Polygraph examinations – lie detector tests – should be given to all U.S. government personnel having access to secret information in order to prevent a similar spy scandal to that of accused FBI spy, Robert Hanssen, according to a former top counterintelligence officer.
Robert Hanssen, a 15-year veteran of the FBI, was arrested February 18 while allegedly exchanging secret documents for $50,000 delivered by a Russian agent. Hanssen is to be arraigned Thursday on a 21-count indictment.
“Americans see through blind eyes – they don’t believe this goes on,” stated David Major, 24-year FBI veteran, quoting a former KGB agent.
“The Department of Defense spends more money on military bands than on counterintelligence,” and until recently “there were more [foreign] intelligence officers operating in Washington and New York than FBI agents to investigate them,” Majors stated in an address to the Federal City Club, a private bi-partisan group.
Major now heads “The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies,” an organization that advises government, corporate and public groups on security and counterintelligence problems and solutions. As a member of the National Security Council, he advised President Ronald Reagan on counterintelligence matters.
Major credited recent actions by President George W. Bush with a reduction in the number of Russian intelligence personnel working in the U.S. He also observed that the American people tend to take counterintelligence seriously only when headlines are made with the apprehension of a major spy.
“If it doesn’t happen in our lifetime, we forget it and rewrite history over and over again,” Major observed.
During WWII – and before the Cold War – Russia, then an ally of the U.S., operated some 235 spies in the U.S. government, according to Major, including top officials in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among those named by Major were Alger Hiss, a top adviser to FDR and secretary general of the founding conference of the United Nations, and Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury, considered one of the brightest minds in Roosevelt’s New Deal.
After WWII, the testimony of Elizabeth Bently, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party U.S.A. and U.S. counterintelligence activities, exposed much of the Soviet Union’s operations, through the super-secret Venona project.
The intelligence tide again turned when the British master spy, Kim Philby, learned of Venona, and a participant in the project, William Weisband, informed Moscow that the U.S. was reading Soviet intelligence communications. Philby eventually was forced to flee to Moscow; Weisband was identified by a co-conspirator but avoided prosecution.
The betrayal of Venona occurred just prior to the Korean War, and deprived U.S. intelligence of vital information concerning the impending conflict. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s theft of atomic secrets enabled the Soviet Union to achieve nuclear parity with the U.S., which provided Moscow with the capacity to support the North Korean invasion.
Espionage activities directed against the U.S. continued, with periodic instances of stunning cases of vital U.S. security interests being seriously compromised.
In 1985, U.S. counterintelligence efforts arrested John Walker, a retired Navy cryptographic technician who for 18 years provided secrets to the Soviet Union. Walker provided the USSR with secret code and code machine information and, according to Major, betrayed 80 percent of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications.
The Reagan administration sought answers as to how Walker could spy for so long without being caught, and was the first presidential administration, according to Major, to link counterintelligence information with policy decisions.
One proposal that received approval from all top-level Reagan officials was to require those having access to sensitive military secrets to submit to a polygraph examination.
Those in sensitive positions “should be able to pass the question – ‘Are you a spy?’” stated Major, who was involved in the Reagan administration’s deliberation on the subject.
If the individual is unable to answer the question without difficulty, “maybe you should have to reevaluate that person,” Major suggested.
The suggestion was made that all government officials take a polygraph examination, since access to secret information, according to Major, is open to nearly all levels of government.
The drive for polygraph tests ended when then-Secretary of State George Shultz stated that he would take the examination – and then resigned in protest.
Shultz issued his remark on Dec. 19, 1985, while some months prior, on October 1, 1985, Robert Hanssen made his first contact with a Soviet diplomat that “he knew the FBI was not covering,” Major observed.
Hanssen is alleged to have spied for the next 15 years, first for the Soviet Union, and then for the Russian Federation – all without fear of a polygraph examination.
While the U.S. invests millions of dollars on sophisticated spy technology, that same technology is vulnerable to – and often compromised by – a single individual in the pay of a foreign nation, Major said.
Major spoke about the Navy operation named “Ivy Bells,” which had been top secret until 1997, and was “one of the deepest secrets I ever saw,” Major said.
From the early 1970s until 1981, the U.S. was able to “tap” an underwater cable laid in the Sea of Okhotsk between two Russia naval bases. The operation, which cost several millions of dollars and risked the lives of American sailors, was betrayed by one individual, National Security Agency employee Robert Pelton, who sold the secrets to Russia for $35,000.
Major related that over the last 25 years, 142 individuals have been indicted for espionage, with 141 convictions – most before severe damage could be done. Not every government department, however, exhibited the same degree of counterintelligence effectiveness.
Of those prosecuted, the largest group came from the Navy, which was attributable to careful Navy counterintelligence efforts. In contrast, during the same period, Major pointed out that the Department of Energy, which also had significant secret programs, prosecuted no one for spying.
“The numbers just don’t track,” declared Major.