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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FBI's Many Weak Spots: Lessons to Be Learned

Last month the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general issued an unclassified summary of his lengthy and highly classified report on FBI spy Robert Philip Hanssen. The 31-page summary is a distressing read, and not just because it lays out how a "mediocre" agent exploited lax security at the FBI for more than 20 years to turn over some of America's most treasured secrets to the KGB. The FBI's pervasive inattention to security had, in broad strokes, already become apparent during Hanssen's prosecution and from an earlier report by a special commission charged with examining the matter.

Inspector General Glenn Fine adds detail to this picture of incompetence. But what is most frightening about his report is his conclusion that while the bureau has since "taken many important steps to improve its internal security program ... some of the most serious weaknesses still have not been fully remedied."

The failures were so basic as to seem incredible. Hanssen was not caught by means of polygraph examination because the FBI didn't require polygraphs. His large cash bank deposits weren't exposed through any financial disclosure because the FBI didn't require financial disclosures. His betrayals weren't detected during background reinvestigation, because he faced only one very cursory reinvestigation during his entire career. His abuse of computer systems went undetected, because nobody looked at the audit trail he left. His serial mishandling of classified information went unreported or was not acted upon. Nor was he disciplined when he hacked FBI computers, an act he disclosed himself to higher-ups. Nor did his access to classified information end when the FBI learned that he had disclosed sensitive material to a Soviet defector.

To this day, Fine reports, the FBI's system "remains insecure and vulnerable to misuse." In another critical area, the bureau's "inability to account for its most sensitive documents and failure to limit this information to those with a 'need to know' ... remains uncorrected."

The good news is that, unlike in years past, the bureau appears to take its problems seriously. Director Robert Mueller III welcomed the report and issued a statement cataloging changes the bureau has made or intends. But both Congress and Fine need to be watchful to make sure the problems actually get fixed. In any system, a truly clever traitor may be able to work great mischief. But Hanssen was not a "master spy." As Fine puts it, he "escaped detection ... because of longstanding systemic problems in the FBI's counterintelligence program and a deeply flawed FBI internal security program." Needing an effective bureau to fight terrorism, the United States can no longer afford such flaws.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.