Thursday, October 21, 2004

Robert Hanssen: 9/11's Forgotten Man

I searched the 9/11 Commission's Report for any mention of FBI agent turned spy Robert Hanssen. None turned up. This is a serious oversight for two reasons. First, Hanssen's arrest and interrogation was a major event for the FBI in early 2001. Second, some of the secrets he betrayed ended up in Al Qaeda's hands.

Roberta Wohstetter introduced the concepts of signals and noise to the study of strategic surprise and intelligence analysis in her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decisions (1962). Generally, though, we think in those terms only as it applies to the stream of information pouring across analysts's desks or the intelligence reports that go to policy-makers. From this narrow perspective, the Hanssen case has little to do with counter-terrorism.

But, as anyone who has ever worked in a large organization knows, big crises impact everyone's performance even if they only directly involve a narrow segment of the workforce. Rumors circulate, water cooler gossip becomes a vital survival tool, managers get shifted and departments get reorganized. Perhaps most important is the fact that fear and uncertainty make everyone risk-averse and almost mandate plenty of CYA.

We could call these effects "white noise" to stay consistent with Wohlstetter's framework.

The Hanssen case created plenty of white noise-- both within the FBI and in the communications channels with CIA.

1. It was an embarrassment and public relations fiasco.

2. The FBI had to undertake the daunting task of assessing the damage Hanssen had inflicted on the Bureau and on the U.S. Everything he touched was potentially tainted and compromised. Hanssen had direct responsibility for counter-terrorist activities: he was the author of the doctrine that loosely organized terrorist and criminal networks were the chief threat to U.S. security.

3. At the time of Hanssen's arrest, the FBI was in the midst of a mole hunt inside of CIA. The revelation that the mole was in the FBI shocked the Bureau. The admission that Hanssen had never been polygraphed while hundreds of innocent CIA officers faced FBI lie detectors and hostile interrogators created a breach between the two agencies. In an environment devoid of trust and rich in recriminations, it is no surprise that cooperation and information sharing were in short supply in the summer of 2001.

So much for white noise, there is also a direct 9/11 connection. According to David Vise, who wrote a book on the case, Hanssen sold the Russians information on the technology we used to monitor spies and terrorists. Later, a rogue Russian sold this information to bin Laden. This allowed Al Qaeda to evade some of our monitoring and to send us disinformation.

This point is critical to understanding the 9/11 plot. If we see Al Qaeda as a just a bunch of 13th century thugs, then it is easy to think the FBI should have had no problem rounding them up before they caused any harm. OTOH, if they possess counter-espionage and counter-intelligence capabilities, then they are a much tougher target and the performance of the FBI, CIA et.al. should be evaluated accordingly. Vise's revelation suggests that AQ understands the value of denial and deception, knows that US technical means are a threat to their operations, and that they are willing to go to great lengths and expense to counter those methods.

The Hanssen-al Qaeda connection shows that we dare not compartmentalize when we think about state and non-state actors, or when we think about counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, and domestic security operations. Hanssen spied for a state-Russia-yet, the fruits of his treachery ended up in the hands of al Qaeda. Rooting him out was a job for counter-intelligence. However, the CI failure also hindered our pre-9/11 counter-terror efforts and may have helped al Qaeda pull off the WTC/Pentagon attacks.

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