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FBI Missed Internal Signs of Espionage
January 17, 2006

By the government's own account, FBI analyst Leandro Aragoncillo was spying in plain sight. He rummaged through FBI computers for intelligence reports unrelated to his work and then e-mailed the classified documents to opposition leaders in the Philippines.

He had traveled more than a dozen times to the Asian country on personal business since 2000. And records show he carried debt of at least a half-million dollars - on Marine retirement pay and an entry-level FBI salary.

But for at least seven months, the bureau that makes catching spies its No. 2 mission after fighting terrorism missed signs of espionage in its own ranks - again.

Safeguards the FBI put in place after it was rocked by the Robert Hanssen spy scandal in 2001 failed to raise red flags about Aragoncillo's activities, according to interviews and court papers reviewed by The Associated Press.

It took outside help - U.S. customs officials separately developed suspicions about Aragoncillo - to alert the FBI. The bureau soon discovered he was sending sensitive U.S. intelligence assessments about the Philippines' government to Filipino opposition leaders, court records say.

One such document, obtained by the AP, described Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a U.S. ally in the war on terror, as "a weak reactive leader" with an "overbearing personal style." The report was labeled an "informal assessment by a senior USG (U.S. government) policymaker." Arroyo has demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy.

Those who helped the FBI after Hanssen's deadly betrayal to Russia are astonished that Aragoncillo appeared to exploit some of the same weaknesses that were supposed to have been fixed.

"I don't know why they had to wait until somebody turned him in," said former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, a member of the panel that investigated FBI security after Hanssen. "They should have been policing their systems. The question is, how could he get by that long?"

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., whose House Intelligence Committee received a classified briefing on Aragoncillo, agreed. "Bells and whistles should have gone on some place, and they didn't," she said.

The FBI acknowledged it did not suspect Aragoncillo until the tipoff from Customs but said it eventually would have detected its analyst's behavior.

"I'm confident our security procedures would have picked this up," said Leslie Wiser Jr., head of the FBI's New Jersey office and a lead investigator in the 1994 spy case against CIA officer Aldrich Ames. "I'm glad we didn't have to wait for that; we'll take it any way we can."

The Justice Department inspector general has told Congress he was reviewing the adequacy of the FBI's spy-catching techniques even before Aragoncillo's arrest. That probe is continuing.

Meanwhile, Aragoncillo's lawyers and prosecutors are trying to wrap up a plea deal that would secure a guilty plea and his cooperation. Prosecutors have said Aragoncillo has "essentially admitted" to taking classified documents.

The 47-year-old was born in the Philippines and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991. He served 21 years in the Marines, ultimately as a gunnery sergeant. He worked at the White House on the security detail for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney between 1999 and 2002 before joining the FBI as a civilian intelligence analyst at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

He is not charged with espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of capital punishment, as plea discussions continue. Instead, he's charged in court papers with conspiring to reveal government secrets, acting as a foreign agent and improperly using FBI computers. Those charges carry a maximum of 25 years.

Aragoncillo declined on three occasions through his lawyer, U.S. public defender Chester Keller, to speak with AP.

Prosecutors have not identified a motive for Aragoncillo, except to say that he was deeply in debt and appeared loyal to former Philippines President Joseph Estrada. In one e-mail message cited in court records, Aragoncillo allegedly wrote to the former president, "I would rather you take over, if the constitution would suggest."

By the time FBI agents arrested him, Aragoncillo had downloaded at least 101 classified documents related to the Philippines, officials said.

It wasn't supposed to happen that way.

After the FBI in 2001 arrested Hanssen, who admitted spying for Moscow for cash and diamonds over two decades, the agency was instructed to adopt tough new safeguards to catch spies in its ranks. "We've moved to address that," FBI Director Robert Mueller promised in April 2002.

But despite similarities to Hanssen, Aragoncillo's activities failed to trigger alarms with any of the FBI's new computer monitoring, financial checks, polygraph tests and rules on foreign travel.

Paul Moore, who shared a carpool with Hanssen when both worked at FBI headquarters, said he never suspected his co-worker was a Russian spy. Inside the FBI, Moore said, "suspicion isn't automatic. You tend to find explanations for anomalous behavior."

Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this story from Manila.