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New York Times
May 11, 2000

Deep Security Flaws Seen At State Dept

By Christopher Marquis

WASHINGTON, May 10 -- The State Department suffers from a systemic failure to protect secrets that is longstanding and far broader than the recent series of lapses publicly denounced by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, a range of administration officials say.

Interviews with State Department officials, intelligence experts and lawmakers monitoring the department's security -- as well as a recent audit by the department's inspector general -- depict an agency where small violations are frequent, few are punished and many employees do not take basic precautions.

Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that a suspected spy roamed the halls of the department unattended. Many of the department's office-cleaners and maintenance staff work unsupervised, though most lack security clearances.

Officials responsible for security admit they have no reliable way of tracking who enters or leaves the department's Foggy Bottom headquarters and lack the staff to inspect outgoing cars or briefcases.

More than four security breaches are reported on an average day, for a total of 1,673 incidents in 1998, the latest year for which such statistics were available. The vast majority of these were minor incidents, and only four were viewed as egregious, according to the inspector general's September 1999 audit, which did not detail those incidents.

From 1995 to 1998, the department referred 53 cases to the F.B.I., the audit said. None resulted in prosecution.

The reports and interviews do not shed light on any new instances in which secrets were lost. Rather, they depict a lax and even careless bureaucracy that resists the kinds of stringent precautions that critics say are necessary in the world of national security. For example, employees sometimes leave confidential documents unattended on their desks, fail to change safe combinations frequently enough, and lose track of agency computers, the reports say.

Officials in and out of the State Department, including one who is to testify before a House hearing on Thursday about security breaches, point to these areas as leaving the department particularly vulnerable:

  • Employees and regular visitors are issued photo ID cards that open turnstiles at the building's entrance when swiped through a slot. But no one checks to make sure a card is carried by the right person. A stolen or borrowed card can be used by an unauthorized person to gain entry.

  • Since a new policy was instituted in August, all visitors who are not government employees must have escorts. But the policy does not apply to accredited reporters, leaving foreign intelligence services a loophole they can exploit.

    Timothy D. Bereznay, an F.B.I. section chief, will testify on Thursday that his agency has identified more than one spy among accredited foreign journalists, according to a draft of his testimony.

  • None of the 140 offices handling classified materials had been inspected for listening devices or cameras. And, although the department distributes about 3,500 pages of secret documents throughout the building on a given day, there is no record showing whether the papers were ever received or returned.

    Some security experts say the department's culture resists security measures. While officials at the Pentagon or the Central Intelligence Agency see secrecy as a paramount value, diplomats embrace openness and depend on foreign visitors.

    Marine guards practice for overseas postings by conducting surprise inspections of the department's offices.

    During eight inspections in 1998, the guards turned up an average of 63 problems each time. A diplomat said the Marine sweeps have been cut back because they resulted in too much paperwork.

    While many infractions may be relatively minor, the stakes are high. Spilled secrets may lead to "serious damage" to American ties with other governments, the audit warned, or even to the "arrest, torture or death of sources" working for the United States. The C.I.A. is so troubled by the department's record that it routinely withholds classified information, diplomats and lawmakers said.

    Representative Porter J. Goss, Republican of Florida and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said recent security breaches involving a missing laptop computer and an eavesdropping device implanted in a department conference room were part of a longtime pattern.

    "Their access controls are primitive and not well enforced," Mr. Goss said.

    "Their escort policies are bizarre and not well enforced. Their document control is between deficient and nonexistent."

    Dr. Albright's security adviser is already tightening some procedures. David G. Carpenter, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security and a former Secret Service agent, is leading a sweeping review of how the department handles classified materials and protects against espionage, with assistance from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.

    Dr. Albright announced the security shake-up last month, more than two months after a laptop computer containing highly sensitive files about weapons proliferation disappeared from the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In December, federal authorities discovered an eavesdropping device in a department conference room and swiftly expelled a Russian diplomat from the country.

    Dr. Albright summoned nearly 800 employees for a public excoriation in which she asserted that they were all failures unless they protected government secrets. In remarks to newspaper publishers on Tuesday, Dr. Albright referred to the recent lapses. "I was both angered and embarrassed," she said. "On behalf of all employees of the State Department, I'm humiliated."

    For decades, the department allowed foreign officials, journalists and other visitors to wander on their own throughout the building. Of roughly 1,000 visitors a day, about one in seven is a foreign government official. The F.B.I. reported last year that "suspected foreign intelligence personnel" had the opportunity to plant listening devices or steal documents as they moved unescorted through the halls.

    In August, Mr. Carpenter tightened the policy to require escorts of all visitors without permanent passes, except other government employees. But Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, Republican of New York and the chairman of the International Relations Committee, is not satisfied. Foreign reporters are on the honor system to remain in areas designated for the press, he said.

    "In other words, the new escort policy has a hole you could lead an elephant through," Mr. Gilman said. "Past reports indicate that foreign intelligence services, particularly Russia's and China's, have used reporters' credentials as cover for their spies."

    The department's reliance on contract workers for security guards, maintenance and food service poses other problems. Most contract employees are subjected only to cursory police checks. Only 15 out of 100 janitors have security clearances.

    Mr. Goss, a former C.I.A. agent, ascribes the department's problems to "partially arrogance and disdain for security." But defenders of the diplomats note that more serious breaches of security occurred at the C.I.A., where Aldrich H. Ames, who was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, worked. They view department officials as struggling under a unique mandate that simply will not let them retreat behind walls and security fences.

    "Are they making too many mistakes? As far as I can tell from the public record, the answer is yes," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. But statecraft requires a trade-off, he added. "Your security can't be so overwhelming that you're unable to perform the task of diplomacy."

    Copyrightę 2000 The New York Times Company

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