The Spy Who Went in for the Bold

  • Share
  • Read Later

Artist's rendering shows alleged spy Robert Hanssen (left) in court From reading the affidavit, what's your impression of Hanssen?

Elaine Shannon: It's simply astonishing what he was able to do, and how long he was able to get away with it. Now, it's possible for someone who's clever enough to do this, and obviously he was that clever. He drove the same old cars, lived in the same house, didn't do the obvious things that would alert his fellow agents.

But he was also extremely bold. At a time when he knew the FBI had compromised three KGB agents, he was writing letters to two more — people he had never met before — and offering information for money. And he wrote at length — when you're doing something like this, trying to keep your identity a secret from both sides, you communicate tersely. You don't prattle on and on and on. That's how they caught the Unabomber.

He's a fascinating case. Hanssen had been assigned to the most important counterintelligence offices the FBI has, in New York and Washington. He knows how thorough the FBI is when it comes to catching spies. To think that he could do this and get away with it shows an amazing degree of arrogance.

On the one hand, he got away with this for 15 years. On the other hand, the FBI was able to amass an incredible amount of detail about it. When they arrested him and searched his car, they found two journals that described in detail what he was doing. You just don't leave incriminating evidence lying around your car. It's sloppy.

Any thoughts as to motive?

ES: While he's alleged to have taken $600,000 in diamonds and cash, along with $800,000 in an escrow account, it doesn't seem to have been all about money. In some of his correspondence with his handlers, he says that "I have little need or utility" for money, because he knew he couldn't spend it without being noticed. But he also talked about having money set aside, and giving speeches in Moscow when it was all over, and he requested an "escape plan," because "nothing lasts forever."

At the very least, it seems like there's more at work here than simple greed. There may be a thrill-seeking element to this, the fact that he was as bold as he was, and as sloppy, but I'd love to see what else an expert could deduce from reading this correspondence.

I mean, this guy was born in Chicago, and he's ready to retire to Moscow. There's some other motivation at work here.

There was some pride in evidence at Tuesday's press conference. Freeh was clearly pleased at the way the FBI, the CIA and the State Department had worked together to make this case. But here was a top FBI spy-catcher, who was spying himself. For years. What's the damage done?

ES: It's devastating, one of the worst espionage cases we've seen, and not just because of the irony. The headlines so far are all about Aldrich Ames and Felix Bloch, and the microphone at the State Department — which he wasn't involved in — but the damage goes far beyond that.

This was an expert on how the U.S. spies, and how it catches spies. The technical information that he passed along — and he seems to have passed on an awful lot of it — will be a tremendous amount of help to the Russians in getting more.