The air now quivers with gloomy assessments of the secrets “compromised” by the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, a senior official who stands accused of working for the Russians since 1985. If you believe the FBI affidavit against him filed in federal court, Hanssen betrayed spies working for the United States, some of whom were then executed. Among many other feats, he allegedly ratted on “an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States,” which turns out to have been the construction of a tunnel under the new Soviet Embassy in Washington. He also trundled documents by the cartload to “dead drops” in various suburbs around Washington.
It’s amusing to listen to the US counterintelligence officials now scorning Hanssen for lack of “tradecraft” in using the same drop week after week. These are the same counterintelligence officials who remained incurious across the decades about the tinny clang of empty drawers in their top secret filing cabinets, all contents removed on a daily basis by Hanssen and the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, who deemed the use of copy machines too laborious. In just one assignment, the CIA later calculated, Ames gave the KGB a stack of documents estimated to be fifteen to twenty feet high. Hanssen was slack about “tradecraft” because he knew just how remote the possibility of discovery was. The only risk he couldn’t accurately assess was the one that brought him down–betrayal by a Russian official privy to the material he was sending to Moscow.
The record of proven failure by US intelligence agencies is long and dismal. To take two of the most notorious derelictions, the CIA failed to predict the Sino-Soviet split and failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart, a lapse the agency later tried to blame on Ames. In the mid-1990s Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch testified to Congress that “taken as a whole” Ames’s activities “facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in ‘perception management operations’ by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge…. one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.”
So here was Deutch (himself scandalously pardoned by Clinton after personally perpetrating some of the most egregious security lapses in the CIA’s history) claiming that treachery by its man Ames was the reason the CIA failed to notice that the Soviet Union was falling apart. Following that line of analysis, Ames could have entered a plea of innocence on the grounds that in helping the Soviet Union exaggerate its might he was only following official agency policy. One of the prime functions of the CIA in the cold war years was to inflate the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, thereby assisting military contractors and their allies in Congress and the Pentagon in the extraction of money to build more weapons to counter these entirely imaginary Soviet threats.