Robert Hanssen

A US intelligence disaster to rival the UK's Cambridge Five

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Robert Hanssen was an FBI agent who became the highest level government employee to spy on the USA for the KGB and its successor the SVR. An ex Chicago special affairs investigator, he was a fervent Catholic and very involved in Opus Dei.

Then he sold out for money.

To establish his credentials as a spy who was in a position to sell the Soviets worthwhile information, he turned over to the GRU the identity of one of the USA's own high level moles, a Major General Polyakov.

Known as BOURBON and ROAM to the CIA and TOPHAT to the FBI ; Polyakov was arrested much later in 1986 while he was in retirement, and executed in 1988. One can only imagine what those two intervening years must have been like. Polyakov's bitter story will be the subject of a future article. But you may be wondering why he was only arrested years after he was burnt.

Read on.

Back to Hanssen. When his wife found $20,000 (another source says $30,000) in their home, she confronted him. The effect was that he swore off spying... for a while at least. One also has to keep in mind that the USSR was falling literally to pieces at the time.

When Hanssen's ego and the allurement of money drove him to get back in the game, he had to establish his credentials all over again by selling out some more spies. Hanssen liked to come on strong. He just went to the Russian embassy and, identifying himself as "Ramon Garcia", tried to hand over secret files to a Soviet diplomat in the garage (shades of Deep Throat). The Soviet official drove off and even filed a protest to the State Department. It was ignored. The files he eventually gave to the KGB burned even more agents. Of Sergei Motorin, Boris Yuzhin and Valery Martinov; only Yuzhin survived the KGB.

All those were deplorable losses, but they were merely his admission tickets into the game. While in the game, for an estimated 1.4 million dollars over a span of seventeen years, he turned over even more spies, an estimated 6,000 pages of secret intel and details of the FBI's counterintelligence work on Soviets operating in the US, among other things. Hanssen was a bleeding ulcer ; he possibly caused the worst intelligence disaster in US history.

Hanssen also was a real computer buff. He communicated to his Soviet handlers the possibilities of his new Palm III for secret data encryption and delivery, something that now has echoes in electronic dead drops. But counterintelligence is never totally asleep and Hanssen became so brazen he eventually broke the 11th commandment.

It was his assistant, a rookie who was assigned to spy on him, who covertly found secret intel in his Palm. The FBI had him under surveillance and even bought the house in front of his own, just to keep an eye on him.

Shortly before his retirement, after all these years of treason, he at some point sensed he was under surveillance. Nonetheless, he decided to make one last, fateful dead drop. The FBI arrested him as he was walking back to his car from the drop site.

Hanssen asked them : “What took you so long?”

What took them so long is that the FBI thought that Aldrich Ames was the sole bad apple.

Those spies Hanssen had burned had already been exposed by another mole, the CIA's Ames. As for the Soviets, they held back from condemning their own men solely on the word of Ames, an American. But when Hanssen betrayed them to the Russians all over again, he gave those men the death blow.

I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall at one of those CIA – FBI meetings.

The story of Hanssen's demise illustrates the unique attraction of intelligence work. All the challenges, defeats, complexities, heartbreaks, and sometimes the triumphs of good intelligence work are illustrated in the intricate details of this investigation.

Robert Philip Hanssen is now wearing orange overalls and serving a life sentence without parole in a Supermax. They showed Hanssen a movie about himself. He hated it.


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