Espionage and National Security

By Waller, J. Michael | Insight on the News, April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Espionage and National Security


Waller, J. Michael, Insight on the News


The latest spy scandal involving FBI agent Robert Hanssen reveals America's weakened ability to defend against espionage and a woeful lack of will to do anything about it.

Coca-Cola has kept its formula a secret since the 1800s. Kentucky Fried Chicken has never let the competition get its hands on Col. Sanders' original recipe. So why has the U.S. government lost its most sensitive secrets to foreign spies?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing secrets concerning atomic weapons to Josef Stalin only months after Harland Sanders started franchising the chicken business from his service station and restaurant in Corbin, Ky. While the Kentucky colonel successfully guarded his recipe and production methods, the U.S. government continued to hemorrhage everything from the identities of its agents to ultrasecret cryptography, spy-satellite manuals and designs of nuclear weapons.

The Feb. 18 arrest of senior FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen on charges of espionage for Russia was just the latest in a series of scandals involving the federal government's inability to protect the secrets of spycraft and research and development that keep the American people safe and free. While espionage and the human frailties that lead men to betray their country are facts of life, the U.S. government has been slow -- some say criminally negligent -- to take the necessary measures required to reduce foreign penetration of this country's most sensitive institutions.

All countries of any consequence practice espionage -- an activity older than Scripture -- to advance their interests against their neighbors or to ensure their survival. That doesn't mean the United States should not defend against it, security and intelligence experts say, especially when it strikes at national security.

And that is at the core of current debate. American political leaders are quick to wring their hands and make bold threats in the weeks following the arrest of an alleged traitor, but the fact is they have a long record of dropping the ball. Policy recommendations made to block security vulnerabilities after the so-called "Year of the Spy" in 1985 have yet to be implemented 16 years later.

When the FBI uncovered the KGB spy ring led by John Walker in 1985 (actually, family members turned him in), President Reagan retaliated against the Soviets in no uncertain terms. Reagan decapitated Moscow's espionage presence in the United States by ordering the expulsion of 95 KGB officers who were working here under official cover in embassies, consulates, trade missions and other facilities across the United States. That simple action destroyed much of the KGB's carefully built presence in the United States.

By contrast, when the FBI arrested CIA officer Aldrich Ames as a Russian spy in 1994, President Clinton did nothing. Later, a couple of Russian intelligence officers who had been handling Ames were sent packing -- but quietly, so as not to embarrass the Kremlin.

Intelligence specialists tell Insight that now, with February's arrest of senior FBI counterintelligence agent Hanssen as a spy for Vladimir Putin's Russia, President Bush finds himself at a crossroads. He can emulate his hero, Ronald Reagan, or he can follow the Clinton route.

The Bush administration has described the Hanssen case as one of the most devastating acts of treason in U.S. history. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh calls Hanssen's alleged espionage "the most traitorous actions imaginable" inflicting "exceptionally grave" damage on national security. Attorney General John Ashcroft says, "The arrest of Robert Hanssen for espionage should remind every American that our nation, our free society, is an international target in a dangerous world. In fact, the espionage operations designed to steal vital secrets of the United States are as intense today as they have ever been."

But while the FBI builds a body of evidence that even the federal judge hearing the Hanssen case calls extraordinarily strong, intelligence experts note, the government of KGB veteran Putin appears to be getting away scot-free. …

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