A blue-ribbon commission chaired by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster lists a stunning array of FBI security lapses that enabled agent turned spy Robert Hanssen to steal U.S. government secrets. What has escaped notice, however, is that the bureau's blunders didn't stop with Hanssen's arrest--and, according to the commission and Senate investigators, could compromise post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism investigations. At a hearing on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy plans to grill top FBI officials about an Oct. 10, 2001, order lifting "need to know" restrictions on highly sensitive information about U.S. intelligence sources and methods. In the post-Sept. 11 frenzy, senior bureau hands had all terrorism case files uploaded into the Automated Case Support System, a massive database widely used by FBI personnel. The move was meant to speed urgent counterterrorism investigations. But the unintentional effect, the commission found, was to place in general bureau circulation a large amount of sensitive data collected by covert electronic listening devices and searches under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Not only did this make the data more accessible to potential FBI turncoats, but failing to flag the data as especially sensitive also opened the possibility that agents in far-flung venues might inadvertently disclose bits and pieces as evidence in court filings, thus compromising crucial intelligence penetrations of terrorist groups. On Oct. 12, FBI lawyers realized the blunder and ordered that all FISA data be tagged for special handling. But since the data were already scattered all over the agency's computer system, the Webster report derided this gesture as like "putting toothpaste back into a tube."
--By Elaine Shannon