Russia may be on the decline in many ways, but it still manages to sustain and fund an effective spy network. That was clear from the arrest this week of Robert Philip Hanssen, a 27-year veteran of the FBI charged with selling US secrets to the Russians for the past 15 years. The case was described by FBI Director Louis Freeh as "exceptionally grave" and a "betrayal of our nation's trust."
But while the seriousness of this case should not damage US-Russian relations, both countries ought to work to make espionage and counter-espionage tensions more of a rarity. Indeed, at the same time this story is unfolding, the FBI is cooperating with Russia's internal security agency on intelligence matters. Russia and the US have, for instance, cooperated in efforts to trace terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
A large part of continuing US-Russian espionage activity involves each side feeling it needs information the other side is keeping secret. This, unfortunately, becomes a self-perpetuating dynamic.
The FBI must now undertake yet another review of procedures to discover just how and why Mr. Hanssen was able to achieve the highest security clearance and work undetected for so long.
That lengthy time period suggests laxness somewhere. While it's too early to draw conclusions or parallels, the Aldrich Ames case (considered the most damaging example of betrayal by a US agent to date) revealed a lack of accountability and simple sloppiness in not moving in earlier to find him.
So long as computer diskettes and documents can be exchanged for money and diamonds, spies and counterspies will be in business.
The Hanssen case is a strong reminder of the need for extraordinary vigilance in assessing not only the skills of US agents, but their integrity - especially in a field based largely on deception.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society