When authorities arrested Robert Hanssen, the FBI’s most high-profile double agent had only one question for his colleagues: “Why did it take so long?”
Hanssen, who was found dead this week in his cell at a supermax prison in Colorado, was serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to spying for Moscow for more than $1.4 million over more than two decades.
Hanssen’s case was called “arguably the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history” in a government report. He compromised more than 50 FBI human sources (including several who were later executed), handed over thousands of classified documents, and exposed top-secret intelligence-gathering techniques, as well as U.S. strategy for responding to a nuclear conflict.
Outwardly, Hanssen was a suburban father and patriot, who drove his six children around in old cars and was devoted to Opus Dei, a conservative movement within the Catholic Church. But the spy lived a secret life that inspired half a dozen books and several films for television and cinema.
“What made him so blatant was that he belonged to the rare category of people who had good access. . . and he has betrayed that trust so blatantly,” said Paul McNulty, a former senior Justice Department official who oversaw the case.
The son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen dropped out of dental school and joined the FBI in 1976. He imitated former director J Edgar Hoover by wearing dark suits, but his short temper and dour demeanor made him unpopular.
Hanssen first started working for Soviet military intelligence in the late 1970s, where he helped blow the cover of top US double agent Dmitri Polyakov, a Soviet general who was later executed. His work in US counterintelligence gave him access to classified information and insight into how poorly the FBI guarded its nascent computer databases.
The agent’s betrayal also extended to his personal life. He allowed a friend to spy on himself and his wife Bonnie having sex, and struck up a bizarre friendship with a stripper for whom he went on trips and bought gifts, even as he lectured her about going to church.
Hanssen went to sleep in the early 1980s, after Bonnie caught him trying to hide some papers at their home in Scarsdale, New York. She confronted him, forced him to meet their priest and donate the proceeds of the Soviet espionage to charity.
But when his FBI career stalled, Hanssen went back to work for Moscow. His handler gave him a lot of praise and money, catering to his need for acceptance.
“There was certainly a financial advantage, but Hanssen was psychologically much more complex. He held very conservative views and was deeply religious, but at the same time he betrayed his country. It was a very strange set of competing beliefs and behaviors,” said Preston Burton, one of his attorneys.
The piles of cash Hanssen kept around the house eventually aroused the suspicion of his brother-in-law, who also worked for the FBI. In the early 1990s, he reported Hanssen to their superiors. But nothing happened.
Instead, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hanssen stopped spying for nearly a decade. When he got back in touch in 1999, the Russians were ecstatic and wrote “dear friend: welcome!”
Meanwhile, the FBI was on the trail of a superspy who had sent thousands of documents to Russia since at least 1985. After accidentally targeting a CIA officer, they linked a fingerprint to a garbage bag used for delivering documents to Hanssen. He was transferred to a mock job in a bugged office and assigned an assistant secretly tasked with keeping an eye on him.
In February 2001, Hanssen, whose every move was followed by a squad of 300, was frightened. He wrote a letter to his Russian handlers warning that “something has awakened the sleeping tiger”, kept it on an encrypted computer disk and wrapped in a garbage bag, along with classified documents.
After dropping the package in a Virginia park, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and agreed to talk about his betrayal to avoid the death penalty.
During his debrief, Hanssen was scathing about the FBI’s internal security, saying, “It was pathetic. . . What I did was criminal, but it is criminal negligence.”
“In some ways, Hanssen is the architect of the modern FBI,” said Eric O’Neill, who wrote a book about his work as a young agent assigned to gain Hanssen’s trust. “He exposed the FBI’s many flaws, and the FBI rebuilt in a way that no other Hanssen would ever allow.”