Paging Mr. X

Set your watches; another spy scandal


Is it mandatory to convulse Washington every few years with spy talk? News that the FBI has tracked a suspected spy for Israel for over a year helps fill in the lull we've had since Robert Hanssen stopping paying for extreme stripper makeovers with KGB diamonds.

Hanssen's case was just starting to get interesting. He pled not guilty in June 2001 and had a trial date for set for that October, when a certain event in September took up all available news coverage. The former FBI counterterrorism agent was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 after 15 years of spying for the Soviet handler he first contacted in 1985.

Hanssen did it for the money. Upset that FBI agents trying to live in the pricey DC burbs were expected scrimp by on salaries below that of New York City garbage collectors, Hanssen took matters into his own hands. Freelance work, but instead of moonlighting by directing traffic out of a crowded shopping center like his Chicago cop father might have done, Hanssen sold his trade secrets to the bad guys.

When the Hanssen case broke it confirmed that greed had replaced ideology as the prime mover of spies. Hanssen was the FBI twin to the CIA's Aldrich Ames who also started spying for the Soviets in 1985. Ames too wanted to live the good life in the go-go 1990s. Ames himself describes his motivations as "personal, banal, and amounted really to kind of greed and folly."

But now come indications of a security breach motivated not by greed but by good old political motivations. Thus far the current probe focuses on the transfer of classified information by analyst Lawrence A. Franklin from the Pentagon to Israel via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As such the nascent case immediately calls to mind the Jonathan Pollard case and one bit of unfinished business from it.

Pollard is the former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who pled guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison. Pollard maintains that the info he passed on, concerning Iraqi weapons plants interestingly enough, should never have been withheld from Tel Aviv to begin with. In other words, that Israel was entitled to the info.

In 1998 CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard were released by President Bill Clinton, which points up another facet of the spy games. Every branch tries to maintain that the other guy's spy is much, much worse. The CIA fixation on keeping Pollard locked up, by implication, makes Ames' betrayal look no worse.

That's why it would not be a surprise to soon see the current FBI investigation described as, if not a direct reaction to Hanssen's recent life sentence, an example of the Bureau's digging deep to find something which would deflect negative attention to other organs of the national security state.

Meanwhile, the question of a handler for Pollard, a deep-cover Mr. X, is bound to resurface. Pollard himself has gone out of his way to deny that he had any handler who "tasked" him to target certain information and points to his polygraphs on the matter of an accomplice. However, there are some notes suggesting a "shopping list." But in the netherworld of Net conspiracies, the question of a long-buried mole quickly gets confused with Monica Lewinsky and garden-variety anti-Semitism.

Last month extensive congressional hearings on America's intelligence capabilities demonstrated that America's intelligence apparatus is a vast and habitual classifier of the mundane and trivial. The current investigation may yet wind up there too. Or it might help explain a great deal of what has transpired in the past few years.