When authorities arrested Robert Hanssen, the FBI’s most prominent double agent had only one question for his colleagues: “What took you so long?”
Hanssen, who was found dead this week in his cell at a Colorado supermax prison, was serving a life sentence after being convicted of spying for Moscow for more than $1.4 million, for more than two decades.
Hanssen’s case was dubbed “probably the worst intelligence disaster in US history” in a government report. He compromised more than 50 FBI human sources (including several who were later executed), turned over thousands of classified documents, and exposed top-secret intelligence-gathering techniques and US nuclear conflict response strategy.
Outwardly, Hanssen was a suburban father and patriot, who drove his six children in old cars and was devoted to Opus Dei, a conservative movement within the Catholic Church. But the spy led a secret life that inspired half a dozen books and several films for television and cinema.
“What made it so egregious was that he was one of the rare class of people who had great access. . . and he 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 emulated former Director J Edgar Hoover by wearing dark suits, but his quick temper and austere manner l made them unpopular.
Hanssen began working for Soviet military intelligence in the late 1970s, helping to blow the cover of America’s top double agent Dmitry Polyakov, a Soviet general who was later executed. His work in US counterintelligence gave him access to classified information and understanding how poorly the FBI protected 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 while they had sex, and he struck up a bizarre friendship with a stripper whom he took trips and bought presents for, even as he talked to her about going to church.
Hanssen went dormant in the early 1980s, after Bonnie caught him hiding papers in their Scarsdale, New York home. She confronted him, introduced him to their priest, and donated the proceeds of Soviet espionage to charity.
But as his FBI career stalled, Hanssen returned to working for Moscow. His master showered him with praise and money, playing on his need for acceptance.
“There was certainly a financial advantage, but Hanssen was much more complex psychologically. He had 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 lawyers.
The piles of cash Hanssen kept around the house eventually aroused the suspicions of his brother-in-law, who also worked for the FBI. He reported Hanssen to their superiors in the early 1990s. But nothing happened.
Instead, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hanssen stopped spying for almost a decade. When he reconnected in 1999, the Russians went into ecstasies, writing “dear friend: welcome!
At that time, the FBI was on the trail of a super spy who had passed thousands of documents to Russia since at least 1985. After mistakenly focusing on a CIA officer, they linked a fingerprint on a trash bag used to drop off documents at Hanssen. He was moved to a bogus job in a bugged office and assigned to an assistant who was secretly tasked with keeping tabs on him.
In February 2001, Hanssen, whose every move was watched by a team of 300 people, was scared. He wrote a letter to his Russian masters warning that “something has awakened the sleeping tiger”, recorded it on an encrypted computer disk and wrapped in a trash bag, along with classified documents.
After dropping off the package in a Virginia park, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and agreed to speak out about his treason to escape the death penalty.
During his debriefing, Hanssen was scathing about FBI internal security, saying, “It was pathetic. . . What I did was criminal, but it is criminal negligence.
“In a way, Hanssen is the architect of the modern FBI,” said Eric O’Neill, who wrote a book about his work as a young agent charged with earning Hanssen’s trust. “He exposed the many flaws of the FBI, and the FBI was rebuilt in a way that another Hanssen would never allow.”