Authors: Tim Weiner
One of the things that disturbs me most about the FBI,” Kelley had said at his confirmation hearings, “is the feeling that they are suffering from lack of leadership on a permanent basis, and they feel that their position of preeminence, rightfully earned, has been lowered.”
He had said he hoped “to restore their feeling of confidence in themselves.” But he had failed, and he knew it. “
The superhuman image of the FBI, and the power and glory that accompanied it, has greatly diminished,” he concluded toward the end of his career. “The FBI has descended from Mount Olympus. And, as it turns out, we are mere mortals … But so great and pure was the image of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that every jot of wrongdoing—whether real, imagined, or grossly exaggerated—now commands an extraordinary amount of attention.”
This had to change, he had insisted. The American people could not long endure “
a crippled and beleaguered FBI.”
HAT WAS MISSING WAS GOOD INTELLIGENCE
President Carter had spent more than a year looking for someone to lead the Bureau. His attorney general, Griffin Bell, an old friend who had been a federal appeals court judge in Georgia, considered more than fifty candidates. Finally he settled on a fellow jurist, Judge William H. Webster, a moderate
Republican who had been appointed to the federal bench by Richard Nixon. Judge Webster was a Christian Scientist who projected sanctimony and probity and integrity. President Carter liked these qualities, which reflected his own image.
Webster was also haughty and harsh. “
He had these steely blue eyes,” said Homer Boynton, the veteran FBI agent who served as Webster’s chief administrator for two years. “His voice would drop. Now, most men I worked for, when they got mad, they’d get loud. His chin would jut out, and the steely blue eyes and you’d feel about three inches tall. He could be brutal.”
His first day at the Bureau, Webster made it clear that he wanted to be called “Judge.” His appointment began a presidential practice of placing judges in charge of the FBI, a tradition that endured for the rest of the twentieth century.
At his swearing-in as the third director of the FBI, on February 23, 1978, Webster said the Bureau would “
do the work the American people expected in the way that the Constitution demanded.” Some agents found that stance unsettling. It took Webster the better part of two years to build a trusted inner circle at the FBI. It took at least that long for him to get a handle on “the Hoover hard hats,” as he called them, “the old entrenched people,” who, out of loyalty to Hoover, carried on his traditions without question, continually telling Webster that they were doing what Hoover would have wanted. “I had some problems with adjusting that thinking,” he said later.
Webster was astonished to find that the FBI had no legal framework for its operations. The Bureau had no charter—a legal birth certificate from Congress spelling out its role. It had never had one. It still does not. Webster said from the outset that he wanted a law that defined “what people expected of us—not what we couldn’t do, but what they expected us to do.” He spent two years drafting it in consultation with Congress. Neither President Carter nor President Reagan acted upon it; the work was stillborn.
Webster was compelled, as he put it, “
to pretend that we have a charter.”
What the FBI got instead was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The product of years of struggle among Congress, the FBI, and the CIA, it created a special court of judges, selected by the chief justice of the United States, who met in a special soundproof chamber on the top floor of the Justice Department. The court’s purpose was to approve wiretapping and electronic surveillance requests by American intelligence officers—and to do it under law. For sixty years, from the start of Hoover’s era, the FBI had
made its own laws on taps and bugs. The court was not an obstacle to the Bureau—it approved more than seventeen thousand requests without once saying no over the next two decades. But the target had to be an agent of a foreign power. The FBI’s ability to carry out secret intelligence operations was now governed by rules of law.
Judge Webster faced two tests of the FBI’s ability to meet those standards shortly after he was sworn in—one secret, one painfully public.
On April 8, 1978, after an unusually forceful use of diplomatic muscle, two FBI agents took Michael Townley, the American hit man for General Pinochet’s intelligence service, into their custody in Santiago, Chile. They flew him to Miami for a long interrogation. Townley had built the bomb that killed Orlando Letelier. The FBI would slowly and painstakingly build a case that would lead to the criminal convictions and imprisonment of the assassins who had worked for General Pinochet, including the general’s chief of intelligence.
On April 10, the United States brought a thirty-two-count indictment against Ed Miller, once the FBI’s chief of intelligence; Mark Felt, once the deputy director; and Pat Gray, once the leader of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charge—based on a sixty-year-old statute used principally to prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan—was “conspiracy to injure and oppress citizens” with the weapon of warrantless searches.
The indictments infuriated hundreds of FBI agents who had worked on intelligence and terrorism cases during the 1970s. Among their ranks, sixty-nine men who had worked under Gray, Felt, and Miller during the Nixon years now had to answer to internal investigations at the Justice Department and the FBI—investigations that could cost them their jobs, their pensions, and perhaps their freedom. No one knew how many among them might face indictment.
These were some of the same agents responsible for the FBI’s most sensitive cases against the enemies of the United States. They looked to Judge Webster for leadership and guidance—and absolution. Webster decided that all but six were blameless in the warrantless break-ins, and he administered discipline internally, without publicity. The Justice Department eventually decided to proceed only with the indictments against Felt and Miller. The case against Gray was dropped—to the outrage of the prosecutors—as were the charges against John Kearney, whose defense was that he had followed the orders of his superiors.
The Intelligence Division, once the strongest branch of Hoover’s FBI,
had been under siege by the Justice Department, and it dwindled in strength and expertise toward the end of the 1970s. Those who still served the cause wanted to revive the counterespionage effort against Soviet and Chinese spies in the United States, to hire and train FBI agents who could speak those languages, to make intelligence a career instead of a two-year tour. They wanted to hunt down the remaining fugitives of the Weather Underground and the furtive leaders of the FALN. Though the Ku Klux Klan had been defeated, a new wave of neo-Nazi groups was rising in the United States. So were armed partisans aiming to settle scores from epic battles in the Old World—the Serbs and the Croats, the Turks and the Armenians, the Irish Republican Army. Taken together, they added up to a hundred new cases a year of terrorism in America.
Webster worried about the FBI’s abilities to fight these threats. “
What was missing was good intelligence,” he said. “We had to improve our intelligence capability.”
Robert Hanssen was a third-generation Chicago cop who joined the FBI in 1976. He spent twenty-five years in its service. He became a spy for Moscow, stealing an astonishing array of American secrets, and he went undetected by the FBI until after the turn of the century.
Hanssen had learned at a very young age that a badge could be a shield of secrecy. His father had worked on the Red squad of the Chicago police department, hunting and harassing left-wingers, abusing his authority and power, as had his father before him. Hanssen knew some of that sordid history.
“His dad and his granddad were crooked cops—and he knew that,” said the FBI’s Richard L. Ault, one of the founding members of the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit, who debriefed Hanssen after his arrest. “He said himself, ‘The bar wasn’t too high for me.’ It was an easy decision to make to go ahead and start his espionage.” He did it for the money, more than $600,000 in all, but he also did it because he thought he could get away with it.
In March 1979, Hanssen started a two-year tour at the FBI’s Soviet Counterintelligence Division in New York. Just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday,
he was politically conservative, pronouncedly anti-Communist, a devout Catholic who went to mass every morning—all unexceptional attributes for an FBI agent. And like many of his fellow agents in the division, Hanssen had no training in intelligence work. The division had fallen far from its glory days. It was regarded as “
a bastard godchild” at FBI headquarters, as Ault put it, a sleepy backwater where great achievements were few and far between. The Bureau’s administrators saw little point in spending time teaching courses in the complexities of counterintelligence. Training came on the job if it happened at all. Mike Mason—later a top aide to FBI director Robert S. Mueller III—received a typical indoctrination in his three-hour course in counterintelligence at the FBI Academy. He remembered his trainer saying that the work was a curse to be avoided at all costs. Mason took the lesson to heart.
I had no idea what was involved in intelligence work,” he said. “All I knew was I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Hanssen’s supervisors had discovered his one outstanding talent a few weeks after he arrived on duty:
he was one of the very few people in the FBI who understood how computers worked. They assigned him to create an automated database about the Soviet contingent of diplomats and suspected spies in New York. He had a knack for the technologies that would revolutionize the world in years to come—especially the ways in which networks were connected and information was transmitted.
The Bureau was building a new security shield for its computers. Hanssen quickly found its flaws and chinks.
His responsibilities soon included creating a monthly report on the FBI’s surveillance of the Soviets. He spent many hours in the FBI’s file room reading up on the history of the FBI’s work against the KGB and the Soviet military intelligence service, the GRU. He learned the identities of the FBI’s handful of long-standing sources within the Soviet delegations in New York.
In November 1979, Hanssen walked undetected into the midtown Manhattan offices of Amtorg, the Soviet trade mission that had served as an espionage front for six decades. The office was run by senior officers of the GRU. Hanssen knew where to go and who to see at Amtorg. That day, he volunteered his services as a spy. He turned over a sheaf of documents on the FBI’s electronic surveillance of the Soviet residential compound in New York, and he set up a system for delivering new secrets every six months
through encoded radio communications. Hanssen’s next package contained an up-to-date list of all the Soviets in New York who the FBI suspected were spies. He delivered another revelation that shook the Soviet services to their roots: a GRU major general named Dmitri Polyakov had been working for America since 1961. He had been posted at the United Nations for most of those years. The Soviets recalled Polyakov to Moscow in May 1980. It is likely—though the question is still debated at the FBI—that Polyakov served thereafter as a channel of disinformation intended to mislead and mystify American intelligence.
Hanssen’s responsibilities grew. He was given the task of preparing the budget requests for the Bureau’s intelligence operations in New York. The flow of money showed the FBI’s targets for the next five years—and its plans for projects in collaboration with the CIA and the National Security Agency. His third delivery to the Soviets detailed those plans. And then he decided to lie low.
If Hanssen had stopped spying then and there, the damage he wrought still would have been unequaled in the history of the FBI. William Webster himself would conduct a postmortem after the case came to light in 2001. He called it “
an incredible assault,” an epochal disaster, “a five-hundred-year flood” that destroyed everything in its path.
Hanssen suspended his contacts with the Soviets in New York as a major case against an American spy was about to come to light. The investigation had reached across the United States into France, Mexico, and Canada before the FBI began to focus on a retired army code clerk named Joe Helmich in the summer of 1980. He was arrested a year later and sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of selling the Soviets the codes and operating manual to the KL-7 system, the basic tool of encrypting communications developed by the NSA. He was a lowly army warrant officer with a top secret clearance; his treason had taken place in covert meetings with Soviet intelligence officers in Paris and Mexico City from 1963 to 1966; he was paid $131,000. He had sold the Soviets the equivalent of a skeleton key that let them decode the most highly classified messages of American military and intelligence officers during the Vietnam War.
Hanssen understood one of the most important aspects of the investigation: it had lasted for seventeen years. The FBI could keep a case of counterintelligence alive for a generation. There was no statute of limitations for espionage.
ET TERRORISTS BE AWARE
America’s war on communism reached a crescendo with the election of Ronald Reagan. He had been a foot soldier in the struggle ever since 1947, when he served the FBI as a confidential informer in the campaign against Hollywood leftists. He believed that the war on communism and the war on terror were the same battle.
“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever,” Reagan once said with a smile during a sound check for his weekly presidential radio address. “We begin bombing in five minutes.” The joke gave a glimpse into the president’s mind. Reagan wanted to focus all the power he had against the Russians. He doubled the money spent at the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon, and quadrupled the spending on secret weapons and covert operations. He intended to build the muscle and the sinews of American intelligence for the battle with Moscow and its minions.