WASHINGTON - Robert P. Hanssen, one of the most destructive spies in U.S. history, was able to commit espionage for more than 20 years not because he was particularly clever, but mostly because of serious weaknesses in the FBI's internal security, a Justice Department investigation has found.
Yet many of the bureau's most glaring deficiencies, such as poor computer security and an inability to account for top secret documents at any given time, have yet to be corrected, according to a report on the investigation released yesterday.
"These weaknesses," the report said, "expose the FBI to the risk of future serious compromises by another mole."
The inquiry found that the bureau had no systematic way to monitor agents such as Hanssen and that it was slow to recognize the existence of a mole within the agency. During his 25-year career at the FBI, Hanssen was never required to take a lie-detector test and underwent only one financial background check.
The report said Hanssen, who was a senior FBI counterespionage official, was able to walk out the front door of the bureau undetected with armfuls of documents and in some cases used his office phone to call his Russian and Soviet handlers.
The lax security, the report said, allowed Hanssen's spying to became increasingly reckless as the years went on. In one case, he was caught hacking into the bureau's counterintelligence hard drives. He was able to talk his way out of it, saying he was trying to hook up a printer.
Hanssen also began depositing his proceeds from Moscow - he received a total of $600,000 in cash and diamonds - into an account under his real name at a bank one block from the bureau.
Still, during two decades of spying, Hanssen was never suspected of espionage and was continually promoted even though, the report found, his rise did not match his performance as an employee.
Hanssen, who spied for Moscow over three extended periods between 1979 and 2001, pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced in May of last year to life in prison.
The report said he handed over thousands of pages of classified documents detailing military weapons technology and intelligence secrets and identified dozens of intelligence sources working for the United States. Three U.S. spies overseas were executed after Hanssen alerted Moscow to their identities.
A full 674-page top secret report, produced by the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, spells out the information Hanssen disclosed. A smaller, secret report was given to congressional oversight committees. The 31-page report released yesterday is an unclassified summary of both and includes 21 recommendations, among them the creation of an FBI system for monitoring employees who have access to secret information.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said in a statement that the bureau has made extensive efforts to tighten security and that more changes are on the way. He said the bureau has established standards for handling classified information, improved routine background reviews and set a December deadline for a more secure computer network to replace the one Hanssen so easily manipulated.
"Today, there is a nationally directed program for counterintelligence, centralized at FBI headquarters, to ensure accountability, control and leadership, and to allow the FBI to be more pro-active in protecting critical national assets," Mueller said in the statement.
The report provides some of the first details to emerge from FBI interviews with Hanssen after his arrest. Hanssen agreed to plead guilty and to cooperate with authorities to avoid facing the death penalty.
After his guilty plea, Hanssen told bureau agents, "If I had thought the risk of detection was very great, I would never have done it."
But the internal investigation found that the bureau had minimal secure mechanisms to prevent spying, relying instead on a blind trust of its agents. Agents could access top secret files on the bureau's outdated computer system. And few FBI officials knew that the system could run checks on unauthorized entries into the files.
Former colleagues quoted in the report described Hanssen as a "rigid, dour" man and a "religious zealot" who seemed to excel only at technical or analytical tasks. He did not get along with most colleagues, who found him arrogant and socially awkward, the report said.
As a supervisor, he was "a lackadaisical manager who did not interact effectively with his subordinates."
Hanssen was finally pushed out of the management track in the late 1990s and was assigned to be a liaison to the State Department's office of foreign missions.
There, he had little, if any, oversight, the report said.
"Hanssen took full advantage of the light workload and complete lack of supervision, spending hours each day out of the office, surfing the Internet and watching movies on his personal laptop computer and visiting friends and acquaintances," the report said.
In the report, investigators said they believed that some factors that can motivate someone to spy, such as ideology or career disappointments, played little or no role in Hanssen's decision to turn over secrets. Instead, they concluded, Hanssen did so for money and because he suffered from low self-esteem and a "desire to demonstrate intellectual superiority."
The report said that Hanssen felt he was above the law and that he had a fascination with espionage. Though he told investigators that he confessed on several occasions to Catholic priests, investigators said that, in the end, the financial rewards and the lack of deterrence from the bureau were the central factors.
Hanssen told investigators that he wanted to be "a player" and that until his arrest, he was convinced he would "get away with it."