Bureau and the Mole
With David A. Vise
Washington Post Reporter & Author
Thursday, Dec. 20, 2001; 11 a.m. EST
For 25 years, Robert Philip Hanssen was one of the FBI's most trusted agents and a valued colleague of Bureau Director Louis J. Freeh. But despite Hanssen's outward appearance, the model agent was leading a double life -- selling secrets to the Russian government that would destroy painstaking intelligence work and compromise a number of closely guarded national security secrets.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David A. Vise was online to take questions and comments on the case and his newest book "The
Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History."
Vise is an award winning reporter for The Washington Post who covers the FBI and the Justice Department. He is the co-author of "Eagle on the Street" and is currently working on a film adaptation of his new book for Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Disney's Touchstone Pictures.
The transcript follows
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
To what extent did Robert Hanssen undermine America?
David Vise: Robert Hanssen undermined the nation to a greater extent than any spy in FBI history. He compromised the Continuity of Government plan, the super-secret U.S. plan for how the president, Congress and govt. would operate in the event of nuclear war. He told the Russians about a secret spy tunnel underneath their embassy. He gave up the names of three Russian agents recruited by the U.S. who were executed by Moscow. Finally, with his amazing computer expertise, he gave up material from the FBI, CIA, NSA, Pentagon & White House.
How differently do you see Robert Hanssen now that the book is complete? Did you find sympathy with your subject as many biographers seem to or did your research make such understanding unfathomable? Thank you for taking question.
David Vise: When I started working on this book, I did not understand what motivated Robert Hanssen or how one person could be a patriotic American and a spy, a loyal husband and a philanderer and a religious man who sent people to their deaths by giving up their names to Moscow. I now understand him, and The Bureau and The Mole offers insight into his family life, personal life and profession, which I took to behavior experts who helped me understand this complex, fascinating man.
How can we prevent this from happening again? Are random lie-detector tests really the answer?
David Vise: I think it is impossible to prevent spying. Senior people have to be trusted with intelligence. However, there are many things the FBI can do to prevent someone from spying for two decades without detection.
The FBI had a tip from Hanssen's brother-in-law in 1990 that urged a probe of Robert Hanssen as a spy for the Soviet Union. The FBI dropped the ball on that one. Polygraphs are a deterrent, psychological and personality tests offer insight, and more careful monitoring of the activities of FBI agents would have stopped him from spying many years ago.
The Bureau and The Mole went racing up to #6 among bestsellers on Amazon.com in days and the books sold out quickly in many stores. Are more books being printed and how can I order one now?
David Vise: The Bureau and The Mole has taken off like a rocket since it was released on Sunday. The fastest way to get a book is by ordering through Amazon.com. In early January, I anticipate more copies of The Bureau and The Mole will be in the big chain stores and independents since more books are being printed now.
Mr. Vise -- I have listened to your interviews on NPR. A couple of things: How can Bonnie Hanssen be that forgiving? What was the deal with the COINS and bin Laden? Who called Bonnie Hanssen after 9-11 and told her not to feel guilty about what had happened?
David Vise: Excellent questions. Bonnie Hanssen can be so forgiving because she is a devout Catholic who is loyal and believes that people can seek forgiveness by repenting. She still loves her husband very much. Bonnie received a call from the FBI after September 11's terrorist attacks telling her not to feel the attacks were her husband's fault or would be blamed on him. Hanssen had sold the Russian government software that U.S. intelligence indicated ended up in bin Laden's hands and helped him evade U.S. monitoring efforts.
How did Hanssen reconcile his apparently deep religious, conservative beliefs with his activities, including the filming of himself and his wife for a friend, and, of course, spying for a communist country?
Was he truly religious or spiritual? Or was it just a guise?
David Vise: Hanssen had a remarkable ability to compartmentalize and the book explains where that came from and how that ability enabled him to be deeply religious while installing a closed circuit video camera in his bedroom so his friend could watch Bob and Bonnie Hanssen have sex. He was not wearing masks as a cover; at the FBI, he was a loyal agent doing his job. As a spy, he was Ramon Garcia doing his best for the Russians. As a religious man, he went to mass every day and confession every week. A fascinating man.
I have read in excerpts and articles pertaining to your book that Mr. Hanssen's activities may be indirectly linked to bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attack. Could you please elaborate?
David Vise: The Bureau and The Mole explains that after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, the FBI called Bonnie Hanssen. She was mortified that her husband would be blamed for the attacks because tracking software he sold to the Russian government apparently was sold by an individual to the bin Laden terrorist network. Bonnie was encouraged not to worry that the FBI would blame her husband for the attacks.
I would expect the FBI prohibits its employees from talking to reporters. How is it possible to get information about what the FBI did or did not do in handling this matter?
David Vise: I have found over the years that if people believe you are going to be fair and accurate in your reporting and writing, and protect their confidentiality, they will talk to you. My test for fairness is whether I would feel a story or book were fair if it was written about me.
You are right. The FBI is a tough nut to crack. But remember, FBI agents are people too with strong views on many issues.
New York, N.Y.:
How likely is it that there are other moles like Hanssen in the U.S.?
David Vise: I have been informed there are other moles in the U.S. spying for Russia and other governments. The unknown is whether any of them might approach the depth, breadth and sophistication of Robert Hanssen.
Whose bright idea was it to pay out Hanssen's pension? My father is a retired agent, worked long hours, for far less salary than Hanssen was making. The fact that he compromised our intelligence, and he still has the right to receive it, is insulting to all those agents who served with honesty and distinction. It doesn't matter that it's his wife who actually receives the money -- let her get a job with the Bureau and earn her own pension. Ugh.
David Vise: Bonnie Hanssen is not receiving her husband's full pension. Under federal law and pursuant to the plea bargain, she is receiving the survivor's portion of his pension, as if he had died.
I can hardly wait to read your book. Hansen is a very intriguing (while despicable) character. One of the points you make in your book, from what I've read, is that Hansen boasted of his sexual exploits with the D.C. stripper. She has said that the relationship was purely platonic, that he was trying to save her soul. So where did you get your information? Or are you agreeing with her, only pointing out that Hansen lied to make himself look more macho? I can't see why the stripper would have a reason to lie.
David Vise: While I cannot reveal my sources, I can tell you that Robert Hanssen has told a number of people, and under oath, that he had sex with stripper Priscilla Galey. The fascinating thing is that he also sincerely was trying to save her soul.
One person described it to me at philanthropy plus 10 percent.
Did Hanssen really need the money? What was his motive? If he was a high-ranking FBI guy then he must have made more than I do.
David Vise: Hanssen's primary motivation was ego. He had a fractured ego seeking recognition. Money was a trigger; he could use the extra cash, especially when his family was living in New York. After all, he was married with six children. But his primary motivation grew out of a deep-seated psychological need to prove his worth.
According to messages archived on the Internet, RPH had an account on a front-end server at the NASA Ames supercomputing center in California between 1994 and 1996. (hanssen-amelia.nas.nasa.gov ; www.nas.nasa.gov )
Have you been able to find out why he was given access to that machine, and what kind of information could be accessed through it?
David Vise: Your question is excellent. The answer is mysterious.
How would you determine Hanssen will be remembered in history among other spies? In what ways would you compare/contrast him from say Aldrich Ames?
David Vise: Aldrich Ames gave up more Russian agents working for the U.S. who were put to death than any other U.S. spy. Robert Hanssen compromised more secrets from across the intelligence community than anyone in American history. He is the most prolific spy ever; some have compared his espionage to a 500-year flood.
Just how can Hanssen and the other 10,000 FBI special agents have top-secret security clearance without being polygraph while everyone at the CIA are required to have polygraph?
David Vise: While the FBI pushed for the CIA to require agents to be polygraphed after the Aldrich Ames spy case in the mid-1990s, the Bureau did not apply that same standard to itself. Hanssen was never polygraphed in more than two decades at the FBI while handling the most sensitive intelligence imaginable. The Bureau is putting polygraphs in place now as a deterrent.
Did you talk to Hanssen's priest or other Catholic/Opus Dei leaders who worked with him? I know the confessional seal is sacred, but is there any indication that Hanssen confessed his activities (either within or outside of the sacrament of reconciliation?) How does his congregation/religious groups now view him?
Thank you -- this is really interesting.
David Vise: I have talked with Hanssen's priest and other Opus Dei leaders in great depth about his activities and the issue of confession. While he went to various priests in No. Virginia and confessed much of what he was doing, he was careful to rotate his confessions. Opus Dei has taken no official position on Hanssen.
His congregation, St. Catherines of Sienna Church in Falls Church, and the Opus Dei schools his children have attended, have been very supportive of Bonnie Hanssen.
Has the process in detecting and prosecuting a mole changed since the Hansen arrest and also since the Sept. 11 attacks? Is there a strategy to track the person to determine the extent of their spying operation, or do they arrest them immediately?
David Vise: The FBI is in the midst of reviewing the questions you raise following the Hanssen case and September 11. New procedures and policies are being implemented but none of them can stop a determined high-ranking spy, or as Hanssen would say, a "Citizen Beyond Suspicion."
There was a report on "60 Minutes" last Sunday covering Hanssen in brief. The impression I got was that he was driven by the need to feel important -- at a degree to where there were no rational limits.
My sympathy goes out to those who had to work with him. Do you feel that his co-workers were surprised to learn of his activities? Or did they sense that this guy was up to no good?
I'm stopping by Borders tonight to pick up "The Bureau and the Mole."
David Vise: Thanks for buying The Bureau and The Mole and I hope you enjoy it. After this chat, you can visit www.bureauandthemole.com if you have further questions that come up while you are reading the book.
His co-workers were shocked by what he did, as were his neighbors, friends and family.
Silver spring, Md.:
One question disturbs me: If we were in such a thawing of U.S.-Russian relations after the breakup of the old USSR, then WHY did Moscow execute the people that Hansen supposedly turned in? To my knowledge, we have not executed any Russian agents. (even Hanssen).
David Vise: The United States has not executed anyone for espionage since the Rosenbergs. The Russians take a markedly different approach. Also, the agents who were executed in Moscow got a bullet to the back of the head prior to the thawing in U.S.-Soviet relations.
What is Hansen's psyche like today?
David Vise: Hanssen's psyche today is evolving. He is in close touch with his wife Bonnie, who visits him regularly, and other family members. He also is spending a significant amount of time being de-briefed by the FBI, CIA and others.
Do you think you will ever have the opportunity to meet Hanssen? Does he have any remorse?
David Vise: Hanssen definitely feels remorse over the impact this has had on his wife Bonnie, and family. That is one of the reasons he asked his attorney Plato Cacheris cut a plea bargain of life in prison in exchange for providing his wife a portion of his pension.
Hanssen, by and large, has not expressed the same kind of remorse about spying for the Russians.
How have Hanssens kids responded to his treason? Are they as supportive as their mother?
David Vise: Anyone who is part of a family knows that everyone reacts differently to traumatic events. The six children have different perspectives and points of view as they struggle to cope. The Bureau and The Mole reflects some of the tension in the aftermath of this travesty in their lives and this betrayal of the FBI.
How many people who were close to Hanssen were you able to interview? Is Hanssen's family still close with him? Has he been in contact with any friends, his wife, children?
David Vise: I interviewed more than 100 people who know Robert Hanssen. His family is still close to him, and he is in contact with his wife and children. Remember, traitor or not, he is still their father. The psychology of all of this is a fascinating but painful part of the aftermath.
I'm anxious to read your book. Could you tell us how/from whom Robert Hanssen learned the certain strategies and tricks he used to maintain such covert relations with the Russians? Was Aldrich Ames an inspiration, or are these patterns FBI train to look for?
David Vise: Hanssen's spy tradecraft is what I would call "low-tech, high-concept." Ames was sloppy and even threw information over the gate of the Russian embassy. Hanssen was so clever he never revealed his identity to the Russians. He used age-old techniques known as dead drops, where he leaves documents in a designated place, the Russians retrieve those without meeting him face-to-face, and then he picks up cash and diamonds they leave for him.
How did you find out about his videoing his sex acts with his wife. Is this in the public record?
How is his debriefing going with the FBI? Have they finished?
David Vise: I cannot reveal my sources re: Hanssen's videoing his sex acts with his wife, Bonnie. But I will tell you that Hanssen himself wrote about this in Internet postings that are included in a section of The Bureau and The Mole called "The Sexual Fantasies of a Spy" and in a chapter called "The Unwitting Porn Star," the name Hanssen himself gave to one story he wrote about his wife.
He is still being debriefed by the FBI.
I'm interested in how Hanssen's brother-in-law became aware of his activities when he reported him the FBI. Was Bonnie Hanssen totally unaware of her husbands actions? And why is she being treated as if she were a victim in this matter?
David Vise: One of the most startling revelations in The Bureau and The Mole is that Hanssen's brother-in-law, learned in 1990 that he had thousands of dollars in cash at home and was spending money more casually than normal. His brother-in-law, FBI agent Mark Wauck, had a difficult decision to make--family loyalty vs. loyalty to the Bureau and country--and he reported what he discovered to his FBI superiors.
Bonnie Hanssen did not know about his actions at the time.
I think the most frightening thing about Hansen is the mystery that still surrounds him. Do you see a TV interview as a possibility in the future? How do you think he would handle it?
David Vise: Hanssen was an enigma after all the early press coverage of the story. I feel I was fortunate, in the process of learning about him from family, friends, co-workers and others, to understand his motivation and learn more about what he did.
I think among the most fascinating parts of The Bureau and The Mole are the expert psychological interps. of what motivated Hanssen and how all of this could co-exist within one man.
I bought two copies of your book -- one for me and one as a gift. I am looking forward to starting it this weekend.
How did Bonnie find out about the videotaping? Did she find out from you, from someone else, or did she read it in the Post like everyone else?
David Vise: Bonnie Hanssen initially learned about the closed circuit video in the bedroom from a psychiatrist who interviewed Robert Hanssen in prison and then shared the information with her.
I would never blindside someone with this kind of sensitive, personal information. I believe in the doctrine of no surprises in journalism and books, so people were informed, directly or indirectly, in advance of publication of The Bureau and The Mole, about these revelations.
Why does the FBI (and many intelligence firms) persist with lie detectors even after Hansen proved how unreliable they were (and are)? This seems to be one of the agency's main errors -- and one that they have not yet acknowledged.
David Vise: Hanssen was never polygraphed during his entire FBI career. Security experts believe that even if polygraphs have problems, they serve as a deterrent for spying.
Hanssen is just one in a seemingly endless string of embarrassing laspes by the FBI -- e.g., Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Bulger case up in Boston, the hundreds of missing firearms and laptop computers with classified data -- and so on. Pretty poor record for an organization so arrogant and proud of itself, wouldn't you say?
What steps do you think are required to reform the FBI so it achieves even a minimum level of competence and public trust, and in your work have you noted sense of personal or organizational contrition from the FBI and its employees?
David Vise: The FBI is in the midst of a major reorganization under a new director. I think FBI agents felt the betrayal of a brother when they learned about Hanssen.
As for FBI reforms, that is a lengthy discussion for another day. Visit www.bureauandthemole.com once we launch soon, or put your email there today, and I will be glad to answer your question fully.
What do you believe we will learn in the future about Mr. Hanssen and the spying he has done? Will we ever get the whole picture from this man?
David Vise: Hanssen has a favorite saying, "Things are not always the way they seem." That suggests some mysteries re: Hanssen may never be known or may remain classified.
How did Hanssen keep regular contact with Russian agents? Who approached who first?
David Vise: Hanssen approached the Russians first. Then, they played on his sense of loneliness by beginning letters to him with, "Dear Friend." They communicated in between using signal sites with masking tape and colored thumbtacks to indicate when the next exchange of intelligence for cash would occur.
Falls Church, Va.:
Why can't you name your sources for the so-called liaisons between Hansen and the strippers? I think you need to come up with some better explanations here. Your simple statement "I can't reveal my sources" does not impress me, and probably most of the readers here, very much. If the stories are true, then neither you, your sources, or the company that published the book should have anything to hide. The more candid you are here on screen, the more likely people are going to buy your book.
David Vise: As a reporter and author, when I promise people confidentiality and anonymity, I keep my word. But you can be certain I would not publish information I did not believe to be true. If people did not feel they could talk to me and other journalists on a confidential basis, the public would be much less informed. At the same time, I appreciate your frustration with anonymous sources, esp. if they are allowed to take pot shots at people, a practice I deplore and avoid.
How does Hanssen get the money to pay the likes of his superstar/high dollar attorney, Plato Cacheris?
David Vise: Plato Cacheris is the most prominent, experienced lawyer in the United States when it comes to representing people accused of espionage. He takes many of these cases without regular compensation, asking the court to ensure he is paid minimally for his work.
From what you know about Hanssen, and his ability to compartmentalize, do you think he could have passed a polygraph test?
David Vise: Great question. Visit www.bureauandthemole.com for a more extensive discussion of polygraphs and the unfolding Hanssen debriefing.
How do you expect the U.S. information gathering agencies will respond to the Hanssen embarrassment in regard to recruiting, tip follow-up, etc.?
David Vise: The answer to that excellent question is unclear. It is too early to tell, especially given the way the events of September 11 have led to new mandates for many law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Osama bin Laden is "complex" too. Compromising his country, having people killed, taping his wife; Hanssen is just scum.
David Vise: You are entitled to your opinion. But his wife Bonnie and others would tell you that it is a lot more complicated than that.
How much more can Hanssen tell us now that he has been compromised?
David Vise: The on-going FBI debriefings are confidential. IF the FBI did not feel they could learn much from Hanssen, this administration would likely have sought the death penalty in the case.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
How big a role did his religion, Catholicism, play in Hansen's inner and inevitable undoing? Betray, lie, whore, cheat, steal: six days a week -- get absolution on the seventh. Does the confessional afford an indirect homebase to these "former choirboys?"
David Vise: The Bureau and The Mole is a combustible blend of religion, espionage and sex. Without question, religion played a major role in his life by making him feel he was on the path to salvation, even as he betrayed family and country.
Is there any evidence that Hansen's sellout aided the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks? If so, he should be executed, in my opinion, in spite of any "deals" made previously to spare his life. I live in Vienna a few blocks from where his family does, and while I have never met him, I've been told by neighbors that he was an enormously arrogant man, and used his Federal badge to bull his way to the front of supermarket lines, gas station lines, etc. and when confronted by the store's manager, would say "go ahead, call the damn cops. See where it gets you. I tell THEM what to do -- I'm FBI." If these stories are true, then he should spend quite some time in jail for this ALONE, never mind the espionage charges. But, obviously, you can't add to a life sentence.
David Vise: The Justice Dept. concluded Robert Hanssen's knowledge was more important than the deterrent effect of the death penalty. They feel it is critical for the U.S. to know what he compromised and how he did it. One appendix in The Bureau and The Mole is called, "The Betrayals of a Spy" and it describes the most sensitive intelligence Hanssen sold.
One simple questions, Why? Why would Hanssen do this to our country? How could he go undetected for over 20 years?
David Vise: Robert Hanssen had a fractured ego seeking recognition. He wanted to be a player on the world stage and felt overlooked by the Bureau. He went undetected because of his clever, careful spycraft and the FBI's failure to follow-up on a tip from his brother-in-law and take other steps to discourage espionage.
Doesn't the FBI do psychological profiles of its agents? Shouldn't they have spotted Hanssen?
David Vise: The FBI does not do on-going psychological testing of its agents. One of the key arguments made by forensic psychologists in The Bureau and The Mole is that the FBI needs to begin this practice so it detects problems earlier.
David Vise: In a nation where the 'competitive edge' is the applauded ethic, is not a Hansen but an amalgamation of some of the bastardized principles we secretly live by?
Hansen is but a robotic form of our own Joe Blow, walking on the backs of honor and honesty, trampling on the ideals that rarely exist anymore when it comes down to the game of winners and losers?
If Hansen had not been exposed is he an exception, or the norm? Sorry about the cynicism but...
David Vise: Robert Hanssen is an exception and was exceptional at spying. His role model was the famous British spy Kim Philby. Hanssen was a master at this most dangerous game.
Seems like much of Hansen's selling out was done for the same old reason -- money. While one does not join Government service to get rich, perhaps we should take a good look at bumping up the salaries of agents to lessen the chances of this happening again. This has been one of the traditional problems of getting and keeping good people in the Federal Government -- it just doesn't pay enough. If the FBI will pay enough, then agents won't have to take corrupt money.
David Vise: I think that in The Bureau and The Mole, a convincing case is made that money was not the main factor that motivated his spying. It was ego and lack of self-esteem. Money was a way to keep score and a trigger, but not the driver.
I remember hearing that some of Hanssen's money was still missing. (I believe in the form of diamonds). Is this still the case or have all of his extra-income been accounted for.
David Vise: You are an astute Hanssen watcher. Hanssen returned some of the diamonds to the Russians in exchange for cash. Others remain unaccounted for. Do you have any idea where he hid them?
I just have a comment. For some reason I have been thinking of the difference between Robert Hannsen J "Mike" Spann, the CIA officer who was killed in a prison riot in Afghanistan. When the story came out about Robert Hanssen I was very interested in it and thought it would be cool to live a life like him. Then when the story came out about Mike Spann, it made me rethink what I thought about Hanssen. I became very angry at what Hanssen did. I hope people will begin to see that what Robert Hanssen did is absolutely horrible. I think we should stop writing books about him glamorizing the life he led and other books like "Holy War, Inc." I really don't care about the lives of Hanssen and bin Laden. It's the last thing I want to think about. These people need to be executed and then we need to stop reading and writing about them. Let's begin to write books on the life of Mike Spann and others who are willing to die for the freedom of this country. We need more people in this country like him. He is a true hero.
David Vise: I respect your perspective. At the same time, I think a book on the Hanssen case sheds light on darkened corners and gives the public the opportunity in a democracy to gain a better understanding of how government works, and doesn't.
Can you give an example as to how Hanssen was "exceptional" at spying? Don't the exceptional ones not get caught?
David Vise: Hanssen was exceptional in that he concealed his identity from the Russians the entire time he was spying. He never met them face to face. Even the FBI did not know he was the spy when they received his KGB case file through the CIA.
Even exceptional athletes make mistakes and have a bad game. Hanssen was exceptional, and not perfect, and so he got caught. He was struggling psychologically to remain sane while harboring so many secrets.
Several books are coming out now about Robert Hanssen, and it has not yet been a year since his Feb 18th arrest. Do you think people should take these books, and yours particularly, seriously or factually when the FBI have not yet finished de-briefing him and he hasn't been sentenced yet. I understand authors want their book to be one of the first, but for the sake of honesty and facts I think this book (especially the one called "The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold" by Adrian Havill) are coming out way to soon and do a disservice to not only history but to the family as well.
David Vise: I would not have written The Bureau and The Mole unless I was confident it reflected high-quality information and intelligence about what occurred, as well as what it all means. Historians do not have the chance to talk to the key people who worked with Hanssen, lived with him and were his friends. There is something to be said for primary sources of secret information, and that is what you get in The Bureau and the Mole.
That's all for now. If you have further questions, I will be on-line again in January to answer them on washingtonpost.com or you can submit them to thebureauandthemole.com.
Happy Holidays to all.
How did the FBI finally catch him?
David Vise: Ok. One more question. The FBI finally caught Hanssen last February after the Bureau, with the CIA's help, received his original case file from Moscow. It included a tape recording of his voice that was enhanced. But still, the Bureau was baffled. So the Russians then provided a black garbage bag Hanssen had used which had his fingerprints.
The FBI then staked him out around the clock, waiting for a chance to catch him red-handed. When he made his last dead drop on February 18, FBI agents swarmed upon him before he could make it back to his car.
David Vise: I would like to close by quoting something Hanssen wrote the Russians that is included in The Bureau and The Mole:
"I decided on this course when I was 14 years old. I'd read Philby's book. Now that is insane, eh! My only hesitations were my security concerns under uncertainty. So far I have judged the edge correctly. Give me credit for that.
Set the signal at my site any Tuesday evening. I will read your answer. Please, at least say goodbye. It's been a long and lonely time my dear friends, a long and lonely time."
© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company