The Inside Story of How the FBI's
Robert Hanssen Betrayed America
By David Wise
Random House. 309 pp. $24.95
As America's premier writer on espionage and the intelligence bureaucracy, David Wise has over the years introduced us to some very weird and dangerous civil servants. But for weirdness, the others couldn't touch Robert Philip Hanssen. He was, says Wise, "a walking paradox." Although a zealous right-wing anti-communist, he sold thousands of our government's secrets to Moscow. He was the kind of devout Catholic who went to Mass every day and hung a crucifix on his office wall, but he was obsessed with exhibitionist sex and pornography, spending hours hunting it on the Internet.
When his closest friend made extended visits to his home, Hanssen, an electronics whiz, hid a small video camera in his bedroom and rigged it up so that his friend, "sitting in the comfort of the downstairs den, could watch on television as [the Hanssens] had sex in their upstairs bedroom." (Mrs. Hanssen didn't know she was on camera.) Later the two men would critique the show.
Very early in his treasonous career, Hanssen's wife caught him putting together some material he claimed he was selling to the KGB as a "scam." To pacify his wife, he promised to give the first payoff money to Mother Teresa. More likely, he spent it on strippers, particularly the one he dated for a year, gave a sapphire-and-diamond necklace and a Mercedes, and treated to a two-week fling with him in Hong Kong.
He could afford it. For all the secrets passed to the KGB over two decades, Hanssen received $600,000. Wise says the secrets were of such enormous value that he could have demanded millions, "yet he never negotiated for more."
Did Hanssen's Catholicism make it easier for him to be a traitor in good conscience? Wise points out that Hanssen repeatedly confessed his espionage to priests and received absolution. Secrecy was guaranteed. "He betrayed his country and simultaneously betrayed his wife," writes Wise, while "urging his friends to get closer to God."
Seven years ago, Wise wrote a gripping account (Nightmover) of how Aldrich Ames was for nine years Moscow's mole inside the CIA, destroying many of the agency's most important undercover operations. Wise saw the CIA's incompetence in catching Ames as just another sign that the agency was almost worthless. ("From the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra, its covert warriors hatched one disaster after another" and "its analysts misjudged almost every major development in the post-World War II world.")
Wise could have been almost as harsh in his judgment of the FBI. Behind the masterful puffery and self-promotion of J. Edgar Hoover during his half-century as its first director, the bureau was riddled with defects. Until Hoover's death in 1972, the FBI was marked by racism and civil-liberty violations, and seemed more interested in harassing left-wing political dissenters than in disturbing the Mafia. Post-Hoover directors produced their "string of debacles," such as the shootings at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and making a bonfire of 75 Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex.
And, in terms of time elapsed, they were even more incompetent than the CIA in catching their mole. Not that there weren't "certainly enough warning signs." Hanssen's own brother-in-law, also an FBI agent, warned his supervisor that a suspiciously large pile of $100 bills had been seen on top of Hanssen's dresser. There was no follow-up. And what about the time Hanssen broke into another agent's computer? And the time he dodged taking a lie detector test? And the time "FBI technicians discovered he had a password breaker on his hard drive, normally a sure sign of a hacker"? And what about the time he got into a shoving match with a woman who worked in his office? (She fell to the floor, and he dragged her up the corridor, yelling and screaming.) Hmmmm. Maybe a little mental problem there? "Perhaps none of these incidents and questions about Hanssen was enough, by itself, to lead the counterspies to suspect their own colleague," Wise writes, "but taken together they should have triggered an investigation."
By the time Director Louis Freeh announced he was quitting in 2001, a CBS News poll showed public confidence in the FBI had plummeted to 24 percent. But within the bureau, confidence was still high. Perhaps too high. Wise smartly guesses that the FBI "may have failed to detect Hanssen sooner because it was in love with its own image" of bureaucratic purity and shrewdness -- a hangover from the myth-ridden Hoover era, "when the vast majority of Americans admired the bureau and its agents, who were invariably portrayed as square-jawed and invincible." A traitor in their ranks? Impossible.
As always, Wise offers his readers the excitement of spying on the spies, and the pleasure of hooting at good guys who stumble because they are too smug. And he leaves us mulling over the question of justice, served or unserved. Hanssen got a life sentence, but the government turned its traitor into a fairly good provider by allowing Mrs. Hanssen to receive $40,000 of his pension a year, plus the house and their three cars.
The really big winner in this tale is, ironically, the Russian spy who defected to the United States, bringing a treasure chest of data plundered from KGB files. It was this material that exposed Hanssen. In gratitude, our government paid the lucky immigrant $7 million, and he is now living comfortably somewhere in the United States under a new identity. *
Robert Sherrill is a staff writer for the Nation.