Spy Suspect: In the End, a Soul Lost and Lonely
Near the end, Robert Philip Hanssen descended into a madness of his own making. Caution gone, he prowled the darkness of a neighborhood park with a penlight searching for a signal that wasn’t there. A lumbering figure, he waved his arms and seemed to shout at the sky.
“I have come about as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you and I get silence. I hate silence,” he had complained a few months earlier when communications with his Russian handlers had lapsed. “One might propose that 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.”
“Set the signal at my site any Tuesday evening. I will read your answer,” Hanssen is quoted as saying in an FBI affidavit released last week in support of allegations that Hanssen was a Russian spy.
“Please, at least say goodbye,” Hanssen pleaded. “It’s been a long time my dear friends, a long and lonely time.”
This account of Hanssen’s saga was put together from dozens of interviews with people who knew him and who have studied espionage, coupled with the detailed FBI affidavit that includes many letters and other communications between Russian officials and someone identified by the FBI as Hanssen. His lawyer Plato Cacheris said he would not comment beyond saying that Hanssen would plead not guilty.
It had not been so dark at the beginning a decade and a half ago.
Yes, he had been needy then, too--needing to support a burgeoning family, to savor the drug-like rush of outsmarting his dull but self-important colleagues, to build inside himself a private world that reflected his superior talents.
But those needs had felt different. The outside world had seemed simpler then and his nerves steadier. As he set out to make himself a Soviet mole, Hanssen had floated on clouds of self-confidence.
The alleged mole had insisted on his own way in everything. He had lectured the KGB on security. He had brushed aside suggestions on trade craft and doled out condescending compliments when a Soviet agent met his professional standards. He had been cavalier about money too.
“As far as funds are concerned,” he had said, “I have little need or utility for more than the $100,000" initially requested. “It merely provides a difficulty. . . . Perhaps some diamonds as security for my children and some good will so that when the time comes you will accept [my] senior services as a guest lecturer” at the Center, as the KGB called its Moscow headquarters.
Between such beginnings and the end lies the story of a man who, in the eyes of his accusers, descended into the heart of darkness, betraying country, colleagues, parents, wife, children and everything he professed to value or believe in.
“This is evil. This is an element of human horror,” said Fred Farley, a past president of the American Psychological Assn. and a specialist in extreme behavior. What strikes Farley most is Hanssen’s apparent indifference to the consequences of his actions and the hunger for danger that seems to have lived inside an unremarkable exterior.
“He was like fire-setters who set fires and then hang out in the crowd to watch,” said Farley, who teaches at Temple University. “He was getting his satisfaction privately, personally, inside. And that enabled him to do a lot of things. In the sense of keeping it inside, most people aren’t that strong.
“This is not a textbook example of caution. This is a textbook example of risk.”
In one of Hanssen’s earliest communications, the long message in which he talked of diamonds, he did give a passing thought to the possibility that things could go wrong.
“Eventually, I would appreciate an escape plan,” he had said, adding in parentheses: “Nothing lasts forever.” But it was an afterthought.
And it was the one thing nobody ever got around to.
The affluent Park Ridge, Ill., area in which Hillary Rodham Clinton grew up was nearby, just beyond the Chicago city limits. But the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side where Howard and Vivian Hanssen raised their only son, Robert, was marked by narrow lots and modest brick and wood-frame bungalows.
“They were very friendly people,” says Warren Peterson, who has lived in the Scandinavian neighborhood since 1927 and kept in touch with the elder Hanssens after they retired to Florida. “It was a time when you didn’t have fences. They only got a fence when they got their dog.”
As for Bobby, who was born during World War II, on April 18, 1944, “they were proud of him,” Peterson remembers. “He had a good scholastic record. He had good habits.”
After graduating from public high school in 1962, Bobby Hanssen enrolled at Knox College in rural Galesburg, Ill. Knox is a small, private liberal arts school chartered in 1837. Abraham Lincoln was in the state Legislature that granted its charter.
Hanssen majored in chemistry, graduating in 1966. He studied Russian from a Yugoslavian immigrant, Momcilo Rosic, who had fled from communism in 1950.
“I had been a prisoner of war of the Nazis and then I couldn’t go back to my country because of the communists,” Rosic said. “That he learned Russian from me is strange. I was anti-Soviet and anti-Communist, of course, very much so, and said so in my classes.”
Next for Hanssen was Northwestern University’s School of Dentistry, but he dropped out after two years. Several years later, Hanssen gave a colleague this explanation: “I opened my first mouth up and saw that it was not for me. I shut the mouth up and moved on.”
He stayed at Northwestern but switched to the prestigious Kellogg School of Management, earning an MBA in 1971. To some who know him, his ability to switch from one discipline to another illustrates his considerable academic talents.
If he was smart, he was not memorable. Almost no one remembers him. Stan Doida was a classmate both at Knox and at dental school. “I looked at the picture and I just couldn’t recognize him,” said Doida, who has a dental practice in Denver. “Most people knew each other.”
“I don’t know how he could have been in our class,” said Leon Hanson, now a dentist in Idaho. “I don’t have any memory of another guy with the same name as mine.”
Bouncing again, Hanssen took a junior post with a Chicago accounting firm and passed the CPA exam in 1973.
And he got married. His wife, Bernadette, was a devout Roman Catholic and the Hanssens were Lutherans. But he converted and his parents raised no objections. The young couple even lived in his childhood home for a few years after his parents retired to Florida. In this period, their first two children, both daughters, were born.
What little evidence is available suggests that there were no problems in the marriage, but it also seems clear that for Hanssen there was something missing.
“He started out in things that seem to have been the opposite of who the young man really was,” suggested Farley, who is widely known for developing the concept of the Type T personality, a self-confident, energetic individual who is powerfully attracted to the thrill of danger. “The Type T personality looks at Mt. Everest and says: ‘I can do that.’ ”
If Hanssen felt that tug, he may have found the answer in 1972, when he joined the Chicago Police Department. Like his father, he attended the police academy and quickly became a detective.
Ernie Rizzo, a colorful Chicago private investigator, got to know Hanssen when both attended a training school for undercover operatives.
“Bob came out of the academy and they made him for a pretty sharp kind of guy--too sharp to eat doughnuts and watch traffic--and so he ended up in C-5,” Rizzo said. C-5 was the department’s designation for police intelligence.
“He seemed like a quiet, decent guy,” Rizzo said. “He thought he was a little smarter than everyone else, but he probably was. All those people who are in this occupation are arrogant.”
In less than four years, Hanssen applied to the FBI, and on Jan. 12, 1976, he was sworn in as a special agent. After training at Quantico, Va., he was attached to the Indianapolis field office and assigned to white-collar crime. As a matter of routine, he received his first top-secret security clearance the day he was sworn in.
By August 1978, Hanssen was reassigned to the New York field office, among the FBI’s largest and most prestigious. His first duties were related to his accounting background, but the mentally agile Hanssen rapidly made himself proficient in the then-arcane realm of computers and data management.
That would move him closer to some of the agency’s deepest secrets.
In March 1979, he was detailed to the New York office’s intelligence division. The assignment: help install an automated counterintelligence database covering the vast diplomatic community based at the United Nations and the city’s myriad foreign consulates.
Hanssen’s specific job was technical and prosaic, but his performance shaped his career. With brief interludes, he remained in the intelligence field throughout his 25 years in the bureau.
In June 1980, he received his first clearance for access to “sensitive compartmented information,” the bureau’s designation for particularly important intelligence data.
The next year, following the bureau’s traditional pattern of field assignments interspersed with tours at FBI headquarters, Hanssen was moved to the intelligence division in Washington as a supervisory special agent.
His family continued to grow. Moving to Washington, the family bought a modest house in suburban Vienna, Va., an area then heavily populated with mid-level government families like themselves.
During a four-year tour at headquarters, Hanssen served in the Soviet analytical unit and on the foreign counterintelligence technical committee. But his most important assignment was on the intelligence division’s budget unit, which managed the FBI’s part of the combined U.S. intelligence community budget.
Richard M. Alu, a 29-year bureau veteran who preceded Hanssen in the budget job and now does private security work, said that the unit “was involved with more than budget matters. It functioned as staff for the assistant director in charge of foreign counterintelligence and terrorism. And if you are staff for the boss, you get some unique assignments and special knowledge.”
Specifically, Hanssen could gain access in the job to information on a wide variety of subjects without arousing concern. Moreover, colleagues were beginning to notice his distinctive combination of intellectual strengths and personal limits--traits that were already beginning to shape his career in subtle ways.
James K. Kallstrom, the FBI agent who later headed the New York office, remembers Hanssen “as a professional guy who was thought to be a bit of an intellectual and a bit of a loner.”
Alu, who was closer to Hanssen, offers a more detailed analysis.
“I thought he was a very intelligent guy,” Alu said, but “he was different. He was something of an introvert. As most agents go, they’re extroverts. The ideal agent is a used-car salesman. You’ve got to be able to sell yourself.”
But Hanssen, Alu recalled, “did not have these interpersonal skills. He was able to see problems, see solutions and implement them. But his solutions were not always easy for his peers or his supervisors to understand. He would have to explain them . . . and he did not suffer fools.
“He is very bright, he knows he is very bright, and arrogance comes from that self-assessment.”
It’s not that the bureau did not value Hanssen, although Hanssen may have thought so. “Given his assignments and career path, just the opposite was the case.” Alu said. “You can only go so far” on brains alone. “You still have to have the personal skills to rise up in management.”
And, while Hanssen would continue to rise in the years ahead, his assignments would tend to fall outside operational management. Ironically, as his career bumped against a ceiling, his access to sensitive information grew exponentially.
Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. intelligence specialist, sees a classic pattern in high-tech industrial espionage: A technically brilliant worker develops ideas that have enormous value to the organization, but the bulk of the credit and rewards flows to executives who seem far less talented but more adept at what the brilliant worker may deride as office politics.
There is no public record yet of Hanssen’s thought processes during this period, but Jenkins thinks that, as a good systems analyst, he would probably have seen the pattern developing even before those around him did.
What is alleged is that Hanssen was moving toward the Rubicon. On Sept. 23, 1985, he was reassigned to the New York intelligence division as supervisor of a foreign counterintelligence squad.
On Oct. 4, a bulky letter arrived at the Alexandria, Va., home of Viktor M. Degtyar, a KGB officer assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
The detailed nature of the letter and what followed immediately in its wake leave no doubt that its author had planned it long and carefully.
The envelope had been mailed 11 days after Hanssen, its alleged sender, took up his new assignment in New York while his growing family--the fifth child had just been born--remained in Virginia. Degtyar found another sealed envelope inside bearing curt instructions: “Do not open. Take this envelope unopened to Viktor Ivanovich Cherkashin.”
At the time, Cherkashin was Degtyar’s superior as chief of the Soviet Embassy’s Line KR unit, which was responsible for foreign counterintelligence. And, as described in the FBI affidavit, the second envelope contained a stunning letter. Without preamble and without identifying himself, the author said the most astonishing things in the most pedestrian language:
“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. Please recognize for our long-term interests that there are a limited number of persons with this array of clearances. As a collection, they point to me. 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 my security of which you may not be aware. Your service has recently suffered some setbacks. I warn that Mr. Boris Yuzhin (Line PR, SF), Mr. Sergey Motorin (Line PR, Wash.) and Mr. Valeriy Martynov (Line X, Wash.) have been recruited to our ‘special services.’ ”
The unnamed author concluded: “My identity and actual position in the community must be left unstated to ensure my security.”
The KGB subsequently assigned its author the code name “B.” The FBI alleges it was Hanssen, whom the bureau said it identified through a variety of methods.
To the startled Soviet intelligence officers who received the first letter, it was manna in bombshell form. Whatever checking they did as to its authenticity did not take long. KGB officer Martynov, turned by the FBI in 1982, had been exposed to Moscow by the CIA mole Aldrich H. Ames in June 1985. The Center lured Martynov back to Moscow, then arrested and executed him. Motorin suffered a similar fate.
Yuzhin was also arrested in Moscow, though his life was spared for reasons that are not clear. He was released from prison in 1992 and allowed to emigrate to the United States as part of a post-Cold War amnesty.
The Soviets’ reaction to the opening letter was exactly what the author had hoped for. He had decided to open the game with an avalanche of material calculated to impress the KGB with his value, his singular importance and his matchless potential.
On Oct. 15, the promised package arrived at Degtyar’s Alexandria home. It was stuffed with classified documents, many of them originals, obtained from all across the U.S. intelligence community, including details about U.S. counterintelligence.
It was almost as though the sender was showing off. Before any money had changed hands, he was flaunting the breadth of his access and his ability to defy detection.
For Hanssen in particular, working as he was right in the middle of the FBI’s counterintelligence efforts in New York, it would have involved a deliberate flirting with danger--the ultimate Type T thrill.
In the ensuing months and years, “B” and his handlers wrangled over communication methods, dead-drop sites and other matters. There were periods when one or the other side fell silent. “B” several times retreated into his shell when spooked about his own security. And as the Soviet Union collapsed into Russia and Russia into chaos, there seem to have been times when Moscow was in too much disarray to deal with its mole.
Hanssen was back in Washington by the summer of 1987, and he moved his family--now complete with three daughters and three sons--to a larger house in Vienna, where his wife could live on the same street as her sister.
Outwardly, Hanssen is remembered during these years for his tirades against Marxist-Leninist doctrine and his hard-line attitude toward the Soviet Union. His devotion to the Catholic organization Opus Dei and its ultraconservative religious practices was also conspicuous--a devotion he shared with his wife.
“As part of his FBI work, he would write long tracts on the evil empire and how they’re subverting America with lies,” said James Bamford, an expert on national security who saw Hanssen frequently, both professionally and socially in the 1990s.
Bamford, author of the forthcoming “Body of Secrets,” said that Hanssen also “was always trying to drag me off to a church some place. He kept pushing me hard enough that one time I did.”
It turned out to be an Opus Dei event and, Bamford said, it was clear Hanssen was deeply involved in the tight-knit group, whose members believe they have been called to saintly actions.
In the secret life ascribed to him by the FBI, however, Hanssen mocked everything he stood for in public. As Hanssen took on more sensitive staff assignments, the FBI alleges that he delivered mountains of national security material, compromising priceless intelligence resources and programs.
For more than a decade, the FBI says, Hanssen used strips of adhesive tape and colored thumbtacks as signals and plastic garbage bags as receptacles to trade documents and computer diskettes loaded with classified material for bundles of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
By his own design, all of it was carried out almost in his own backyard. The dead-drop sites were right across the street from his first Vienna house and in a park just blocks from his second house. When his Soviet handlers suggested another site 10 miles away, he begged off.
“Scheduling is not simple for me because of frequent travel and wife,” he wrote.
By 1995, Hanssen had been assigned to the State Department as the FBI’s senior representative for intelligence matters--a post he held for five years. If anything, the assignment expanded his access to classified material. But to bureau insiders it meant that he would never be considered for higher management positions.
As the decade progressed, the U.S. intelligence community became more and more aware that catching Ames had not stopped the hemorrhage of sensitive material to Moscow. Suspicion focused on several people, including a CIA officer who was suspended from his job while investigations proceeded.
Whatever qualms this manhunt stirred in Hanssen’s heart, the real source of heart-stopping terror for a KGB mole must have been the march of history on the other side of the ocean--in Moscow itself.
The once-feared Russian intelligence apparatus had become a shambles. Scholars and journalists were gaining access to KGB archives. Cherkashin, “B’s” original handler, gave an interview to a major U.S. newspaper.
Somewhere in all that chaos lay the “B” files. And it was inconceivable that in all those years the KGB had never followed their prize mole home from a drop site, never nailed down his true identity and recorded it.
It was all there, waiting to be stumbled upon--or sold by a desperate Russian official.
No wonder that, by 2000, “B’s” tone sometimes bordered on the hysterical.
At the end of last July, the KGB--now the SVR--tried to reassure him. “First of all,” it said in a message, “we would like to emphasize that all well known events wich [sic] had taken place in this country and in our homeland had not affected our resources and we reaffirm our strong intentions to maintain and ensure safely our long-term cooperation with you.”
But it rejected a request for moving money for him to Zurich, Switzerland, on the unsettling grounds that confidentiality could not be guaranteed.
Even worse were the recurring silences.
By November, a message revealed a secret agent near the breaking point, his mood swinging wildly. He begged for patience, thanked his handlers for some small steps they had taken to reassure him he was still dealing with Moscow, not U.S. counterintelligence agents, and blamed himself for failures of trade craft.
“For me, breaks in communication are most difficult and stressful,” he confessed. “Recent changes in U.S. law now attach the death penalty to my help to you, as you know, so I do take some risk.”
He showed a flash of the old cockiness: “I know far better than most what minefields are laid and the risks. Generally speaking, you overestimate the FBI’s capacity to interdict you, but on the other hand cocksure officers (those with real guts and not as much knowledge as they think) can, as we say, step in an occasional cowpie.”
Then plaintiveness and, beneath it, the gnawing sense that he was at last struggling alone in a dark ocean:
“No one answered my Foxhall signal. Perhaps you occasionally give up on me. Giving up on me is a mistake. I have proven inveterately loyal and willing to take grave risks that could even cause my death, only remaining quiet in times of extreme uncertainty. So far my ship has successfully navigated the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“I ask you to help me survive.”
And the FBI watchers parked in a van the night after Christmas, looking on. Sitting there as Hanssen lumbered through a neighborhood park with his penlight.