Double trouble

Real-life story of FBI agent turned Russian spy has hallmarks of a gripping thriller


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Robert Hanssen was only in it for the money.

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Robert Hanssen was only in it for the money.

His spying, described by the U.S. Department of Justice as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history,” was strictly mercenary.

Unlike other famous betrayal-of-the-West spies such as Brits Kim Philby and Anthony Burgess, the FBI counter-intelligence agent who spied for the Soviets and Russians shared no ideological kinship with his foreign spymasters.

Andrew Cline / TNS While at the FBI in 1979, Robert Hanssen approached the Soviet Intelligence Directorate offering his services. For the next 22 years he sold them classified documents from within the bureau.

The ultra-conservative and Catholic family man had five kids in private schools, an expensive wife and chronic cash-flow problems.

His politics were somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan. He opposed abortion rights and was known to disparage “homosexuality, Jews, Democratic politicians and policies,” writes author Lis Wiehl. But Hanssen solved his financial problems by becoming a double agent for the godless Communists he publicly disdained.

The Soviets made no overture to him.

A Spy in Plain Sight

In 1979, three years after joining the FBI, Hanssen approached the Soviet Intelligence Directorate and offered his services. Being himself a counterintelligence agent, he knew precisely who to contact and how to anonymously betray his country.

The Soviet Union, and latterly Russia, paid him more than US$1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 22-year period. Calculatedly, and masterfully, off and on from 1979 to 2001, Hanssen sold classified documents to the KGB and its Russian successor, the SVR, that detailed U.S. strategies in the event of nuclear war, developments in military-weapon technology and American counter-intelligence programs.

When he was finally arrested in February 2001, Hanssen plea bargained out of the death penalty (espionage is a capital crime in the U.S.) and was sentenced to 15 consecutive sentences of life in prison without parole. Now 78 years of age, he serves time in what’s known as a federal “supermax” prison near Florence, Colo.

The Associated Press files Hanssen was sentenced to prison in 2002.

Wiehl is a former federal prosecutor and former University of Washington law professor. She’s also a regular legal analyst for CNN and other U.S. news outlets.

Wiehl is also the daughter of a respected former FBI agent, a fact that didn’t hurt her gaining entrée to interviews with many of the bureau’s official — and now mostly retired — players in Hanssen’s story.

Her narrative moves along at a nice clip without sacrificing fidelity to fact or detail. At times it even has the feel of a thriller — remarkable for a work of non-fiction.

The book is also a broad and devastating critique of not only the FBI but also the American intelligence and counterintelligence community generally.

Wiehl weaves into Hanssen’s story other recent “penetrations that are shredding America’s intelligence capacity.”

Among her most notable inclusions are CIA officer-turned-spy-Russian-spy Harold James Nicholson, and CIA counterintelligence branch chief for Soviet operations Aldrich Ames, who fed classified information to the very enemy he was supposed to be watching.

There’s also a sad career story that parallels Hanssen’s career as a spy.

Due to the sheer volume of their failed, compromised and blown espionage ventures, both the FBI and CIA knew American intelligence had a mole buried deep in one of their organizations.

Early on, they decided that mole was a CIA counterintelligence officer named Brian Kelley, on whom they “focused brutally and resolutely.”

“His family members were grilled ruthlessly, his house secretly searched,” Wiehl writes. “Kelley himself is stripped of his entry badge and placed under semi house arrest.”

The collective mania to gather sufficient evidence to charge the innocent Kelley gave Hanssen diversionary cover to ply his trade for as long as he did.

And only belatedly did Kelley receive a half-hearted apology from the powers that be for the violations he, his reputation and his family suffered.

Wiehl’s book is a superior tale of real-life espionage — a tale that frequently furnishes the suspense of a good spy novel.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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