursued discrepancies in Robert Hanssen's financial reports, which disclosed suspiciously high levels of spending on a relatively low FBI salary. This included a Mercedes that Hanssen purchased for his longtime mistress and registered in her name at his home address. Yet the FBI did not stumble upon this expensive extramarital affair until after his arrest.

I knew something of the Hanssen case because it was the subject of a Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry. The question was how to put the lessons of the past to the service of the future - how to reduce the chances of another Robert Hanssen. The intelligence community's response was to create a new acronym: CI-21. Counter Intelligence in the 21st Century rested on the theory of prevention through collaboration. It was designed to foster intense cooperation among the intelligence agencies to identify the most valuable American secrets and harden those targets from penetration.

The ink was hardly dry on the agreement when it began to fall apart. The FBI and the CIA could not overcome their habit of withholding information from each other, and few of the agencies were willing to disband their own counterespionage units to provide the experienced personnel necessary for CI-21 to function. The White House, focused on scandal and later preparation for war in Iraq, was unwilling to knock heads to force agreement.

In August 2003, the FBI director verified just how little progress CI-21 had made in the more than two years since Hanssen was arrested. In response to congressional inquiries, he noted that collaboration within the intelligence community meant that "a senior CIA official is detailed to the FBI's counterterrorism division" - essentially the same relationship that existed before Hanssen's arrest. Because CI-21 has stagnated, we are today no more likely to detect a spy or prevent the theft of our national security intelligence than we were when Robert Hanssen was selling information to Russians in a Virginia public park.

The Directorate of National Intelligence created after the Hanssen case was created in part to demand collaboration and accountability from our intelligence agencies. The newly designated director, Adm. Michael McCon- nell, comes to the job from a career in intelligence and has the perspective to understand just how devastating another Hanssen scandal would be. He deserves support from both Congress and the White House in making CI-21 successful.

While Breach has ended its run on the big screen, Americans will still be able to watch when it is released on DVD on June 12. It should be mandatory viewing for the entire U.S. intelligence community, including Adm. McConnell and the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. If they don't breathe new life into U.S. counterintelligence efforts, it won't be long before the next Robert Hanssen makes an even more horrifying sequel.

Bob Graham was Florida's governor from 1979 to 1987 and a United States senator from 1987 to 2005. He served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2001 to 2003 and is the author of Intelligence Matters. Graham currently leads the Bob Graham Center for Public Policy at the University of Florida and University of Miami.