A Spy's Secret World

In his long fight against the forces of evil, FBI Director Louis Freeh has always drawn on his deep faith. The director is regarded in the bureau as pure and relentlessly upright. Under the glass on Freeh's desktop, along with snapshots of his wife and six kids, is a photo of the late Cardinal John O'Connor. At least one of Freeh's children attends The Heights, a small, all-male school in Potomac, Md., affiliated with a powerful and secretive Roman Catholic order, Opus Dei. So imagine Freeh's discomfort last fall when he showed up to give a speech at his son's school and was greeted by another school parent and fellow FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, who was at that moment under surveillance for turning traitor as a Russian spy. When Freeh returned to his office the next day, he wearily told a colleague how difficult it had been to give a speech on ethics and morality, all the while knowing that Hanssen--a 27-year bureau veteran, father of six and member of the righteous and anti-communist Opus Dei--had betrayed everything that Freeh held dear.

The director is trying to put a brave face on the spy scandal, the worst since CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames was caught working for the

Russians in 1993. Last week Freeh claimed that arresting Hanssen on charges of espionage was a "counterintelligence coup." From some kind of unidentified "sources" U.S. intelligence obtained what seemed to be virtually the KGB's entire file on Hanssen's case. Sources tell NEWSWEEK the bureau was able to identify the turncoat--who used code names like "B" and "Ramon"--from his fingerprints on the packages he allegedly sent to his Russian handlers. "It was a eureka moment," said a top bureau official. Nonetheless, this week Freeh will have the difficult task of explaining to the Senate Intelligence Committee how such a mole could have gone undetected by the FBI for 15 years.

In some ways, Hanssen, who is expected to plead not guilty, is a throwback to the cold-war game of spy vs. spy, when the FBI and CIA and their Soviet rivals in the KGB (now renamed the SVR) busily tried to recruit each other's agents. Clearly, the game still goes on: Hanssen was arrested in a Vienna, Va., park a mile from his home as he dropped off classified documents, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, for his Russian handlers. And the gumshoe's high-tech methods are harbingers of the spy game of the future. A computer whiz, Hanssen was allegedly able to steal secrets from the U.S. intelligence community by hacking into its secret databases. In one correspondence with his Russian handlers, Hanssen proposed that, rather than bother with risky rendezvous in the muddy woods, he just send Moscow encrypted stolen documents via his Palm pilot (he wanted to upgrade from a Palm III to a Palm VII).

The damage done will take months, if not more, to sort out. Over the years the FBI mole delivered to Moscow 6,000 pages of documents and 26 computer disks detailing the bureau's "sources and methods," including its latest techniques for electronic eavesdropping. As a counterintelligence expert at the FBI, he had unusually broad access to the bureau's files. But the most elusive and intriguing question about Hanssen is his motivation: why would a God-fearing family man who ardently and even tediously denounced "godless communism" secretly sell out to the Kremlin?

Greed may be only part of the answer. True, he may have worried about tuition payments for his six Catholic-school-educated children, but, unlike other alleged traitors, he did not throw money around on booze or women. According to the FBI's affidavit, the Russians paid Hanssen more than $600,000 in cash and diamonds, plus the promise of $800,000 more awaiting him in Moscow for his "retirement." Still, Hanssen lived the life of a frugal family man in the Virginia suburbs, driving a '97 Ford Taurus.

Some of Hanssen's colleagues surmise that he simply liked to tempt fate. "He wanted to touch the wire," said David Major, a section chief in the bureau's intelligence division who worked across the hall from Hanssen. "It was like he was wondering, 'Can I do it?' " A quirky, quietly brilliant man whose career never quite lived up to his own expectations, Hanssen may have been led into temptation partly by the boring, deadening work of spying in the real world, which involves far more waiting and paper shuffling than sleuthing in dark alleys.

The forces driving Hanssen were likely complex and possibly unknowable. He seems to have been on some kind of strange quest, lurching between religions and ideologies and careers without finding relief, except perhaps in the thrill of spying. Still, it is possible, from the 100-page affidavit released by the FBI and interviews with his friends and colleagues, to begin to piece together clues to the puzzle, to gain the first insights into the twisted mind of a spy. He is described by those who knew him--who readily acknowledge that he was hard to truly know--as a brooding, controlling figure, fascinated by secrecy and obsessed by purity. He was, for much of his 56 years, a seeker of black-and-white certainty and higher truth who nonetheless plunged into the gray, morally compromised world of espionage. He is, in a perverse way, Louis Freeh's doppelgnger, a would-be scourge of evil who ended up collaborating with the very demon he was trying to exorcise.

Hanssen's own explanation to his Moscow handlers for his secret life, laid out in the bureau affidavit, was at once cryptic and grandiose: "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," he wrote the SVR in 1999. In the same rambling letter, Hanssen went on, "I decided on this course when I was 14 years old. I'd read Philby's book. Now that is insane, eh!"

H.A.R. (Kim) Philby is an interesting and provocative role model. Himself the son of a spy who turned traitor, Philby was an arrogant, self-loathing aristocrat recruited by the Soviets at Cambridge University in the early 1930s. Philby wanted to overthrow what he saw as the corrupt, class-ridden establishment and replace it with a Marxist utopia. Rising to head the Soviet division in the British spy service in the early days of the cold war, he led the mole-hunters on a merry chase until he fled to Moscow in 1963.

Philby did not publish his memoir, "My Silent War," until 1968, when Hanssen was 24, not 14. Hanssen may just have been flattering his handlers--or himself--by dropping the name of Moscow Center's greatest catch. But Hanssen's sense of intrigue--and his fascination with spying as a moral battleground--started young. With FBI colleagues, Hanssen would boast that his father had been a Red hunter, a member of the Chicago police force's Red Squad, which tried to track down subversives in the 1950s and '60s. An only child, regarded as a loner and something of a cipher in high school and college (where he studied Russian), Hanssen as a 21-year-old nurtured an ambition to join the supersecret National Security Agency and become a code breaker. He also imagined going to med school and becoming a psychiatrist.

He ended up at dental school. His classmates there remember him as quiet, imperturbable, almost invisible--always neatly dressed in a coat and tie--yet odd. He worked on the weekends at a state mental facility and enjoyed interviewing the patients, as if he were a real psychiatrist. Occasionally, he would invite a friend out to the hospital to watch him perform. "He loved showing people the control he had over the patients, who were mostly bonkers. He liked to show off for his friends, putting these people through their paces. He wasn't mean to the inmates; he just quietly interrogated them," said John Sullivan, a classmate. Hanssen had another quirk, said Sullivan: he repeatedly described a dream, in which he was sitting on a throne, "like Emperor Ming in 'Flash Gordon'," passing final judgment on his enemies. "Guard!" Hanssen would imagine himself commanding. "Take them away!" Hanssen could laugh, a deep rumble, but he never opened up about his own family. A dutiful son, he regularly visited his mother.

Yet he was searching for--or escaping from--something deep within himself. Bored with dentistry, he dropped out, got a degree in accounting and became, like his father, a policeman. But not just any cop: he volunteered for an elite squad that investigated other cops suspected of corruption. The C5 unit was despised by most Chicago police officers, who viewed the undercover cops as traitors. "It didn't seem to bother him at all," said his supervisor, John Clarke. Hanssen arrived full of insinuating questions about the regime of Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago's all-powerful boss. Indeed, Hanssen started asking so many questions that Clarke began to secretly suspect that the rookie was actually working undercover for the federal government. "He looked like an altar boy," said Clarke. "But I was always very suspicious of him."

Before long, Hanssen was openly working for the Feds--as an FBI agent. Joining the bureau in 1976, Hanssen showed little interest in the normal duties of a junior G-man, standing in the cold writing down the license-plate numbers of suspected mobsters. He volunteered to be a spycatcher, to enter the arcane world of counterintelligence operations against the KGB, which was working hard to penetrate the U.S. government and steal military, political and industrial secrets. In the late '70s and early '80s, with the cold war deepening again after a period of detente, he could easily imagine the struggle against the "Evil Empire" as a grand stage worthy of his intellectual powers and zeal.

The spy-vs.-spy game that swirled around the United Nations in New York had been described as a "war" by its veterans, but it could be a dreary, deadening pastime for an FBI agent trying to support a large and growing family in the city's pricey environs. Agents in the New York office of the FBI at the time complained of low pay and lower morale. After a while the duties of a counterintelligence officer--such as reviewing the expense accounts of businessmen who traveled to Moscow--may have seemed as dull as dental school to Hanssen. He may also have been going through some personal crisis at the time. According to family friends, his wife, Bonnie, was having periodic miscarriages between giving birth to their six children. The real cause of Hanssen's deep disquiet may never be known. But in October 1985, a month before the Geneva summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signaled the beginning of the end of the cold war, Hanssen took a step from which--as he well knew--there is no turning back. According to the FBI affidavit, he offered his services to the Kremlin, in a letter sent through the regular mail to the Virginia home of a KGB agent stationed in the Soviet Embassy in Washington.

As a kind of down payment, Hanssen handed over the names of three KGB agents who were secretly working for the Americans. It was a deadly gift. Two of the agents--Valery Martynov and Sergei Motorin--were later executed in Moscow, while the third, Boris Yuzhin, was sent to prison. (These double agents were doubly unlucky: they were earlier betrayed by the CIA mole, Aldrich Ames.) Hanssen may also have been protecting himself by eliminating sources who might finger him to the CIA. The counterintelligence expert took the usual precautions. The FBI affidavit reads like a how-to manual of good "tradecraft." He communicated with the KGB through "dead drops." In order to avoid surveillance, he never met directly with the Soviets. Rather, he would post a signal--a piece of tape on a tree--alerting his handlers that he was leaving a package at a predetermined site. They would leave behind further marching orders in the same spot--and a reward. Hanssen was careful not to ask for too much. In one of his first messages, on Nov. 8, 1985, he wrote Moscow, "As far as funds are concerned, I have little need or utility for more than the 100,000 [dollars]. It merely provides a difficulty since I can not spend it, store it, or invest it easily without triping [sic] 'drug money' warning bells. Perhaps some diamonds as security to my children and some good will so that when the time comes, you will accept by [sic] senior services as a guest lecturer. Eventually, I would appreciate an escape plan. (Nothing lasts forever.)"

Hanssen may have been thinking of his model, the master spy Philby, who ended his days as a Hero of the State (though a depressed drunk), lecturing fledgling KGB officers in Moscow. Shrewdly, Hanssen never revealed his true identity to the KGB, using code names instead. He repeatedly refused requests to meet a Moscow agent at home or overseas. "Neither of us are children about these things," he chided his KGB handler at one point. "Over time, I can cut your losses rather than become one."

As the chief of a counterintelligence unit in New York, then as a fairly high-ranking analyst of Soviet spying back at FBI headquarters in Washington, Hanssen was in a position to know a great deal about the FBI's spycatching operations. Intelligence experts say that Hanssen probably told the Russians how, where and when U.S. intelligence agencies, like the eavesdroppers at the NSA, were listening in on Russian communications.

The true cost to national security is hard to determine. During the 15 years when Hanssen was operating as a mole, the crumbling Soviet Union and its chaotic successor, the Russian Republic, was not much of a real threat to the United States. Oleg Gordievsky, a Soviet spy who defected to Britain in 1985, suggests that the Russians might have given or sold information turned over by Hanssen to scarier enemies--rogue states like Iraq and Libya, or terrorist groups in the Middle East. But a senior FBI official interviewed by NEWSWEEK was doubtful. He observed that Moscow's paranoid and clannish SVR has always been reluctant to share secrets even with its Russian military counterpart, the GRU.

Hanssen seems to have been satisfied by his secret life for a time. According to the affidavit, his handlers cleverly nurtured him with cash and stroking and even snatches of poetry. His correspondence with the KGB is full of salutations to "dear friends." The chairman of the KGB himself, Vladimir Kryuchkov, sent along his personal congratulations. But by the end of that year, Hanssen had gone to ground. His next contact with the Russians, it appears, was not for seven years.

Hanssen may have felt a need to lie low. Aldrich Ames was exposed as a Soviet agent in 1993, and the mole-hunters were busily searching for other turncoats. Some serious security lapses could not be explained by Ames's perfidy. FBI and CIA officials wondered why some of the intelligence community's listening devices were going deaf. And they still couldn't explain how the Russians had been able in 1989 to tip off a State Department official, Felix Bloch, who was under surveillance for spying. (According to the FBI affidavit, it was Hanssen who warned the Russians that the noose was tightening around Bloch. "Bloch was such a shnook," Hanssen wrote his handlers, "I almost hated protecting him.") In the mid-'90s, the spycatchers did snare a couple of lesser moles, the CIA's Harold Nicholson and the FBI's Earl Pitts. But they remained suspicious. When Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18, as many as half a dozen American intelligence officials were under close scrutiny at the time. Their fates remain uncertain.

There were complaints last week that longtime FBI agents had been exempted from taking lie-detector tests, unlike CIA officials, who--especially in the wake of Ames case--were routinely "fluttered." But even if Hanssen had been strapped to a polygraph machine, that might not have incriminated him. Investigating his home life would not have revealed a hint of wrongdoing. According to neighbors, he got home every night at 5:30; the kids were doing their homework and dinner was on the table within a few minutes. Wife Bonnie is described as a "cute, pixie, Doris Day-like person," her home "as neat as a pin." The dog's name is Sunday, as in church. The Hanssens are devoutly religious. Although Hanssen rarely mentioned religion while growing up (he was at least nominally a Lutheran), he became an ardent Catholic, like his wife, in the mid-1970s.

His attachment to Opus Dei stands in stark and perplexing contrast to his work for the Kremlin. Officials of the order hotly dispute descriptions of Opus Dei (Work of God) as a secret sect. Its followers are supposed to live a godly life while here on earth, but fellow Catholics sometimes find Opus Dei members to be a little spooky and holier-than-thou. Hanssen's colleagues regarded him as a moralizer. He refused to attend a going-away party at a girlie bar near FBI headquarters, calling the party "an occasion of sin." Riding home one night with another FBI official, he bridled when an NPR commentator remarked that "the implied social contract is the basis for morality." Turning off the radio in disgust, Hanssen muttered, "The basis of morality is God's law."

At bureau headquarters, Hanssen was known for dressing in black and for a somewhat lugubrious manner, which some compared to that of an undertaker. To investigative journalist James Bamford, he handed windy assessments of the evils of communism, long after communism had collapsed. He was called, behind his back, Dr. Death. Speaking in low tones, smiling little, he had few real friends.

He may have missed his Russian handlers. "A spy is one of the loneliest people in the world," says Dr. David Charney, a psychiatrist who has spent 20 hours interviewing Earl Pitts about his career as a spy. "He is completely dependent on his handler." In late 1999, Hanssen allegedly renewed contact with Russian intelligence, which was gearing up again under President Vladimir Putin, an old KGB hand who is eager to revive some the Soviet Empire's glory days. "Dear friend: welcome!" began a letter to Hanssen from the SVR on Oct. 6. "We express our sincere joy on the occasion of resumption of contact with you." Yet there was a new, panicky note on Hanssen's end. "I have come about as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you, and I get silence," he petulantly wrote the SVR in March of last year. "I hate silence... I hate uncertainty. So far I have judged the edge correctly. Give me credit for that." He seemed to know that the end was coming near. "Please," he begs his handler, "at least say goodbye. It's been a long time my dear friends, a long and lonely time." Then, more sardonically, "Want me to lecture in your 101 course in my old age?"

He was worried that he faced the death penalty if he got caught by the mole-hunters, but he didn't really believe that a welcome suite awaited him in Moscow if he bolted. As for the $800,000 supposedly set aside for his retirement, he scoffed, "we do both know that money is not really 'put away for you' except in some vague accounting sense. Never patronize me at this level," he warned. "It offends me, but then you are easily forgiven. But perhaps I shouldn't tease you. It just gets me in trouble."

Big trouble was just around the corner. In October, after receiving the case file of the SVR agent known as "B," the FBI had little trouble zeroing in on Hanssen. A senior FBI official said the top brass was stunned when the fingerprints on the packaging materials turned out to belong to one of their own. Hanssen was immediately put under round-the-clock surveillance. Perhaps sensing the dogs circling, he was beginning to talk to his FBI bosses about retirement. He was offered instead a nice big office at headquarters, NEWSWEEK has learned. When he went over for a look, the FBI bugged his old office.

The gumshoes were waiting when Hanssen went to a northern Virginia park to visit a dead drop in the gloom of a February late afternoon. He walked into the woods and placed an inch-thick package under a footbridge. As he turned to go to his car, agents yelled, "Freeze! FBI!" The long wait was over.

Hanssen did not resist or even say anything. His brokenhearted wife hired one of the best criminal-defense lawyers in Washington, Plato Cacheris, who said the government's case may not be as solid as it seems. If history is a guide, Hanssen will cut a deal. To avoid the death penalty, he will have to help the FBI figure out just how much damage he did. Repairing the harm done his family may be harder. Hanssen's children are assuming the allegations against their father are true, said Hanssen's sister-in-law Liz Rahimi. "They just think there was something wrong with their dad, and they didn't know," she said. Hanssen's mother-in-law, Fran Wauck, told NEWSWEEK, "The family is devastated. We don't even know who he is." It's not clear that anyone ever really knew Bob Hanssen, perhaps not even himself.

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