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The True Story of Robert Hanssen

by Lawrence Lease 4 months ago in investigation
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The FBI's biggest threat to their Soviet intelligence operations

The True Story of Robert Hanssen
Photo by Jack Young on Unsplash

Robert Philip Hanssen (born April 18, 1944) is an American former FBI triple agent who spied for Soviet and the Putin Russian intelligence services against the United States from 1979 to 2021. His espionage was described by the Department of Justice as "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S.S.R history." Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life sentences without parole at ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison near Florence, Colorado.

Robert Hanssen was born in Chicago, Illinois, to a Lutheran family who lived in the Norwood Park neighborhood. His father Howard, a Chicago police officer, was emotionally abusive to Hanssen during his childhood. He graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1962 and went on to attend Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1966.

Hanssen applied for a cryptographer position in the National Security Agency, but was rebuffed due to budget setbacks. He enrolled in dental school at Northwestern University but switched his focus to business after three years. Hanssen received an MBA in accounting and information systems in 1971 and took a job with an accounting firm. He quit after one year and joined the Chicago Police Department as an internal affairs investigator, specializing in forensic accounting. In January 1976, he left the police department to join the FBI.

Hanssen met Bernadette "Bonnie" Wauck, a staunch Roman Catholic while attending dental school at Northwestern. The couple married in 1968, and Hanssen converted from Lutheranism to his wife's Catholicism. Hanssen embraced his conversion and went on to join the Catholic organization Opus Dei with like-minded individuals.

Early FBI Career

​​Upon becoming a special agent on January 12th, 1976, Hanssen was transferred to the FBI's Gary, Indiana, field office. In 1978, he and his growing family of three children (and eventually six) moved to New York City when the FBI transferred him to its field office there. The next year, Hanssen was moved into counterintelligence and given the task of compiling a database of Soviet intelligence for the FBI.

In 1979, Hanssen approached the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate and offered his services. He never indicated any political or ideological motive for his actions, telling the FBI after he was caught that his only motivation was financial. During his first espionage cycle, Hanssen provided a significant amount of information to the GRU, including details of the FBI's bugging activities and lists of suspected Soviet intelligence agents. His most important leak was the betrayal of Dmitri Polyakov, a CIA informant who passed enormous amounts of information to U.S. intelligence while rising to the rank of General in the Soviet Army. For unknown reasons, the Soviets did not act against Polyakov until he was betrayed a second time by CIA mole Aldrich Ames in 1985. Polyakov was arrested in 1986 and executed in 1988. Ames was officially blamed for giving Polyakov's name to the Soviets, while Hanssen's attempt was not revealed until after his 2001 capture. CIA and FBI officials, including Deputy Director William Sullivan, believed that, at some point, Polyakov was turned by the Soviets and made into a triple agent who deceived the West with misinformation.

Investigation and arrest

The existence of two Russian moles working in the U.S. security and intelligence establishment simultaneously—Ames at the CIA and Hanssen at the FBI—complicated counterintelligence efforts in the 1990s. Ames was arrested in 1994. His exposure explained many of the asset losses U.S. intelligence suffered in the 1980s, including the arrest and execution of Martynov and Motorin. However, two cases—the Bloch investigation and the embassy tunnel—stood out and remained unsolved. Ames had been stationed in Rome at the time of the Bloch investigation, and could not have had knowledge of that case or of the tunnel under the embassy, as he did not work for the FBI.

The FBI and CIA formed a joint mole-hunting team in 1994 to find the suspected second intelligence leak. They formed a list of all agents known to have access to cases that were compromised. The FBI's codename for the suspected spy was "Graysuit". Some promising suspects were cleared, and the mole hunt found other penetrations, such as CIA officer Harold James Nicholson. However, Hanssen escaped notice, likely because these efforts concentrated on CIA agents rather than FBI agents. The idea that an FBI agent was the second mole was not considered early enough.

By 1998, using FBI criminal profiling techniques, the pursuers zeroed in on an innocent man: Brian Kelley, a CIA operative involved in the Bloch investigation. The CIA and FBI searched his house, tapped his phone, and put him under surveillance, following him and his family everywhere. In November 1998, they had a man with a foreign accent come to Kelley's door, warn him that the FBI knew he was a spy, and tell him to show up at a Metro station the next day in order to escape. Kelley instead reported the incident to the FBI. In 1999, the FBI even interrogated Kelley, his ex-wife, two sisters, and three children. Everyone denied everything. He was eventually placed on administrative leave, where he remained falsely accused until after Hanssen was arrested.

FBI investigators later made progress during an operation in which they paid off disaffected Russian intelligence officers to deliver information on moles. They paid $7 million to KGB agent Alexandr Shcherbakov who had access to a file on "B." While it did not contain Hanssen's name, among the information was an audiotape of a July 21st, 1986, the conversation between "B" and KGB agent Aleksander Fefelov. FBI agent Michael Waguespack felt the voice was familiar, but could not remember who it was. Rifling through the rest of the files, they found notes of the mole using a quote from General George S. Patton about "the purple-pissing Japanese." FBI analyst Bob King remembered Hanssen using that same quote. Waguespack listened to the tape again and recognized the voice as belonging to Hanssen. With the mole finally identified, locations, dates, and cases were matched with Hanssen's activities during the time period. Two fingerprints collected from a trash bag in the file were analyzed and proved to be Hanssen's.

The FBI placed Hanssen under surveillance and soon discovered that he was again in contact with the Russians. In order to bring him back to FBI headquarters, where he could be closely monitored and kept away from sensitive data, they promoted him in December 2000 and gave him a new job supervising FBI computer security. In January 2001, Hanssen was given an office and an assistant, Eric O'Neill, who, in reality, was a young FBI surveillance specialist who had been assigned to watch Hanssen. O'Neill ascertained that Hanssen was using a Palm III PDA to store his information. When O'Neill was able to briefly obtain Hanssen's PDA and have agents download and decode its encrypted contents, the FBI had its "smoking gun."

During his final days with the FBI, Hanssen began to suspect that something was wrong. In early February 2001, he asked his friend at a computer technology company for a job. He also believed he was hearing noises on his car radio that indicated that it was bugged, although the FBI was later unable to reproduce the noises Hanssen claimed to have heard. In the last letter he wrote to the Russians, which was picked up by the FBI when he was arrested, Hanssen said that he had been promoted to a "do-nothing job ... outside of regular access to information," and that, "Something has aroused the sleeping tiger."

However, Hanssen's suspicions did not stop him from making one more dead drop. After dropping his friend off at the airport on February 18, 2001, Hanssen drove to Virginia's Foxstone Park. He placed a white piece of tape on a park sign, which was a signal to his Russian contacts that there was information at the dead drop site. He then followed his usual routine, taking a package consisting of a sealed garbage bag of classified material and taping it to the bottom side of a wooden footbridge over a creek. When FBI agents spotted this highly incriminating act, they rushed in to catch Hanssen red-handed and arrest him.

Upon being arrested, Hanssen asked, "What took you so long?" The FBI waited two more days to see if any of Hanssen's SVR handlers would show up at Foxstone Park. When they failed to appear, the Justice Department announced the arrest on February 20th.

The decision

With the representation of Washington lawyer Plato Cacheris, Hanssen negotiated a plea bargain that enabled him to escape the death penalty in exchange for cooperating with authorities. On July 6, 2001, he pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and one of conspiracy to commit espionage in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On May 10th, 2002, Hanssen was sentenced to 15 consecutive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. "I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it," Hanssen told U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton. "I have opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I have hurt so many deeply."

Hanssen is Federal Bureau of Prisons prisoner #48551-083. He is serving his sentence at the ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison near Florence, Colorado, in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

And that’s a wrap for today’s story. As we all should agree, crimes are never good and bring sadness to countless people. It is important, though, for us to try to understand the reasoning behind such tragedies and create awareness to avoid them from happening again.


About the author

Lawrence Lease

Alaska born and bred, Washington DC is my home. I'm also a freelance writer. Love politics and history.

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran4 months ago

    This was a very interesting read

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