FBI Missed Internal Signs of Espionage

The FBI has a spy in its midst. Again.

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.

As I noted when this story first broke last October, our country’s methods for granting access to classified information is woefully outdated and almost guaranteed to fail.

I do, however, find the idea that it should have been a red flag for an FBI analyst with a retired Marine’s pension to be carrying over a half million in debt. Aragoncillo was working in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where half a million will buy either a nice townhouse or, if one goes out far enough, maybe a fixer-upper single family home. It’s likely that everyone in his office had that kind of debt.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    The story doesn’t say what kind of debt it was. Surely a half million in mortgage debt isn’t the same as a half million in unsecured debt.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True enough. You’d think a reporter, let alone his editor, would be savvy enough to make that distinction. But then again….

  3. McGehee says:

    Even those who work the financial beat on a daily basis often display an appalling ignorance of the material.