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Who is spying on us and what do they want? Are top secrets vulnerable? A blockbuster spy case raises alarms.

Robert Hanssen, a veteran agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had a single assignment for most of his 25-year career in the FBI: to identify and track down Russian spies working in the United States. But this February, Hanssen was the one being tracked down.

FBI agents say they were watching as Hanssen drove his Ford Taurus to a public park near his home outside Washington, D.C., on February 18. He stopped the car, grabbed a black plastic trash bag that was in the trunk, and walked to a footbridge, where he left the bag.

As he walked back to his car, he was stopped--and arrested. Inside the bag, the FBI says, were several secret government documents and a computer disk that contained a letter signed "Ramon Garcia," which the bureau says was an alias Hanssen used.

Hanssen, the FBI says, had been a spy for Moscow for 15 years. No one knows what his motives were, but greed may have played a part. He is accused of accepting $600,000 in cash and untraceable diamonds, with another $800,000 deposited for him in a bank in Russia, which was part of the Soviet Union when the spying supposedly began. According to the bureau, the letter in the trash bag was intended for Hanssen's handlers in the Russian spy agency.

Hanssen, 56, a Chicago-born father of six, now faces the death penalty for espionage. His arrest has exposed what may have been the most damaging spy operation ever aimed at the FBI, which is responsible for ferreting out spies within the borders of the United States. And it has also reopened a larger debate about spying:

After the end of the Cold War, why are Russia and many other countries still spying on the United States, and why is the U.S. snooping on them? What secrets still need protecting? What is the point of spending billions of dollars a year to protect secrets if they can be so easily given away by one or two "moles" hidden within the American government?

Although the U.S. has spied on its enemies since the days of George Washington (who recruited spies for the Revolutionary Army), the Central Intelligence Agency, the government's most famous spy agency, was only established in 1947.

The agency is responsible for sending American spies to other countries to gather information--and, more controversially, to influence events abroad. The CIA has been tarred at times by scandal, especially after it was discovered in the 1970s that agency had been involved in assassination plots, had directed coups to overthrow foreign governments, and had spied on Americans.


The agency also claims great--but still mostly secret--successes. At the end of the Cold War, the CIA smuggled money and fax machines to the Solidarity movement in Poland, which helped overthrow Communism there and in the rest of Eastern Europe. More recently, officials say, the agency prevented attacks on Americans in this country and overseas by intercepting the communications of terrorists.

The CIA is one of 13 government agencies, including the FBI, that make up the U.S. intelligence community. (See "The Web," page 11.) While better known for its "10 Most Wanted" list and for chasing bank robbers and kidnappers, the FBI is responsible for so-called counterintelligence: protecting American secrets from spies operating in the United States.

Until recently, the amount that the government spends on intelligence activities--spying and counterspying--was a secret. But in 1997, the figure was released for the first time: $25.6 billion that year, including the budget for the CIA. The figure for this year has not been made public, but is estimated to be more than $30 billion. By comparison, the federal government spends $40 billion on education.

The intelligence agencies argue that taxpayers are getting their money's worth. But that argument may be harder to make after Hanssen's arrest. Hanssen is reported to have turned over volumes of highly secret intelligence information, including the names of Russian double agents secretly working for the U.S.--exactly the sorts of secrets that the government spends so much money trying to protect. (Two of the Russian agents were executed in Moscow after being exposed.) Hanssen is also accused of telling the Russians about a straight-out-of-James-Bond tunnel that the U.S. had dug beneath the Soviet--later the Russian--embassy in Washington to eavesdrop on their diplomats. Until Hanssen's arrest, the tunnel was a secret from the American public as well. It was run by the FBI and the National Security Agency, officials say, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Ironically, while the tunnel was being built in the 1980s, the U.S. was complaining about Soviet bugging of the new American embassy in Moscow.

Until the late 1980s, the intelligence agencies had one overriding enemy to worry about: the Soviet Union. After its collapse in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, the agencies say they turned their attention and resources to other adversaries, including Middle Eastern terrorists, South American and Asian drug traffickers, and foreign governments and companies that want to steal American technology secrets. "We have slain a large dragon," said former CIA director James Woolsey, referring to the Soviet Union. "But we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes."


The CIA argues that it still has plenty to do. "With so many things on our plate, it is important always to establish priorities," says George J. Tenet, who now runs the agency. "For me, the highest priority must invariably be on those things that threaten the lives of Americans," and for him that means terrorists around the world.

American spy agencies have been unable to prevent several terrorist attacks in recent years, including the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in the African nations of Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack last year on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, which killed 17 servicepeople.

But intelligence officials say that they have managed to prevent other attacks, including bombings that were planned to take place as Americans celebrated the arrival of the new millennium on New Year's Eve of 1999.

The intelligence agencies have also turned their attention to what they call "rogue nations," such as North Korea and Iraq, that are mostly isolated from the rest of the world and could pose a threat to the U.S. through the development of missiles or nuclear bombs. American spy satellites, which increasingly replace the work of human spies, keep a close eye on the movement of their troops and weapons.

China has been an increasing concern. Its military is growing quickly, which has alarmed some neighboring Asian countries. Intelligence specialists say the Chinese have developed a broad spying network in the United States to gather industrial secrets that could help them improve their weapons, including nuclear arms. After an investigation into the theft of American secrets that may have allowed China to build modern nuclear warheads, the FBI last year brought dozens of criminal charges against an Energy Department scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of downloading a library of nuclear secrets. In an embarrassment to the government, the case fell apart because of a lack of evidence that Lee had ever passed on information to China.


While the case against Lee crumbled, the case against Hanssen seemed only to grow in the days after his arrest. Prosecutors say they found a bank account that the FBI agent kept in Switzerland, where bank laws allow people to hide their identities when they deposit money.

They also obtained copies of several letters they say Hanssen wrote to his handlers, including the first letter he sent to a Soviet diplomat in Washington in 1985, asking for $100,000 in exchange for secret documents.

In March, Hanssen's attorney said his client will plead not guilty. But otherwise Hanssen has not responded to any of the specific allegations.


Could Hanssen's alleged betrayal have been detected earlier? It is hard to see how.

If he had spent money wildly, his colleagues might have had a clue. But he lived in a modest house in northern Virginia and drove older cars, and it seemed a strain for him to afford to send his kids to school (see "Double Agent," page 12). "Ramon Garcia" refused to give his real name to the Russians and turned down their invitations to meet overseas, because he feared that it would be hard to explain the travel to his family and friends.

"Meeting in this country is not really that hard to manage, but I am loath to do so, not because it is risky but because it involves revealing my identity," "Ramon" wrote in one of the letters last year. "That insulation has been my best protection against betrayal by someone like me."

But if prosecutors are right, someone--in Moscow, probably--did betray Hanssen to the FBI, but not until after the Veteran spycatcher gave away secrets that the United States government had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to gather and protect. "The criminal conduct alleged represents the most traitorous actions imaginable," says FBI Director Louis Freeh. "The trusted insider betrayed his trust."

FOCUS: Hanssen Case Raises a Question: Why Do Nations Still Spy on Each Other?


To help students understand why, a decade after the end of the Cold War, the U.S., Russia, and other nations still spy on each other.

Discussion Questions:

* Does working for a spy agency like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sound like the kind of career you might be interested in? Why or why not?

* Should the U.S. spy on governments with which it maintains friendly relations?

* Some Americans want a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst who has served 16 years of a life term for spying for Israel. Should the fact that Israel is a close U.S. ally push President Bush toward a pardon?


Critical Thinking: Direct students' attention to the statement by CIA chief George Tenet on page 10 that his agency's highest priority is protecting American lives. How broadly might one define threats to those lives? Assign students to write a brief list of things the CIA does or might do that protect lives (countering terrorist threats, finding out about a potentially dangerous enemy in time to avert an attack, etc.). Ask: Has the CIA always limited its activities to those necessary to protect lives?

Next, have students discuss Hanssen's job. The article notes that after the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies turned their attention to adversaries other than Russia. But Hanssen's assignment was to counter spying by Russia, and it was to Russia that he sold secrets. Should the U.S. have been spying on Russia at all?

Ask students to consider how a democratic society makes decisions about spying--about appropriating funds for it, for example--without compromising the necessary secrecy. They may pretend they are CIA employees who are preparing a brief to be presented to Congress. Their job is to explain (1) why, a decade after the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia still spy on each other. (Did decades of fear breed a mutual suspicion that will not die? Or is it simply that all major powers need to spy on each other?) and (2) why it is important to spy on drug traffickers and countries or companies trying to steal U.S. technology.

Debate: The U.S. spends $30 billion a year on spying ($10 billion less than federal spending for education). Debate whether spying is worth what it costs.


Spying has been called the world's second-oldest profession; secret agents have been found in ancient societies from Greece to China. Here are some of history's most sensational spies and spymasters.


In 1200 B.C., this biblical spymaster sent operatives into Jericho. Rahab, a prostitute, hid them on her roof among stalks of flax, and then helped them escape.

Sarah Edmonds

In the American Civil War, at age 19, she spied on Confederate troops in Virginia, often disguised as a soldier or a black youth named Ned. Malaria forced her out of spying in 1863.

Mata Hari

In World War I, this former erotic dancer used sex to get information from French officers, which she promptly passed on to Germany. She was executed by firing squad in 1917.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

This couple was executed on July 19, 1953, for having given U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. But recently opened files show that while Julius was guilty, his wife was innocent.

Kim Philby

This true believer in Communism passed secrets to the Soviet Union as a British intelligence chief in the late 1940s, then fled to the Soviet Union in 1963.

Aldrich Ames

A career CIA officer, he revealed 100 covert operations and 30 spies to the Russians before his arrest in 1994. He's now in prison, serving a life term without parole.


So you thought the FBI and the CIA were the government's main spy agencies? In fact, they're just two pieces of a web of 13 agencies that collect information and monitor threats. Here's a look at the major intelligence agencies.

NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY Budget: $3.6 billion.(*) Staff: 38,000.(*) Mission: Its main responsibilities are code-breaking and electronic eavesdropping using a worldwide network of sophisticated devices.

NATIONAL RECONNAISSANCE OFFICE Budget: $6.2 billion.(*) Staff: 1,700.(*) Mission: Builds, launches, and operates U.S. spy satellites. These satellites--experts guess there are about a dozen of them--could see from space that you left your bike on the front lawn.

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY Budget: $3.1 billion.(*) Staff: 16,000.(*) Mission: Gathers and analyzes information about foreign countries, using everything from spies to high-tech gadgets. The agency has overthrown governments and plotted political assassinations abroad.

NATIONAL IMAGERY AND MAPPING AGENCY Budget: $1.2 billion.(*) Staff: 9,000.(*) Mission: Provides up-to-date and accurate images and maps. They analyze and make sense of the pictures taken by spy satellites.

DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY Budget: $850 million.(*) Staff: 8,500.(*) Mission: Compiles information for the military from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines--each of which operates its own intelligence service.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION Budget: $3 billion ($500 million for intelligence).(*) Staff: 27,800 (2,500 in intelligence).(*) Mission: Though primarily a domestic law-enforcement agency, the FBI is also the main agency in charge of counterintelligence, the business of preventing foreign espionage in the U.S.

(*) Estimate. Actual number is classified. Sources: Office of the Director of Central Intelligence, Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Resource Program, and James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency.

PHILIP SHENON is a Washington correspondent for The Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Shenon, Philip
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 2, 2001
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