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Robert Philip Hanssen, spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States for twenty-two years from 1979 to 2001.

Robert Philip Hanssen, spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States for twenty-two years from 1979 to 2001.

The FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America

FBI agent Robert Hanssen, code name Grayday, spied for Russia for twenty-two years in what has been called the “worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.”

Robert Hanssen betrayed the FBI. He betrayed his country. He betrayed his wife. He betrayed his children. He betrayed his best friend, offering him up to the KGB. Most of all, he betrayed himself.

Those who betray must always fear betrayal. It happened to Robert Philip Hanssen a little after 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, just five weeks shy of his planned retirement from the spy game. Ten armed FBI agents shivered in the cold as they watched Hanssen walk up to a “dead drop” code-named Ellis, a spot under a bridge in a quiet suburban Virginia park where he hid a plastic garbage bag full of secret U.S. documents. As he emerged from the woods of Foxstone Park, the agents, guns drawn, surrounded fellow FBI spy catcher Bob Hanssen, clapped handcuffs on his wrist and began reading him his Miranda rights.

Some FBI men plunged into the darkness, backtracking along Hanssen’s path to recover the bag. Not far away, in nearby Arlington, another team of agents were covertly watching a second drop site called Lewis, to see if Russian intelligence officers showed up to reclaim a package Hanssen had not picked up.

It contained $50,000 in $100 bills that the FBI believed was the payment for Hanssen’s purloined material. When the Russians didn’t show, the agents collected the cash as evidence.

Hanssen seemed thoroughly shocked and surprised by his arrest. But he was not nearly as shocked as the FBI. When Hanssen’s arrest was revealed, FBI Director Louis Freeh called his alleged double dealing the “most traitorous actions imaginable” against the U.S. and warned that the damage could prove “exceptionally grave.”

It was one of the worst failures of American intelligence ever and a brutal humiliation for the FBI, which had not caught on to Hanssen for 15 years.

Says an investigator inside the case: “This guy almost committed the perfect crime.” The intelligence community launched a deep probe into exactly what Hanssen may have turned over to Moscow during those years, but a colleague believes he “gave the whole bleeping thing away.”

Hanssen had extraordinary access to precious U.S. secrets invaluable to the intelligence services of first the Soviet Union and now Russia and delivered upwards of 6,000 pages of classified stuff into their hands. In the process, analysts believe he compromised every important human and electronic penetration of Russia for the past 15 years.

A blue-ribbon panel has been set up to undertake a post-mortem of the FBI, to determine how to thwart other moles. As Freeh admitted frankly, “We don’t say, at this stage, that we have a system that can prevent this type of conduct.” Everyone who knows the dour-faced Hanssen professed astonishment that he could be one of the great spies of the age. What, makes a man betray, and how did he get away with it for so long?

Here, from the 100-page affidavit filed by prosecutors, is the story behind the alleged case against Hanssen. The Spy Who Loved Spying A good spy needs a good cover, and Hanssen had one of the best. He looked the quintessential suburban dad, devoted to his wife and six kids, working a government job to pay for a four-bedroom split-level house on a cul-de-sac in a modest Virginia neighbourhood, Catholic school, and college for the kids, and three aging cars. Neighbours often saw him walking through a neighbourhood park at night, letting his dog romp, though he rarely stopped to chat.

He piled the family into a van every Sunday for Mass at the same church FBI boss Louis Freeh attended. He and his wife Bonnie belong to the church’s conservative Opus Dei society. Bonnie is a devout, spiritual woman, much admired among her neighbours for her sunny optimism and her skill at child rearing. If the reserved, aloof Hanssen was less popular, he was still regarded by those who knew him as a good father, good husband, good professional. And a good son. “He has always been very honest and upright,” said his mother Vivian Hanssen, 88, reached at her home in Venice, Fla. “I don’t understand how he could be leading a double life. I hope there are extenuating circumstances.”

Yet Hanssen was in the perfect position to spy on his country. For 25 years, he rose through the ranks of counterintelligence agents who toiled on the FBI’s “Dark Side,” as insiders call the highly secretive National Security Division. In 1978, when Hanssen was posted to the big New York field division, most rookie agents required to work counterintelligence hated the job. The hot career path lay in the dramatic bank robberies and Cosa Nostra cases of the criminal division.

Intelligence surveillances took years, decades even, and seldom if ever resulted in actual indictments. But Hanssen actually seemed to like the slow, intricate building of counterintelligence cases and was well suited to it.

If criminal agents called the other realm “Sleepy Hollow,” the NSD boys scoffed at their rivals as “knuckle draggers.” As an agent who worked with Hanssen in the Soviet unit put it, “The counterintelligence agents read the New York Times, and the criminal agents read the Daily News. Espionage cases are the best cases in the world because they’re very cerebral.” So was Hanssen.

He read voraciously, everything from spy novels to Marxist tomes to the richly detailed logs filed by surveillance squads overnight. “He really wanted to do counter intelligence work,” says the agent.

Agent Robert Philip Hanssen is shown in this undated file photo, released by the FBI. (AP)

Agent Robert Philip Hanssen is shown in this undated file photo, released by the FBI. (AP)

In one of the many letters he allegedly sent to Moscow, Hanssen claimed that what he really wanted was to be a double agent, like the British intellectual turned mole Kim Philby. “I’d decided on this course when I was 14. I’d read Philby’s book,” he wrote (although Philby’s autobiography was not published until 1968, when Hanssen was 24) in a rambling discourse to the SVR, Russia’s foreign-arm successor to the Soviet-era KGB. “My only hesitations were my security concerns under uncertainty. I hate uncertainty.”

Hanssen got something of a late start in the spy business. He was born April 18, 1944, in Chicago to a veteran cop engaged for nearly 30 years in local anticommunist intelligence work. He was raised as a Lutheran on a street lined with towering elms in a middle-class neighbourhood of northwest Chicago.

Next-door neighbours remember Bob as polite, a good kid who did well in school and pleased his teachers. He went to the select liberal-arts Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where he majored in chemistry but had few extracurricular activities, unusual in the busy, close-knit society of the school.

He also studied Russian, something even his mother Vivian says she did not know. “He might have been one of those loners,” says Bruce Spencer, who attended Knox but doesn’t remember him. Hanssen went on to graduate school at Northwestern University, where he studied first dentistry, then accounting.

After a stint with the Chicago police department’s short-lived “super snoops” unit, Hanssen eventually joined the FBI. At 32 he was more mature than most brash recruits, often condescending to his colleagues, and he wore his religious faith on his sleeve. “People who are super-religious, and only God meets their standards, usually have no time for mere mortals,” says a retired agent who worked in the New York field office’s Soviet division, where Hanssen was assigned from 1978 to ’81 and again from 1985 to ’87. “He thought he was mentally superior to his peers and probably his leadership,” says Robert Bryant, former FBI assistant director.

That subtle arrogance made him few friends there, and he was nicknamed Dr. Death for his sallow complexion, dark hair, black suits and humourless stare. Because he had no bedside manner, he was never sent out to recruit Soviet turncoats. “He had no people skills at all,” says the former colleague, who wonders if the cruel nicknames helped set Hanssen on his traitorous course. Yet he became a clever inside man, adept at the computers the FBI was introducing to keep track of its counterintelligence activities.

He helped set up the Intelligence Investigative System into which agents dumped names, addresses, likes, dislikes and other telling minutiae about Soviet targets, giving him access to the true names of every FBI intelligence source in New York.

He also worked with the electronics specialists who roamed the night streets installing bugs and cameras to watch over Soviet officials. And he was very inquisitive about everything going on around him. “I just figured he was nosy,” says the former colleague, who nevertheless wrote off his curiosity as genuine interest in the unit’s work.

During Hanssen’s stints at headquarters in Washington, from 1981 to ’85 and again from 1987 to his arrest, his increasingly important assignments let him poke unnoticed into virtually every corner of government intelligence, surveying a complete library of sources, methods, techniques, targets, plus secret-operations plans and analytical assessments. “He couldn’t have had better assignments,” mourns a top G-man. On Oct. 4, 1985, the Justice Department charges, Hanssen sent a fateful letter, addressed to a KGB officer in Washington. Inside was a second missive marked “Do not open. Take this envelope unopened to Viktor I. Cherkashin.” Hanssen knew well who Cherkashin was: Moscow’s chief counterspy at the Soviet embassy, a KGB colonel adept at handling double agents. (Cherkashin was already masterminding the activities of CIA mole Aldrich Ames, who was not uncovered until 1994.) Inside that second envelope was an anonymous offer to send a trove of classified papers to the KGB in exchange for $100,000, and a proposal to keep on selling similar secrets. “They are from certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmented projects of the U.S. intelligence community,” wrote the man identifying himself only as “B.”

“All are originals to aid in verifying their authenticity.” As another gesture to establish his good faith, “B” named three KGB officers who had been recruited to spy for the U.S., confirming names that Ames had spilled in June. Soon, the three were recalled to Moscow, where later two were executed and one jailed.

That initiated a sporadic series of communications and payments between “B” and the KGB lasting until December 1991. By the time of the arrest, “B” had been paid some $600,000 in cash, plus three diamonds, and had been told an additional $800,000 lay banked for him in a Moscow account (though he scoffed that he knew the account was a typical spymaster’s fiction). As a counterintelligence agent, Hanssen knew his gravest danger lay in betrayal. So he was obsessive about security from the start and never revealed his identity to his “friends” in Moscow.

He noted that his first delivery of documents made him vulnerable because “as a collection they point to me.” He said his name and position “must be left unstated to ensure my security.” He used various aliases besides “B,” including Ramon Garcia and Jim Baker; his handlers could address him only as “Dear Friend.”

An FBI agent confiscates the mail from FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen's home in Vienna, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001. (DOUG MILLS/AP)

An FBI agent confiscates the mail from FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen’s home in Vienna, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001. (DOUG MILLS/AP)

Photo showing the "Ellis" drop site, under a footbridge over Wolftrap Creek at Foxstone Park near Vienna, Va. (AP)

Photo showing the “Ellis” drop site, under a footbridge over Wolftrap Creek at Foxstone Park near Vienna, Va. (AP)

When Moscow suggested more complex and distant drop sites, he refused, saying, “My experience tells me we can actually be more secure in easier modes.” He refused requests to meet Soviet agents face to face or travel abroad: these could look suspicious. “I am much safer if you know little about me,” he wrote in 1988. “Neither of us are children about these things.

Over time, I can cut your losses rather than become one.” In December 1991, “B” abruptly broke off with Moscow until late 1999, when he just as abruptly resumed as before. In hindsight, FBI officials believe the reason is obvious.

In 1992, the FBI and CIA assembled a “backroom” team to figure out why a series of operations had been blown. They suspected a high-level mole. Eventually their stealthy investigations led them to CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames in 1994. Though the backroom hunt was a closely held secret, the ever curious Hanssen might have figured it out from stray details. Even after Ames’ arrest, the mole ferreting went on, leading to the 1996 arrest of CIA employee Harold Nicholson, then of FBI agent Earl Pitts. That July, Hanssen started running his own name, his address and keywords such as dead drop and Foxstone through the FBI’s automated database, which contained information on all investigations. Only when he found nothing indicating that he was under suspicion did he get back in touch with his former handlers, now in service to the SVR.

They still had no idea who he was. Yet a delighted letter from Moscow in October 1999 crowed, “Dear Friend: Welcome! It’s good to know you are here.” But as “B” resumed selling American secrets, he grew increasingly anxious. “I have come as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you and I get silence,” he complained in March 2000. “I hate silence …” Speculating darkly about his own motives, he wrote: “One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say, insanely loyal. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers.”

Though he believed he had so far “judged the edge correctly” of his own jeopardy, “it’s been a long time, my dear friends, a long and lonely time.” In June he suggested that a Palm VII wireless organizer might improve secure communication. While he mocked the U.S. as a “powerfully built but retarded child, potentially dangerous but young, immature, and easily manipulated,” he worried, “it is also one that can turn ingenious quickly, like an idiot savant.” And in November, even as he joked about retiring to Moscow to teach Spying 101, he wrote: “I ask you to help me survive … Wish me luck.”

Catching a Mole By the autumn of 2000, Hanssen needed more than luck. The back room was still digging, since none of the previous arrests explained all the blown operations of the ’80s and ’90s. Not too long after “B” resumed contact with the Russians, the analysts concluded that the failures were caused by leaks from FBI files.

They were sure the FBI harboured another mole. After an analysis of the NSD employees with access to data on compromised missions, Hanssen’s name popped up on a short list of suspects.

Yet he might never have been uncovered without betrayal from the other side–the one thing even the cleverest double agent cannot control. The back room’s first hard look at him produced no leads of value. Hanssen wasn’t spending money. His daughter was on full scholarship. There was no drinking, no gambling in his file–in short, nothing to indicate he was selling out his country.

Like most other career FBI agents, he had not been polygraphed since he joined. Once, in 1994, he had been caught fiddling with a colleague’s computer, but he explained that away by saying he was testing the system for vulnerabilities. He was one of the foremost computer experts in the NSD; it seemed part of his job. The back room, says an official, needed more and “decided to find people who knew the answers.”

Investigators went trolling for disaffected Russian intelligence veterans who might have had useful information, and in the fall of 2000 they delicately wooed several, targeted for their knowledge and weaknesses. One informer came in with a priceless item–a piece of a black plastic garbage bag. From that scrap, FBI lab experts lifted two latent fingerprints and ran them against every set in the agency’s personnel file. Bingo: they matched two on the 10-print card filed in the name of Robert Philip Hanssen.

A second clue produced by the trolling operation was a tape recording of an August 1986 telephone conversation between a Washington-based spy named Aleksander Fefelov and “B,” the highly placed volunteer double agent.

Two FBI analysts who had worked with Hanssen for five years listened to the tape, enhanced to minimize noise, and concluded “without reservation” that “B” was Hanssen. A short time later, a Russian source produced Hanssen’s complete KGB dossier–the original, not photocopied, master file on the agency’s 15-year relationship with “B.” The paper trail of letters and documents stunned even the ferrets in the back room.

Here appeared to be incontrovertible evidence that one of their own was responsible for irreparable damage to U.S. security over many years. But that was old stuff: now the agents wanted to catch him in the act, to collect hard evidence that would stand up in court–or persuade Hanssen he was better off confessing all. Armed with secret wiretap approvals and search warrants, agents mounted intensive electronic and physical surveillance of Hanssen. They snooped into his computer files, decoded encrypted messages, read his Palm Pilot. On Dec. 12 they spotted him driving four times past the sign used to signal a drop, just a mile from his home.

On Dec. 26 they watched him do it again, as he walked right up to the signpost with a flashlight to sweep its beam in search of the adhesive-tape signal, then raise his arms in a gesture of disgust. On Jan. 12 Hanssen was reassigned to an obscure office at headquarters to isolate him. Still, he made three more passes by the signal site in January and three more in February. Finally, on Feb. 12, at another park code-named Lewis, agents discovered a package containing $50,000.

They photographed and examined everything in the packet, then replaced it. And waited for Hanssen to make the red-handed exchange. In the aftermath, many agents who had known Hanssen over the years were left to wonder why. Was he desperate for money?

In 1985, when he began his double life, agent pay in New York was so low that some agents used food stamps. Was he angry and vengeful? “He was really tormented professionally,” says an acquaintance. “He was a lot smarter than a lot of the people he worked for, and they really kicked him around.” Or was there, as former New York field office chief James Kallstrom suggests, a serious psychological kink in Hanssen’s brain? “For an FBI agent to be a traitor, to sell out his family, his country, his children, is unbelievable,” says Kallstrom. “There’s something really wrong in how he processes information that we didn’t pick up.”

If he sold the farm, U.S. intelligence would have to rebuild its entire Russian program from the ground up. And every operative in the U.S. spy apparatus, from satellite controllers to eavesdroppers to military planners, is searching frantically to discover what may have been compromised. Equally worrisome is the damage to the FBI. “It’s a real kick in the balls,” says a former CIA official, for an agency that has long angled for primacy in counterintelligence and that used the Ames fiasco to expand its reach into all the CIA’s Russia brief. Because the FBI got access to many more CIA files, so did Hanssen.

Artist rendering of FBI Agent Robert Philip Hanssen, left, arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan, second from right, in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001. (BILL HENNESSEY/AP)

Artist rendering of FBI Agent Robert Philip Hanssen, left, arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan, second from right, in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001. (BILL HENNESSEY/AP)

Why did it take so long to catch Hanssen? The Senate Intelligence Committee wants to know, “Why didn’t someone finger him in some way?” Why does the FBI have less stringent standards for checking up on its people than other agencies have? The CIA has long employed routine polygraph tests to “flutter” agents every five years to search out misbehaviour. Those tests are controversial, and have resisted using them, despite pressure from their own National Security Division managers to do so ever since the 1994 debacle. There must be “a happy medium,” says former CIA chief Jim Woolsey, between overzealous, career-destroying tests and the FBI’s lax ways. Why wasn’t Hanssen caught even when he regularly ran his own name and particulars through cbi computers? That should have triggered something, echoing the concerns of many on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, there are no days off in the back room. Neither the FBI nor the CIA can rule out the possibility that there are other moles burrowed away inside its institution, learning from the mistakes that brought down Ames and now, Hanssen. That means the next case may be even worse.

Hanssen was arrested on February 18, 2001, at Foxstone Park, near his home in Vienna, Virginia, and was charged with selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and subsequently the Russian Federation for more than US$1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period

On July 6, 2001, he pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.He was sentenced to 15 life terms without the possibility of parole. His activities have been described by the Department of Justice’s Commission for the Review of FBI Security Programs as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history”

Robert Philip Hanssen, spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States for twenty-two years from 1979 to 2001. He is currently serving 15 consecutive life sentences at ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison near Florence, Colorado.

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