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President Reagan's fans credit their tough-talking hero with winning the Cold War and restoring respect for the United States around the world. During his eight years in office, Reagan certainly made clear his disdain for the Evil Empire and vowed never to compromise with terrorists.
But the Feb. 20 arrest of FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen on charges of spying for the old Soviet Union underscored a very different reality about the Reagan-Bush era: it was a time when American national security was broadly compromised both by communist adversaries and various regional powers.
The worst of those penetrations appear to have occurred around 1985, near the height of Reagans confrontational strategies against leftist governments and terrorist states. Despite the administrations rough-and-ready rhetoric, the record now shows that the United States was the victim of enemy tricks from Moscow to Beijing, from Teheran to Medellin.
In 1985 alone, the evidence now shows that CIA officer Aldrich Ames began betraying some of the CIAs most sensitive secrets to the Soviet Union while Hanssen allegedly began doing the same from his vantage point at the FBI.
Together these twin exposures of U.S. national security secrets may have represented the greatest breach in American history and neither spy was identified or captured until after the Reagan-Bush era was over.
In bringing espionage charges against Hanssen, the FBI reported that Ames in 1985 identified three Russians who were working as double agents for the U.S. government and that Hanssen later that year confirmed Amess information to the KGB. The corroborated evidence sealed the fate of two of the Russians who were executed, while the third was sent to prison.
All told, Ames has been blamed for the deaths of nine U.S. double agents and the exposure of a wide variety of U.S. counterintelligence techniques. The charges against Hanssen are possibly even more serious. Besides betraying double agents, Hanssen disclosed "top secret" U.S. nuclear programs, the latest advances in U.S. spy technologies and the investigation of suspected spy Felix Bloch, the FBI alleged.
According to the FBI affidavit, Hanssen was most active from 1985 to 1991. His alleged spying operations grew more sporadic after 1991, at about the time of the Soviet Unions collapse, though he renewed his efforts near the end of the decade.
Those later contacts, made in more emotional letters to his Russian control agents, indicated a far less disciplined double agent and reflected a new carelessness that may have contributed to the FBI's arrest of Hanssen on Feb. 20.
Yet, beyond the Soviet Unions thorough penetration of both the CIA and the FBI in the mid-1980s, other sensitive U.S. military secrets may have reached Moscow indirectly.
Some intelligence officials in the United States and Israel suspect that the some of the secret documents obtained by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard eventually reached the Soviet Union, giving Moscow another window into U.S. military strategies. Pollard was arrested for spying in 1985.
China & Nuclear Secrets
Evidence developed in the 1990s indicates, too, that the Reagan-Bush administration suffered damaging spy operations from communist China.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that China gleaned sensitive nuclear secrets from exchange programs with U.S. nuclear scientists in the 1980s, contacts accelerated during the Reagan-Bush years as part of a strategy to isolate the Soviet Union.
Many of the U.S.-Chinese scientific exchanges came after Reagans White House solicited a favor from China the secret supplying of surface-to-air missiles to the Nicaraguan contra rebels in 1984. White House aide Oliver North, who let Chinese authorities in on the secret White House contra-supply operation, said China shipped the missiles, in part, to curry favor with the United States.
U.S. intelligence now believes that between 1986 and 1988, the Chinese used those scientific contacts to steal sensitive U.S. nuclear secrets, including how to make a miniaturized W-88 hydrogen bomb. China successfully tested its own small hydrogen bomb in 1992.
The Washington Post reported that Chinese documents turned over by a Chinese "walk-in agent" showed that during the 1980s, Beijing had gathered a large amount of classified information about U.S. ballistic missiles and reentry vehicles. [WP, Oct. 19, 2000]
Snookered by Iran
The freewheeling Reagan-Bush foreign policy led to other secret compromises with past and present U.S. adversaries. In the early 1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration secretly permitted the shipment of U.S. military equipment to the radical Islamic government of Iran through Israel.
"It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment," said Nicholas Veliotes, the Reagan administration's assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. [See Robert Parry's book, Trick or Treason.]
Those early transactions set the stage for the expanded Iran-contra shipments of U.S. missiles to Iran in 1985-86, even as President Reagan vowed that he would never compromise with terrorists such as the Iranian-backed kidnappers of Americans in Beirut, Lebanon.
On June 18, 1985, for instance, Reagan said, Let me further make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices, wherever they may be, that America will never make concessions to terrorists to do so would only invite more terrorism nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so. Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.
Again, the tough talk contrasted with the underlying reality in which Reagan authorized the shipments of U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran first through Israel and later through the CIA. In 1986, at the height of these shipments, Pentagon officials were alarmed the diversion of HAWK anti-aircraft missile parts into this secret Iran arms pipeline left U.S. forces in Europe vulnerable to air attack if war had broken out with the Soviet Union.
"I can only trust that somebody who is a patriot ... and interested in the survival of this nation ... made the decision that the national policy objectives were worth the risk of a temporary drawdown of readiness," said Lt. Gen. Peter G. Barbules in a deposition to Iran-contra investigators in 1987.
While secretly shipping those weapons to Iran, Reagan-Bush officials also were sharing military intelligence with Saddam Husseins Iraq. Substantial evidence now exists that the Reagan-Bush administration also helped arrange sophisticated military equipment for Iraq through third countries, such as Chile.
In a sworn affidavit in 1995, one of Reagans national security aides, Howard Teicher, described CIA contacts with Chile for arranging cluster bombs and other armaments for Iraq.
This covert assistance helped Saddam Hussein build his army into a powerful regional force and may have emboldened him in 1990 when he decided to invade Kuwait, an action that touched off the Persian Gulf War and continues to have geopolitical consequences to this day.