Robert Hanssen Discovered to Be Spying for Russia

February 18, 2001, marked the arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen for selling government secrets to the Russian government. It was one of the worst failures of American intelligence ever and a humiliation for the FBI because Hanssen had been giving secrets to Russia for 15 years. The First Amendment allows citizens the right of free speech but when a citizen becomes an FBI agent, he or she takes an oath, and telling secrets to America’s adversaries not only breaks the oath but also threatens national security.

Hanssen was charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage, violations that result in punishment of life in prison or even the death penalty. The 103-page affidavit written by the FBI says he gave the Soviet embassy (KGB/SVR) highly classified national security and counterintelligence information on over 20 separate occasions and was paid in diamonds and cash worth more than $600,000. He gave away more than 6,000 pages of documents and “compromised numerous human sources of the U.S. Intelligence Community, dozens of classified U.S. Government documents, including ‘Top Secret’ and ‘codeword’ documents, and technical operations of extraordinary importance and valueâÂ?¦compromised FBI counterintelligence investigative techniques, sources, methods, and operations and disclosed to the KGB the FBI’s secret investigation of Felix Bloch, a foreign service officer being investigated for espionage.” (U.S. Dept. of Justice)

FBI Director Louis Freeh said that this represented “a betrayal by an FBI Agent, who is not only sworn to enforce the law but specifically to help protect our nation’s security, is particularly abhorrent. This kind of criminal conduct represents the most traitorous action imaginable against a country governed by the Rule of Law. It also strikes at the heart of everything the FBI represents – the commitment of over 28,000 honest and dedicated men and women in the FBI who work diligently to earn the trust and confidence of the American people every day.” (U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Hanssen wasn’t the first arrest of a government agent for espionage. In 1998, former NSA analyst David Sheldon Boone was sentenced to 24 years in prison for spying for the Soviet Union. Boone sold information to the Soviets about U.S. targeting of Soviet nuclear weapons and details on the U.S. military’s use of signals intelligence. In 1996, Harold Nicholson became the highest-ranking CIA employee to be charged with espionage. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison for providing information on U.S. foreign operatives to Russia between June 1994 and November 1996. In the same year, Edwin Earl Pitts was also sentenced to 27 years in the same year for selling a list of FBI operatives to the Soviet Union and Russia from 1987 to 1992. Aldrich Ames in 1994 was sentenced to life in prison for spying for the former Soviet Union and Russia from 1985 to 1991. (MSNBC Newsweek)

Robert Hanssen had a good cover. He and his wife Bonnie and kids lived in a modest Virginia neighborhood, and he sent his kids to Catholic schools and colleges. He and his family went to Catholic Church every Sunday. Both Robert and Bonnie belonged to the church’s conservative Opus Dei society and his wife is a spiritual woman admired by her neighbors and was optimistic. His family and friends were completely surprised at his arrest and he apparently did a good job at leading a double life. (

Hanssen first initiated contact with Moscow’s chief counterspy at the Soviet embassy, Viktor Cherkashin, a KGB colonel skilled at handling double agents. Cherkashin had masterminded the activities of CIA’s agent Ames. Hanssen was obsessed with security and never revealed his true identity to the KGB and he did not participate in activities that could draw suspicions such as meeting Soviet agents face-to-face or traveling abroad. He had secret drop sites in a suburban Virginia park where both he and the Russians would give signals through the placing of adhesive tape. His friends in Moscow knew Hanssen as B, Roman Garcia, and Jim Baker. He broke off communication in December 1991 and didn’t resume communication until late 1999. Hanssen most likely stopped the communication for fear of getting caught by FBI and the CIA’s assembled “back room” team that was formed to figure out why a series of operations had been blown. This team was able to nab Ames, Nicholson, and Pitts.

To assist FBI agents in their work, employees are allowed to type in names, addresses and keywords into the FBI’s automated database to get information on current investigations. Hanssen took advantage of this technology and typed his name and address into the machine and realized there was no investigation being done on him. As a result, he got back in touch with Russia. (

When the FBI first had a hard look at him, there were no leads of value since he wasn’t spending money and had no drinking or gambling problems in his file. His daughter was on a full scholarship and there was nothing to indicate he was selling out his country. In 1994, he had been caught working with a colleague’s computer but he said he was just testing the system for vulnerabilities and it seemed part of his job since he was one of the foremost computer experts in the National Security Division (NSD). However, the back room “decided to find people who knew the answers” ( and targeted disaffected

Russian intelligence veterans who might have useful information. In the fall of 2000, they were able to encourage several especially targeted for their knowledge and weaknesses. One informant came in with a priceless item; a piece of a black plastic bag. The FBI lifted two hidden fingerprints from the bag and ran them against every set in the agency’s personal file. As a result, they matched the fingerprints to Hanseen. The FBI had evidence of past irreplaceable damage to the U.S. security over years but wanted to catch him in the act and collect hard evidence that would hold up in court. (

The FBI found a tape recording of an August 1986 telephone conversation between Washington-based spy named Aleksander Fefelov and “B”. They analyzed the tape and realized that “B” was Hanssen. Through secret wiretap approvals and search warrants, the FBI built electronic and physical surveillance on Hanssen. Finally in February 2001, the FBI was able to find the signal site and catch Hanssen in the process of a trade of secret documents for money. (

As Hanssen sits in a northern Virginia detention facility, he could be awaiting the death penalty. FBI Assistant Director Byrant says without Hanssen alive, U.S. intelligence will have to rebuild the entire Russian program from the ground up. Every operative in the U.S. spy apparatus from satellite controllers to eavesdroppers to military planners are still searching to discover what may have been compromised. ( As a result of his arrest, the Senate Intelligence Committee suggests that U.S. spy catchers be rotated out of their job every few years. (‘In the wakeâÂ?¦’ FBI Director Freeh and his senior deputies will take lie-detector tests and these tests will be applied to all FBI employees rather than the past policy that only required agents applying to the bureau and agents involved in sensitive assignments. “I recognize that many employees will approach a polygraph with some degree of concern despite being of the highest moral character and demonstrating exemplary performance”, said Freeh. (‘Freeh, deputiesâÂ?¦’

So the question is, why did Robert Hanssen sell secrets to Russia? Greed could be part of the answer but those who knew him most say it was probably to tempt fate. “He wanted to touch the wire,” said David Major, a section chief in the bureau’s intelligence division who worked across the hall from Hanssen. “It was like he was wondering, ‘Can I do it?'” ( He may have seen his job as too boring with too much waiting and paperwork. Those who know him best say he was hard to truly know. He said in a letter to Moscow, “I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say insanely loyal [to his friends in Russia]. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answersâÂ?¦.I decided on this course when I was 14 years old. I’d read Philby’s book. Now that is insane, eh!”. Philby was an arrogant, self-loathing aristocrat who was recruited by the Soviets at Cambridge University in the early 30’s. He wanted to overthrow what he saw as the corrupt, class-ridden establishment and replace it with a Marxist utopia. He became head of the Soviet division in the British spy service in the days of the cold war and led mole-hunters on a chase until he fled to Moscow in 1963. He published his memoir, My Silent War in 1968, but Hanssen would have been 24 not 14 at the time. (MSNBC Newsweek)

In United States vs. Marchetti, the government wanted to restrain Marchetti, a former CIA agent, from writing about his experiences as an agent. He had signed a contract promising not to divulge any classified information, as well as a secrecy oath when he left the agency. The court ruled that Marchetti could speak and write about the C.I.A. and even criticize its operations as part of his rights under the First Amendment but could not disclose classified information that he learned while he was employed there. (Fraleigh & Tuman, 133-134)

In a different case dealing with the First Amendment, in United States v. Morison a military intelligence employee was charged with violating the Espionage Act by sending an unauthorized transmission of national security material to a member of the press. The court ruled that Morison was not protected by the first amendment based on the fact that the government’s charges of allegations that he knowingly and willingly stole and distributed the secret documents. (Fraleigh & Tuman, 138-140)

In my opinion, since it is not yet certain what has been compromised through the spying Hanssen did for the Russians, it is important that he is not sentenced to the death penalty especially if he would be cooperative with the investigation and release what specific information he has shared with Russia. His first amendment rights do not include telling national security secrets to adversaries of America. The FBI can legally require its employees to submit to lie-detector tests as a security precaution. It can also legally change its rules and rotate those who work as spy catchers.

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