The Magazine

The Spy Who Went to Mass

Jan 28, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 19 • By JUSTIN TORRES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Spy Next Door
The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Phillip Hanssen, the Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History
by Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman
Little, Brown, 288 pp., $25.95

The Bureau and the Mole
The Unmasking of Robert Phillip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History
by David Vise
Atlantic Monthly, 352 pp., $25

The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold
The Secret Life of FBI Double Agent Robert Hanssen
by Adrian Havil
St. Martin's, 352 pp., $25.95

WHAT ARE WE to make of Robert Hanssen--loving family man, devout Catholic, and one of the most damaging spies in American history?

Three new books about Hanssen have arrived just as his final plea agreement--life in prison without parole, but no seizure of his house or pension--takes effect. The best is Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman's "The Spy Next Door," which avoids the worst excesses of the pop Freudianism that mars all the books. David Vise's "The Bureau and the Mole" is useful for its account of the arrogant FBI culture that allowed Hanssen to go undetected for years. Adrian Havil's "The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold" presents the elaborate process by which the espionage was carried out. Unfortunately, all three books are hurried, their authors all rushing to be first in print. Each does some reporting that goes beyond the original newspaper accounts, but none makes much headway toward explaining the man.

To be fair, that's not surprising. Robert Hanssen is a bundle of contradictions: a contented husband who dallied with a stripper, a daily communicant at Mass who habitually betrayed his wife, an anti-Communist who likened America to "a powerfully built but retarded child" and sold state secrets to the KGB for more than ten years.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were prompted by ideology, a sincere identification with America's enemies. Aldrich Ames and the Walker family were greedy. But Hanssen? None of the available answers is satisfying. His hatred of communism was genuine if, at times, a bit over the top, and in his entire career he pocketed perhaps $650,000--a fraction of what the Soviets and later the Russians would have paid for the information he sold them. He didn't live large; his house in Vienna, Virginia, was modest by suburban standards, and when arrested he was driving a three-year-old Ford Taurus. (Aldrich Ames, by contrast, bought a half-million-dollar house and a white Jaguar, and banked $1.6 million, supposedly on a government salary.)

HANSSEN IS ALSO distinguished by the extraordinary damage he did to national security. His access to classified documents was astonishing; among other things, he revealed:

-NSA reports on flaws in the Soviet satellite communications system, which rendered useless a multi-billion dollar program designed to intercept secure Soviet communiqu s by taking advantage of those flaws.

-Two years of the National Intelligence Program, a planning calendar of the American intelligence community's activities for the following year.

-The existence of a multi-billion-dollar eavesdropping tunnel beneath the Soviet embassy in Washington. (The Soviets then used the tunnel to feed misinformation to the Americans.)

-The FBI espionage investigation of Felix Bloch, a State Department employee suspected of spying who was tipped off and slipped through the bureau's fingers.

-The identities of nine double agents within the Russian security apparatus, several of whom were executed.

Hanssen also sold the Soviets the Continuity of Government Plan, the highly classified program designed to ensure the president's survival and continued government operations in case of nuclear attack. With this information the Soviets began to devise an offensive nuclear strategy, convinced they could fight and win a nuclear war. We are lucky his espionage didn't precipitate nuclear war.

SO WHAT made him do it? A better question, perhaps, is how did he get away with it--the lying, the deceit, the overseas trips with hookers and secret sex life that composed one half of Robert Hanssen's split personality? It's startling that the people and institutions closest to him--including his family, the FBI, and his religious group, Opus Dei--all failed to see his disturbed personality and willfully ignored evidence of his deep flaws.