Robert Hanssen: The FBI Mole who Spied for the KGB

Why do people spy on their own allies? What motivates traitors? US Intelligence officials have boiled down the motives for treason to four possibilities in the acronym ‘MICE’.

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M – Money. No explanation needed here. It’s a motive as old as humankind.

I – Ideology. This can be even more powerful than money. Sometimes in the name of misguided idealism, secret agents can turn against their own countries, as in the case of famous Soviet double agent Kim Philby.

C – Compromise. Blackmail or Coercion. An unwilling agent may be forced to hand over secrets, lest compromising or embarrassing details are divulged.

E – Ego. The most dangerous and unpredictable reason. Playing two sides can provide excitement and a feeling of power.

Today’s protagonist, Robert Hanssen, was an FBI agent who served his country for 20 years. At the end of the Cold War, Hanssen sold classified secrets to the Soviet and Russian intelligence services. He compromised the security of his country and put the lives of colleagues in danger. He realised his mistakes and stopped spying, but eventually returned to his duplicitous role with a vengeance.

What were his motives? Apparently, it was a combination of Money and Ego, but there may have been a darker demon lurking under the façade of Hanssen, a devout Catholic and father of six. Let’s find out, in today’s Biographics.

The Accountant

Robert Phillip Hanssen was born in Chicago, Illinois, just weeks before D-Day, on April 18, 1944. On the day of his birth, his father was not there, as he was serving in the US Navy during World War II. In peacetime, Hanssen Sr was a Police Officer in the Chicago Police Department. The old man was one who would not suffer fools, neither in the streets, nor at home. As Robert grew up, his father was reported to have frequently abused him, ranting that he was a failure and would never succeed in life.

After graduating from high school, Hanssen attended Knox College in Illinois, where he studied chemistry and Russian. After graduation, he considered becoming a dentist, but eventually he set his eyes on completing an MBA. He began his career as an accountant.

In 1968 Robert married his fiancée, Bernadette Wauck, known as ‘Bonnie’.

Bonnie, a Catholic, was born in a family that was much wealthier than Robert’s. Influenced by her devotion, he converted to the same faith and joined Opus Dei, an exclusive, conservative order within the Church.

The new couple had six children and committed to send each of them to exclusive private schools. In accordance with Opus Dei tradition, they would also commit to donate a portion of their income to the charitable works of their parish.

The Agent

This tithing lifestyle surely took its toll on Robert’s paycheck. Strangely, after a few years working as an accountant, he decided to enter law enforcement, which generally tends to be a less lucrative career.

Regardless, Hanssen joined the forced and worked as a policeman in Chicago for four years. Thanks to his background, Robert was placed on an elite unit investigating corruption and white-collar crimes.

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After this stint with the boys in blue, Robert decided he would join those in grey: the FBI.

At this stage he had the right CV to join the agency. His credentials as an accountant with an MBA, plus four years in the Chicago anti-corruption squad made him a good fit for the agency’s Financial Crimes Division. He was assigned to the Division’s headquarters in Gary, Indiana, right out of the FBI Academy.

But even as Hanssen investigated white-collar criminals in the Midwest, he was dreaming of something different. Hanssen had grown up with a fondness for espionage. He was a huge James Bond fan, devouring Ian Fleming’s books as well as the movies. He had even bought a Walther PPK pistol – a Bond favourite — plus a Leica miniature camera, and a shortwave radio. For some reason, he had even opened a Swiss bank account. Unfortunately for Hannssen, 007 remained nothing more than a number on one of his spreadsheets.

Hanssen, though, had reasons to hope for a more exciting assignment. In 1978, he filed a transfer request to the FBI office in New York City, one of the great spy capitals of the world. He was assigned to the Soviet Counterintelligence Analytical Squad. It seemed like adventure might finally be calling.

But it wasn’t so. You see, Hannssen’s supervisors described him as smart, technically proficient, and analytical. They marvelled at his skills with early computer systems.

But they also considered him lacking in field operations ability and assigned him to administrative work. This crushed his fantasies of going undercover, chasing Soviet spies in the underbelly of New York. Hanssen’s job was to manage the New York Field Office’s counterintelligence database. He had joined the FBI to hunt spies, but the agency had made him a glorified librarian.

In all honesty, the job description sounds quite cool if you ask me. Hanssen’s job was to assemble a database of foreign officials posted in New York who, while posing as diplomats, were actually intelligence officers spying on the United States. Many of them were agents of the main Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, or its military counterpart: a larger but less famous agency, the GRU.

This just wasn’t enough for Robert Hanssen.

The Double Agent

At this stage, Special Agent Hanssen felt wronged by the FBI. He also felt the increasing weight of the bills piling up. His growing family needed more space, and Hanssen’s traditional stance required him to be the main bread-winner, requiring Bonnie to stay at home. These may have been the reasons that pushed him to the edge of treason for the first time.

“Ellis” dead drop site in Foxstone Park used by Hanssen, including on the day of his arrest.

In November 1979, Hanssen used his growing knowledge of Soviet operations to contact the GRU and volunteer his services. Clever and stealthy from the start, Hanssen concealed his identity from his Soviet contacts. From 1979 until 1981, he left information stolen from his department, the Soviet Counterintelligence Unit in dead drops in exchange for a sum of money that sources say fell somewhere between $21,000 to $30,000. That’s about $60 to 90,000 in today’s money.

 

Dead drops are a common method used by spies to exchange information. Spy No. 1 drops his or her messages in an agreed, hidden place — behind a loose brick on a certain wall, for example. The spy then leaves a commonly understood sign, such as a simple chalk mark, on another place. The handlers then know that they have mail waiting and can pick up the bundle.

The intel that Hanssen provided to the Soviets was highly valuable. Hanssen even revealed the name of a Russian general, Dimitri Polyakov, who had been providing information to the Americans. Polyakov was placed under surveillance by the Russians; he was eventually arrested as a spy and executed in 1988.

The Remorseful Spy

The GRU experience was a positive test for Hanssen’s resolve and ability. He might have continued his work for them, but in the spring of 1980, Hanssen was caught.

One can hide secrets from the FBI, the GRU, the KGB even – but not from a spouse.

Hanssen’s mug shot, taken on the day of his arrest.

Bonnie found a strange letter from the GRU to Hanssen in the basement of their house in Scarsdale, New York. Hanssen downplayed it. He told Bonnie that he had been giving the Soviets junk information, to trick them into giving him money.

In a later testimony, Bonnie said that she demanded that her husband go with her to see their Roman Catholic priest to confess. They then drove to New Rochelle to meet with Rev. Robert Bucciarelli, a priest also associated with Opus Dei.

Father Bucciarelli came up with a plan: if Robert gave the money from the Soviets to charity, and promised not to spy again, as a good boy, the priest committed not to report the matter to the FBI.

Which in theory he shouldn’t have done anyways, as confessions are protected by an oath of secrecy, but … whatever.

Hanssen agreed. Bonnie, who at the time was expecting their fourth child, was greatly relieved,  but she was also determined to hold her husband to the deal.

Robert admitted that he had already spent most of the GRU money, but Bonnie insisted that he repay to charity the full original amount. He began to make small payments over several years to a charity affiliated with Mother Teresa’s Catholic organization, which moved the family close to bankruptcy.

Over the following years, Bonnie kept close tabs on Robert, checking if he was making the payments, and even questioning him on whether he was still working with the Russians. It seems to me like the FBI would have been wise to hire Bonnie Hannssen.

In the early 1980s, Hanssen was transferred to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. To his colleagues in the bureau, who were still oblivious to his actual conduct, he seemed to be a model agent. In office chit-chat, Hanssen often spoke of his engagement with Opus Dei and appeared to be a devoted Catholic and anti-communist.

From 1981 until 1985, he served in the Budget and Soviet Analytical Units at FBI headquarters. He may still have been a desk jockey, but one nested at the centre of a web of information flowing to and from the intelligence division.

As one of the few skilled computer operators, Hannssen’s cyber tendrils took in information from the NSA and the CIA, reviewing info on the FBI’s most sensitive human assets and technical operations against the USSR. Finally, Hanssen realized that the best spies were not flashy James Bonds, but rather, the smart men and women who lurked in the shadows, manipulating information, unnoticed and unknown.

In September 1985, Hanssen returned to the New York Field Office. This time he supervised a foreign counterintelligence squad, which gave him access to a wealth of Soviet spy information. This included the identity of the FBI’s Soviet sources and informants, as well as the locations of KGB defectors in the US.

Emboldened by his former success with the GRU, Hanssen graduated to the big league. He was going to spy for the KGB.

The Unrepentant Spy

In October 4, 1985, Soviet diplomat Viktor Degtyar received a strange looking envelope in his house in Alexandria, Virginia. Degtyar opened the envelope and found a second sealed envelope inside. A note with instructions forbade Degtyar from opening the second envelope and demanded he take it to his colleague Victor Cherkashin.

It was clear to Degtyar that whoever had sent the envelope was aware that he was, in fact, a KGB officer of the PR Line.

The KGB organized its espionage activities into distinct lines, or sections, with different intelligence and counterintelligence responsibilities. The ‘PR’ collected information about political, economic, and military strategic intelligence. Each line of activity came under the direction of the KGB rezident, an official member of the Soviet Embassy who was in fact a covert spymaster. Cherkashin was Viktor’s rezident.

The next day Degtyar handed over the package to Cherkashin, a veteran spy who had also been the handler of Aldrich Ames, the CIA’s most dangerous mole.

The letter read

“Dear Mr. Cherkashin:

Soon, I will send a box of documents to Mr. Degtyar. They are from certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmented projects of the U.S. Intelligence community. All are originals to aid in Verifying their authenticity.

I trust that an officer of your experience will handle them appropriately. I believe they are sufficient to justify a $100,000 payment to me. I must warn of certain risks to your security of which you may not be aware. Your service has recently suffered some setbacks. I warn that

Mr. Boris Yuzhin

Mr. Sergey Motorin and

Mr. Valeriy Martynov

have been recruited by our special services.

My identity and actual position in the community must be left unstated to ensure my security. I will add 6, (you Subtract 6) from stated months, days and times in both directions of our future communications.”

And then, as a signature, a simple

“B”

Cherkashin had struck gold. Three double agents exposed in one stroke, simply by opening an envelope. And Hanssen had scored a 100 grand.

His first letter to Cherkashin had also caused enormous damage. The FBI and CIA relied on Yuzhin, Motorin, and Martynov to spy for the US and provide critical inside information about Soviet espionage operations. After Hanssen’s letter, the KGB flew each of the spies back to Moscow and tried them for espionage. After sham trials, the Soviets executed Motorin and Martynov. Yuzhin received a fifteen-year sentence.

From 1985 to 1991, Hanssen handed to the KGB some of the most important counterintelligence and military secrets in the hands of US security services. By 1991, Hanssen had completely compromised the FBI’s counter-intelligence database.

Meanwhile, Hanssen was counting his money at his FBI desk, laughing while the agency looked for the mole in all the wrong places.

He could have easily been caught at this time.

During a visit from her brother, Mark Wauck, Bonnie had confided to him that she was alarmed. She had found $5,000 in cash at home, and feared that Robert may have started spying for the Russians again. Mark was an FBI agent himself, although based in Chicago. He reported this to his supervisors in 1990, but they didn’t take any meaningful action!

In the following years Robert managed to avoid detection, as he skilfully worked with the KGB handlers without ever meeting them. In one occasion, he slipped up, speaking to a Russian agent over a pay phone – this could have easily given him away, as presumably all Soviet Embassy lines were tapped. But again, nothing happened.

In general, Hanssen and Degtyar relied on a system of dead drops and signals placed in public places. For instance, a piece of adhesive tape placed on a sign in a park in Virginia would indicate that a package had been placed under a small footbridge in the park.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. This was bad news for Hanssen. During the early 1990s, KGB veterans began to approach western intelligence agencies and spill the beans on their recent operations. Hanssen became alarmed: what if a Russian with knowledge of his activities signaled the Americans to his true identity?

For eight years, Hanssen behaved liked a boy scout – at least spy-wise. He stopped contacting the Russians, while waiting for the inevitable arrest. Again, nothing happened.

So, in 1999, while working as an FBI liaison with the State Department, he fell back into bad habits and started selling American secrets again.

Little did he know that a former colleague on the other side of the former Iron Curtain had begun doing exactly the same thing. A former KGB agent had come across Hanssen’s KGB file and contacted US intelligence with the intention of selling it.

Realizing the importance of the material, the US paid $7 million for it.

In 20 years of selling classified intel, Hanssen had racked up approximately $1.4 Million dollars. This Russian guy, in perhaps two months of work, had made $7 Million! Either the Americans had deeper pockets, or Hanssen was a terrible negotiator.

The dossier sold to the Americans did not specify the mole’s name. Evidence in the file, though, pointed to Hanssen, and he was put under close surveillance from Special Agent O’Neill, a younger colleague who posed as his assistant. The net was closing in.

Hanssen’s Demons

On February 18, 2001, Hanssen was arrested at a park in northern Virginia after he had placed a package at his usual dead drop location. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and to avoid the death penalty, Hanssen confessed and agreed to be debriefed by American intelligence officials.

In May 2002, Hanssen was sentenced to life in prison. News reports claimed that intelligence agencies were not entirely satisfied with the extent of his cooperation — they believed he was holding back information. But the Government could not prove he had lied, and wishing to avoid a public trial, they did not void his plea agreement.

The Hanssen case was regarded as a low point for the FBI. Hanssen had been trusted by his superiors, he could have been stopped in more than one occasion and his betrayal had gone undetected for years.

The Government stated that Hanssen had been paid approximately $1.4 million during his spying career, although most of it was held in a Russian bank account.

The damage Hanssen did was catastrophic.

At least three Russian double agents had been executed or imprisoned because of him, and it was suspected that he compromised dozens of intelligence operations. For example, he had sold the information that the Americans had dug a tunnel under the Russian embassy in Washington, to install listening devices.

Hanssen was incarcerated in the “supermax” federal prison in Colorado. Fellow convicts include the Unabomber, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, and a number of organized crime figures.

But why did Hanssen betray his country?

During his sessions with investigators, Hanssen claimed his motivation had always been financial. Yet some investigators believed anger about how his father treated him as a child triggered a need to rebel against authority.

Author Eric O’Neill, on the other hand, speculated that his motives lay in his egomania and thirst for adventure.

The man himself told his investigators what had sparked his spying:

“Fear and rage. Fear of being a failure and fear of not being able to provide for my family.”

Hanssen said he felt “rage” towards the FBI each time he was denied a promotion. He was determined to prove they had made a mistake in not promoting him by pulling off increasingly large-scale feats of espionage. Hanssen was convinced that other FBI agents lacked his commitment to the bureau. And the bureau, in his view, was not fighting the Russians in the right way.

As reporters dug deeper into the case, more disturbing psychological demons started to emerge.

Friends of Hanssen told journalists that he had exhibited eccentric behaviour, which included an obsession with pornography and sex in general.

Lesley Stahl from CBS reported that Hanssen had taken the habit of sending nude pictures of his wife to a friend of his. He even posted sexually explicit online stories about Bonnie on the Internet. Hanssen got to the point of inviting his friend to watch a live stream of him having sex with Bonnie on a secretly installed CCTV system.

Bonnie knew nothing about any of this.

Hanssen’s erratic behaviour escalated, including numerous visits to strip clubs, where he tried to convert strippers to Catholicism.

Psychiatrist Alan Salerian was hired – and later fired – by Hanssen’s defense team to examine him. According to Dr Salerian, spying for the Soviets, for the devoutly religious Hanssen, was a way to escape those sexual problems.

“[Hanssen’s] espionage was an escape from his sexual demons. When he found himself in exciting, dangerous positions, such as espionage and spying, he found that his demons slowed down. He is driven by demons…by thoughts, unwanted thoughts.”

Dr. Salerian, who spent 30 hours interviewing Hanssen, concluded that the double agent was no amoral. He was simply an ill man, suffering from a “severe psychological disorder” of sexual nature, who could find respite from his torments only by putting himself in risky situations.

MICE … ?

In 2007 Special Agent O’Neill, instrumental in Hanssen’s capture, worked with director and screen writer Billy Ray on the film “Breach”, a realistic portrayal of the last year of Hanssen’s career. Author Eric O’Neill published ‘Gray Day’ in 2013, also about Hanssen’s story, in which he is depicted as America’s first Cyber Spy.

United States Penitentiary, Florence ADX, where Hanssen is incarcerated.

Spies, secret agents, and the intelligence community will always capture our imagination, especially when their activities appear to be outside of the boundaries of our accepted morality. What can lead a man to sell and betray his colleagues and the security of his country? If you look at the MICE set of motives, most of the time it can be because of money; or a true belief in lofty ideal; or maybe he has been blackmailed and strong-armed; or maybe it is just down to one’s ego and the need to feed it.

Hanssen’s betrayal ultimately may have been down to his ego, but not as a way to satisfy it, rather to placate those obsessions he could not control.

We hinted at another ‘mole’ or traitor in our video today, but please let us know if you would like to hear the story of another double agent we may have not heard of. Comment till your fingers drop, share, like, subscribe and as usual … thank you for watching!

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