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FERRETING OUT A MOLE

The arrest of veteran FBI counterintelligence agent Robert P. Hanssen on charges of spying for the Russian secret service opens a window on a 15-year disaster for national security. As details emerge in court and in the FBI's own damage assessment efforts, though, the nation faces questions for the future: Could this have been prevented, and can we keep it from happening again?

Sadly, the answer probably is no.

By all accounts so far, Hanssen was a solitary spy whose true identity wasn't even known to his Russian contacts. He lived modestly, apparently motivated mostly by money, but avoiding the greed and flashy spending that helped unmask CIA double agent Aldrich H. Ames in 1994. He was a quiet family man and at least some of his pay-offs were sought, according to his letters, as future security for his children.

No spy satellite ever invented can peer inside the human heart, and no eavesdropping device can catch the moment when loyalty begins a turn toward treason. Careful recruitment and screening can limit the risks of betrayal, but not eliminate it. Hanssen was not part of an organized ring. As FBI Director Louis Freeh succinctly pointed out, he was a trusted insider who betrayed his trust.

To the FBI's credit, Russia's spy agency already has had one nasty surprise - part of the evidence includes a copy of its own dossier on its prized "mole," a file obtained through undisclosed channels. But the FBI's performance in closing this spy case can't mask the fact that Hanssen went undetected for 15 years, seven years longer than Aldrich. While Freeh praised FBI and CIA cooperation in the Hanssen case, he neglected to mention the criticism his agency leveled at the CIA in the Ames matter.

In fact, there has been a spate of post-Cold War spy cases and intelligence embarrassments since 1985, involving both the FBI and the CIA as well as the military, State Department and National Security Council. They range from spy rings to the recent disciplining of several CIA employees for maintaining an unauthorized - and undetected - "chat room" on the agency's supposedly ultra-protected computer system for five years. They include the censure of agency officials, including former CIA director John M. Deutch, for keeping top-secret data on unsecured home computers, and the public auction of surplus agency laptops with secret files still on their hard drives.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has agreed to Freeh's perhaps unavoidable request for a blue-ribbon investigative panel, and the selection of former CIA and FBI director William H. Webster to head it is an excellent one. The panel should take the most extensive look possible at FBI internal security - asking, for example, why Hanssen's extensive probing of its secure computer system went unnoticed or how he avoided unmasking despite routine polygraph examinations.

There may be lessons to be learned from Hanssen's treachery. If so, Webster and his panel hopefully will find them, and make it more difficult for the next Ames or Hanssen to carry out their betrayal. But they will never make it impossible.

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