from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
February 23, 2001


As officials sort through the wreckage of U.S. counterintelligence following the arrest of Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of espionage, one of their reference points will be an earlier critique of the FBI's ability to detect foreign spies within the ranks of U.S. intelligence agencies.

That study was performed in 1997 by the Justice Department Office of Inspector General, then led by Michael R. Bromwich, to evaluate the FBI's performance in the Aldrich Ames case.

"Our review revealed that throughout nearly the entire nine-year period of Ames' espionage, FBI management devoted inadequate attention to determining the cause of the sudden, unprecedented, and catastrophic losses suffered by both the FBI and the CIA in their Soviet intelligence programs," Mr. Bromwich wrote.

Since Ames' nine-year tenure as a foreign spy coincided with the early part of Hanssen's 15 year career as a Soviet and Russian spy, the Inspector General's conclusions as of 1997 are equally pertinent to the latter case.

FBI spokesman John Collingwood said yesterday that the recommendations of Mr. Bromwich's 1997 report had been adopted and helped lead to the apprehension of Mr. Hanssen. "The post-Ames focus on the possibility of additional compromises led directly to the charges against Hanssen."

Most of the nearly 400 page Inspector General Report -- "A Review of the FBI's Performance in Uncovering the Espionage Activities of Aldrich Hazen Ames" (April 1997) -- remains highly classified. However, the unclassified executive summary is posted here:

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced plans to hold hearings next week on the Hanssen case and its implications.

"This could be a very, very, very serious case of espionage," Committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby said on Tuesday. In a possible homage to President Bush's notoriously fractured English, Senator Shelby issued a statement noting that "Director Freeh has been keeping the Vice Chairmen [sic] and I [sic] appraised [sic] of the case as it developed over the past few months."

See the Committee statement on the Hanssen case here:

As others have now pointed out, Mr. Hanssen could not possibly have been correct when he allegedly told his Russian handlers that "I decided on this course when I was 14 years old. I'd read Philby's book."

When Hanssen, who was born in 1944, was 14 years old, British intelligence officer Kim Philby had not yet been exposed as a Soviet spy. He defected to the USSR in 1963. Philby's book, My Silent War, was published in 1968.


If secrecy impedes official accountability, declassification by the same token can help to advance justice and reconciliation.

A "truth commission" established in Panama to investigate atrocities committed by that country's military dictatorship between 1968 and 1989 is asking the U.S. government to declassify U.S. records concerning human rights violations in Panama.

Commissioner Fernando Berguido said the commission, which was appointed by Panama's president, had written to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell urging that relevant records be declassified as quickly as possible. See:

A New York Times editorial on February 20 noted that "Such secret files have been invaluable for understanding the dictatorships in Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador and Washington's role in backing them. The Bush administration should expedite a full declassification of material on abuses in Panama."


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