WASHINGTON – The FBI had the wool pulled over its eyes by convicted spy and ex-agent Robert Hanssen, even though Russians told the U.S. of Hanssen's activities.
Eight years before Hanssen was arrested on charges of spying for Moscow, Russia complained to the U.S. government that he tried to give U.S. secrets to a high-ranking military intelligence officer.
A report on the FBI's security lapses out this week detailed how FBI officials willingly accepted an excuse from Hanssen that hacking software used to steal passwords and bypass network limits found on his computer was used to connect a new color printer.
The disclosures in the new study, authored by a commission headed up by former FBI and CIA director William Webster, adds to the string of embarrassments the FBI has faced, the most damaging of which was Hanssen's 20 years of spying for the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia.
The study said the 1993 episode with the Russian military officer took place after Hanssen curbed his spying for the previous two years in order to avoid detection. When he tried to resume contact using his Russian spy code name "Ramon Garcia," the Russian officer -- unaware of Hanssen's past service to his country -- rebuffed his offer of documents and insisted his government file a complaint. Nations often file their objections when they fear their diplomats are being set up.
The Russians told the U.S. government at the time that Hanssen described himself as a "disaffected FBI agent" during the encounter.
Assistant FBI Director John Collingwood said Wednesday night that the FBI investigated the matter when it was first brought to the bureau's attention "and there was simply not enough information to identify the agent."
Even prior to that event, however, Hanssen's brother-in-law, who was also an FBI agent, told his supervisors he became suspicious of Hanssen after he found large amounts of cash in Hanssen's home.
Another FBI agent caught spying for Russia, Earl Pitts, also alerted the bureau to Hanssen. The FBI said Pitts told them to give Hanssen a "look-see" in 1997, but this week's report indicates that top FBI security officials weren't told about Pitts' claims until 1999.
After the complaint, FBI spy-hunters investigated, but Hanssen surreptitiously monitored the investigation by tapping into the FBI computer files, and backed off his espionage activities until 1999 out of fears the bureau might identify him, said people who asked not to be identified publicly.
When Hanssen did resume contact, in October 1999, his Russian spy-masters wrote: "Welcome! It's good to know you are here. ... We express our sincere joy on the occasion of resumption of contact with you." The FBI began trailing Hanssen as early as December 2000, after further information from Russia pinpointed him as a double agent.
Hanssen himself told investigators that he initially feared the FBI might easily identify him as a rogue agent after he paid cash for an expensive addition to his home, but he knew that the FBI wasn't conducting in-depth financial checks on employees.
"There were plenty of signs that Hanssen was betraying the United States, and the FBI missed obvious clues for decades," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the bureau's fiercest critics.
Anticipating the study's conclusions, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday that the bureau would significantly expand the use of lie detectors on its agents and do more to verify their financial dealings as part of its overhaul after Hanssen's arrest in February 2001.
Hanssen, a senior counterintelligence agent, pleaded guilty in July to 15 counts of espionage and agreed to give a full confession of his activities in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, thus averting the death penalty.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.