Webster Unabridged

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CIA director George Tenet and John Ashcroft listen to Louis Freeh

"If you've lived in the real world, you know there is no absolutely fail- safe setup that will quickly and immediately identify a good man or woman who goes sour." So says William Webster, the patrician former FBI and CIA director tapped by Louis Freeh to investigate and improve the FBI's internal counterespionage safeguards. "So our focus will be on shortening the distance from detection to defection." Which, as Webster points out, is no easy task.

Though the formal inquiry hasn't begun, Webster says he has already heard enough to believe the FBI needs a smarter, more suspicious computer security system — one that will quietly signal managers when a turncoat tries to get into case files he or she doesn't have a need to know about. "Electronic filings offer a lot more vulnerabilities than was anticipated," says Webster, who presided over the early automation of FBI case files. The reason: Just like the Internet, the FBI's intranet can be accessed in the privacy of an office cubbyhole.

But the good news, Webster believes, is that "Invariably [double agents] are apt to wander into areas where they don't belong," says Webster. "We may not always recognize them when they belong — but we can when they don't belong."

"In the old days," he says, "we'd have a librarian who'd report when people asked for files they didn't need to see. We need to have some kind of electronic librarian. Machines can be taught, and I think we can build in a level of uncertainty that makes people in this game hesitate, and that will cut down on their effectiveness."

All of these ideas, Webster hastens to point out, are simply ideas he is contemplating, not necessarily recommendations that he will make. After all, he hasn't started looking yet, and he's been away for a while.

One of the notions Webster is also exploring is the expansion of routine polygraphs. "I don't know how we'll come out, but I expect it'll be somewhere between what FBI has and what CIA has." Since his earliest days at the FBI, Webster expressed distrust of polygraphs — as did most of his top aides. Like many others in the criminal justice community, the conventional wisdom was that polygraphs caused a lot of false positives, false negatives and worst of all, inconclusive results.

Today, Webster says he is not strictly opposed to wider user of polygraphs, because fear of being polygraphed might deter a person who is tempted, and wavering. While he is convinced a determined spy won't be deterred, a novice might. "There are ways to put your mind to work to build in these tripwires, to get somebody to take a second look," he says. Webster says it's clear that this new era of spies — Earl Pitts and the accused Hanssen — don't fit into the old stereotypes of having a weakness for booze, broads or money.

"The lesson is, don't assume it's either ideology or money — there may be more to it," he says. "Don't ignore the money. Money plays a role, but something else may have made him take the risks." As for what motivated Hanssen, if the charges are true, Webster doesn't know and doesn't want to speculate. "We haven't seen any red flags yet," he says. He thinks the FBI might be able to do more psychological screening with its behavioral science unit, but he says, "I don't think we want to subject the bureau to a lot of creepy things by people who don't live in the real world."

Webster sees his mission as a positive one, to improve the FBI's security and effectiveness. "I'm not going to set out to see how brutal I can be," he says. "I want to be fair and objective, to shore up the bureau, not to try to punish it at this point — to try to help find ways [security breaches] won't go undetected for periods of time. I think I've been around enough to recognize what kinds of things make sense."

Though Webster is widely admired in Washington, some in the legal community here think it unwise for Freeh to have asked him to conduct the FBI's equivalent of the Challenger investigation. Webster, after all, was FBI director when Ames started spying and, according to the federal charges when Hanssen himself volunteered. While it's unfair to blame Webster for those unhappy events, says one former high-ranking Justice official, "The reason Freeh did it was clear — to avoid another Inspector General's investigation by appointing Webster to do it. It's a preemptive strike."

FBI officials say that even before Webster's inquiry is concluded, Freeh is likely to order the computer system upgraded, with improved audit trails and compartmentalization. Under political pressure, he may also expand polygraph use, which is now confined to new hires, active internal inquiries and criminal investigations and to agents who must handle above-top-secret data. While the best argument for a routine polygraph drill is that it's better than nothing, some skeptics counter that it's actually worse than nothing. For instance, Mark Hulkhower, who prosecuted Ames and Frank Lallas, who spied for the Greek government for 50 years, is highly skeptical of the rush to a polygraph nation. Both Ames and Lallas passed polygraphs, he says, while some CIA employees logged false positives. Routine polygraphs, argues Hulkhower, now in private practice, create a class of untouchables, honorable, decent people working for their country whose careers grind to a screeching halt because of a machine.

Hulkhower, like Webster, doesn't think any set of rules and regulations will foil a determined spy. "I think the lesson that wasn't learned from the Ames case is that you can't stop that. As long as there's a country that's willing to pay underpaid government employees millions of dollars, there's going to be espionage. You can give all the polygraphs you want and have compartmented access, but somebody has to have access to the secrets or they're no good. If you have KGB agents on the payroll of the U.S., some people have to know who they are or they're of no use."

Webster well knows that there are those in Washington who think that since he has been part of the bureau fraternity, he might not be able to see its flaws. When this is pointed out to him, he tells the following tale. "Did you ever hear the story of the man who got a big award, and people asked him what is the secret of your success?" Webster says. "Well, he replied, 'Good judgment.' So they asked, 'How did you get your good judgment?' 'Experience,'" the man replies. 'What kind of experience?' 'Exercising bad judgment.'"