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Judge William Webster, Director of the Security Review Commission

April 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: 14 months ago, FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested in this park in suburban Washington. It was one of several alleged drop-off sites where the 27-year Bureau veteran left classified material for Russian agents. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest at a news conference two days later.

JOHN ASHCROFT: The arrest of Robert Hanssen for espionage should remind us all, every American should know that our nation, our free society is an international target in a dangerous world.

TERENCE SMITH: Eventually, Hanssen admitted to spying against the United States, and pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy. Hanssen later told investigators that he had sold national security secrets to Russia over a period of 22 years in exchange for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

In the process, Hanssen turned over 6,000 pages of classified documents to Moscow, and revealed the identities of Russian agents working for the United States. Three of those agents were executed by the Russians. At the press conference, Attorney General Ashcroft and then-FBI Director Louis Freeh announced they had chosen Judge William Webster, a former FBI Director for nine years, to lead a commission to figure out how to avoid more cases like Hanssen’s.

LOUIS FREEH: While the risk that an employee of the United States Government will betray his country can never be eliminated, there must be more that we can do at the FBI to protect ourselves from such an occurrence.

TERENCE SMITH: The Webster Commission issued its report yesterday calling for improved security measures and concluding there had been “a pervasive inattention to security.” Commission members interviewed Hanssen, who told them that internal security measures were so lax that “it was pathetic. What I did was criminal, but it was criminal negligence, what they’ve done on that system.”

The Commission’s recommendations included consolidating security functions and creating an independent Office of Security, restricting access to sensitive information, and significant changes in background checks, including giving polygraph tests every five years to FBI employees with access to highly classified information. Meanwhile, the 57-year-old Hanssen is expected to be sentenced next month to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now for a Newsmaker interview is the director of the Security Review Commission, Judge William Webster. Judge, welcome.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: What, in your view, is the most important conclusion in this report that you’ve produced?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: I think the most important conclusion has to do with where security resides and how it is viewed by the special agents who work in the FBI.

TERENCE SMITH: Explain what you mean.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, first of all, and we’re looking for constructive solutions here, and we identified a total dispersal of such securities existing — no central policies, policies not being observed; policies not really being valued by people who are very anxious to arrest criminals and to get out there and get the job done. I’m not reflecting on the counter intelligence efforts. They’ve played their security very tight and very well, but we just – and I put myself in that category, because I was there during part of it. We took a lot for granted about our own personnel, and we trusted.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s the phrase in the report that we referred to, “a pervasive inattention to security.” So are you talking about throughout the FBI?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I’d have to give a little…it’s measured, you know. The people who work in intelligence work are more conscious of it, more apt to be attentive to it. But basically it was an assumption that inside the headquarters that was like a big vault, that everyone there was totally trustworthy. There was less interest in need-to-know characteristics, and in law enforcement, often that wasn’t as important. People were not well trained. There were no professionals working security. It was just a collateral duty from time to time.

TERENCE SMITH: And in fact, Robert Hanssen is quoted saying that even a clerk could have accessed some of this very sensitive material in the computer system.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: That was true. Now a lot of these things that we are talking about have been corrected or are on their way to correction. We worked, our commission worked with the Bureau as we went along, shared what we were finding. They were doing their own work. So it is a good awakening, an alarm system has gone off about how people in the Bureau really feel about security. It was not a particularly career enhancing job in the minds of many. It wasn’t what they joined the Bureau to do. They weren’t sure there wasn’t too much being made about all of this. And so it got neglected.

TERENCE SMITH: When you reconstructed the Hanssen case as part of the inquiry, was there a key failure to detect him earlier?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, it depends, it’s hard to answer that question. In hindsight, you can see a lot of things, somebody said something and didn’t follow up or maybe it wasn’t something that they recognized as a clue. We’re not suggesting a mode in which everyone is under suspicion. We prefer the Ronald Reagan approach of ‘trust but verify’.

TERENCE SMITH: But verify.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: There wasn’t much verification going on.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact even back in 1997, Earl Pitt, a convicted spy said look at Robert Hanssen, and yet nothing was done.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I don’t really fault them for that in the sense that the information that he supplied was just an amorphous thing; it was his impression that Hanssen was a little strange. Maybe it was worth following up, but they didn’t have the tools to do it at that time, I don’t think.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, the commission staff spent four days, was it, interviewing Robert Hanssen?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me what you learned. First of all, was he credible in these interviews?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I think he was reasonably credible and reasonably frank and candid. He hasn’t been sentenced yet, and you have to take into account that he has a self-interest here in saying the right things.

TERENCE SMITH: Trying to protect his hide.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: But he was cooperative. I don’t know… we want to be as informed as we could by Hanssen but our real job was to figure out how to shorten the time between defection and detection by future people who decide to betray their country.

TERENCE SMITH: Did he tell you things or the staff things that surprised you as a former director or alarmed you?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: No, I think that he was saying anybody could do this once they’re inside if they’re careful. And he was very, very careful and he was in a unique spot because he was at the center of the FBI’s counter intelligence initiatives where he knew how they kept track of contacts with the Soviets, matters of that kind. And he stayed away from them. He was very clever in doing that.

TERENCE SMITH: He says in there that he got into this for the money, and that his idea was to get some money and get out of it. Was that believable to you?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, let me answer it this way. That problem is with the Inspector General of the Department of Justice doing a damage assessment. And they are working on that issue. Everyone has a different impression. I believe that money played a role, and anger fueled it, a sense of not being appreciated, a sense that he was smarter.

I’ve talked about not just what he had to say but people who knew him and worked with him – that he had a higher intellectual level, interested in philosophy. He didn’t really mix — and thought the people that were good at making contacts, which is part of the FBI’s job, were backslappers and they were getting ahead and he wasn’t.

TERENCE SMITH: He was not. Did he express any remorse or was this very matter of fact in the way he described 22 years of this?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: I can’t judge, because I wasn’t there on purpose, but the professionals were doing this investigation, the interview, how much real remorse is there. But there is a very matter of fact recognition at the end of his testimony that what he did was wrong, it was sinful, it was inexcusable, and it was harmful. So there is no attempt to justify it in today’s world.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now looking to the future and what may be different. Since September 11, the mission of the FBI has shifted somewhat, as they have been instructed now to prevent further terrorist attacks. And I guess in the early months, there was some concern about this sharing of information with other agencies, whether once again the security was less than perfect.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I think that’s going to be an ongoing concern. Everyone in the FBI has top-secret clearance but not everyone needs to know. The same is true with sharing. Some people, some organizations must be given information. But on the more sensitive and highly classified national security, there has to be an organized control over that, and they haven’t had it until now. Now they need a central security operation that’s respected and whose techniques are followed and observed, scrupulously.

TERENCE SMITH: One of the recommendations is more frequent and periodic polygraph tests of FBI agents and of course we’ve read in the paper that some of these have already been conducted.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: They’re starting to do that in the Bureau. Some places they go further than our recommendations simply because we didn’t believe it was necessary to make those recommendations. But periodic background investigations, reinvestigations to include a polygraph vetting focused on counterintelligence activities which will go down much better with the Bureau employees who have, for years, thought this was the wrong way to go. But we have to fill those gaps…

TERENCE SMITH: Thought the polygraphs were the wrong way to go.

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Yes, unless you have a suspect in a criminal activity. We have to fill the gaps in time. We have to have deterrents out there and the polygraph is a tough one to beat along with background investigations and financial disclosures, which are part of satisfying ourselves that the employees that we trust are truly trustworthy.

TERENCE SMITH: How do you get at the culture and the mentality of the Bureau that you alluded to before? How do you change that?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I think, for one thing, this was a terrible experience for people who built their career around the FBI and loved it and are loved largely by the American people, to believe that someone could have behaved in this fashion for so long, even with interruptions, for so long. They’re looking for ways that do not demean our personnel. They’re looking for people, for ways that detect aberrational behavior. A lot of it is in the computers these days.

The expansion of the computers puts information out there for a lot of people that didn’t have it before. That’s one of the things that he used and used very effectively. And we have to find ways of putting trip wires in the computer, electronic librarians who recognize when somebody is off limits looking for information that’s not in his field, other characteristics, so that people think twice before they try to do this. And if they do it, will be recognized.

TERENCE SMITH: If there is a spy operating right now in the FBI, do you think the FBI would know about it?

JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, if there is, and they know about it, you can be sure they’re doing something about it and they’re building an effective case. This is one of the most difficult questions of all, because if you don’t find them, you haven’t done your job. If you do find them, you’re wondering how did this happen, that somebody could do it? Robert Frost said that betrayal is the saddest word in the English language and that’s particularly true in an organization as close it in close-knit and loyal and dedicated as the men and women in the FBI.

TERENCE SMITH: Judge Webster, thanks very much.