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Spy Suspect May Have Revealed U.S. Bugging

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that they fear suspected spy Robert Philip Hanssen may have provided Russia with top-secret information about how and where the United States has planted its most sophisticated overseas eavesdropping devices.

U.S. spy-catchers said they are trying to determine whether the former FBI agent compromised a highly sensitive “black-budget” program run jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

The elite program, known innocuously as the Special Collection Service, plays a critical role in U.S. intelligence operations by conducting bugging operations in or near embassies, communications centers and other facilities on foreign soil.

The program’s mission is so sensitive that intelligence officials never have acknowledged its existence publicly. Its funding is hidden within the federal budget and little is known about the technologies and techniques it employs.

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Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18 after FBI agents said they saw him leave a cache of secret documents at a “dead drop” in a park near his home in Vienna, Va. He is accused of having provided classified material to the Russians since 1985 in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

According to documents filed in federal court Tuesday, the package of material included an encrypted letter in which Hanssen said that he feared the FBI suspected him and that he needed to “seclude” himself.

“Something has aroused the sleeping tiger,” said a letter signed by “Ramon Garcia,” one of the aliases allegedly used by Hanssen. The letter said that the FBI had promoted him to “a higher do-nothing” job without regular access to counterintelligence. “It is as if I am being isolated,” the letter said.

As U.S. officials try to assess the damage caused by Hanssen’s alleged spying, the CIA-NSA bugging program “is going to be a focus,” confirmed an intelligence official who asked not to be identified. “That’s certainly going to be looked at.”

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Hanssen is believed to have shared office quarters for several years at the State Department with NSA agents and may have obtained information about the bugging program through this and other means in his role as a Russian counterintelligence specialist, U.S. officials said.

If Hanssen did breach the security of the program, it could represent one of the most damaging consequences of the data he allegedly sold to the Russians and their Soviet predecessors over a 15-year period.

An affidavit outlining the government’s case against Hanssen asserts that he “compromised an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States.” It suggests obliquely that Hanssen gave the Russians information about a “new technique” developed by the NSA and described to them a “sensitive office” where an NSA employee worked.

Although the affidavit does not mention the Special Collection Service by name, intelligence experts outside the government said that these and other references point to the global eavesdropping operation.

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FBI officials already have described some of the information they believe Hanssen passed to the Russians over the years. He allegedly confirmed for Moscow the identities of three Russian double agents who were working for the United States--leading to the execution of two of them. And in 1989, he allegedly let the KGB know about a secret FBI investigation into the activities of Felix Bloch, a high-ranking U.S. diplomat suspected of spying for the Soviets. The investigation was “compromised,” U.S. officials said, and Bloch was never charged.

But intelligence officials said that Hanssen may have caused far more damage to U.S. national security, and they are still trying to assess the extent of that damage. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, along with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and CIA Director George J. Tenet, will brief congressional officials today in a closed session.

If the bugging program was seriously compromised by Hanssen, “that’s something that would be extremely serious,” said a former intelligence official who requested anonymity. “You’re talking about very specific, very pointed information that’s usually the gold nuggets of the intelligence community.”

Said James Bamford, an author and expert on the NSA: “Once [the Russians] find out how this eavesdropping is done and where in essence the bugs are, they could quickly do one of two things--take them apart, or worse yet, send disinformation over them.”

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Intelligence officials started the program in the late 1970s in the midst of the Cold War to devise and plant sophisticated eavesdropping devices at overseas sites that have access to sensitive data. The aim is to intercept sensitive information on espionage, nuclear arms, terrorist networks, drug trafficking and a range of other issues that U.S. officials say are vital to national security.

The bugging program “marries the CIA’s covert people who know how to get into places--by bribing the right person or whatever is needed--with the NSA people who can design the right bug to go in the right environment so the information can be secreted across the border,” said Bamford, who wrote a landmark study of the NSA and will soon release a sequel called “Body of Secrets.”

The CIA and the NSA use the program to bug not only obvious targets such as embassies and government centers, but also computer facilities, fiber-optic cable networks and communications centers carrying sensitive data, Bamford said.

Bamford said that he knows Hanssen well, both personally and professionally. Hanssen, he said, was in an ideal position to penetrate the bugging system because he was intimately familiar with Russian counterintelligence, computers and sophisticated electronic eavesdropping techniques. “Those are exactly the kinds of things that [Special Collection Service] is involved in,” he said.

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Bamford noted, however, that no matter how much information Hanssen may have given the Russians on the bugging program or other secret operations, it is almost certainly less damaging today than it would have been during the reign of the Soviet Union as a global superpower.

“The Cold War is over,” he said. “We’re not eyeball to eyeball with the Russians with nuclear weapons. We don’t have our subs on each other’s coasts ready to launch Trident missiles or anything.

“So yes, this is serious. But the seriousness has been reduced by the end of the Cold War.”


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