The Only Thing Worse Than a Spy: A Spy Who's a Hypocrite

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FBI agents remove evidence from the home of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen

When I was growing up, a friend of mine's father was away from home a lot. I don't mean that he used to go on business trips, I mean that he would leave the house in the afternoon saying he was running out to get a tube of toothpaste and not come back till the following morning.

I used to joke that his father had another family somewhere. One day, when I was in college, I got a call from my friend, and all he said was, "You were right." What are you talking about? I asked. And he told me that it had all come out that his father did indeed have another family in a neighboring town. A wife, children, different friends, a different life — the works.

My friend's father was a charming rogue of a man who had a genuine double life. As far as I could tell, it seemed to require not only practiced deception, but extraordinary energy, superb acting ability and the willingness of those around him to not see what was directly in front of them.

But unlike Robert Philip Hanssen, the alleged spy whose double life surely required even greater measures of deception, he wasn't a two-faced hypocrite. He didn't boast about being moral or a family man or that he was particularly loyal. What's so infuriating about Hanssen — apart, of course, from the simple fact that he was a traitor — is the fact that he was so sanctimonious about his patriotism, his faith and his family. Spying was his other family.

Waving the flag

By all accounts, Hanssen played the role of superconservative patriot at the FBI — criticizing others for being both soft-headed and soft on defense, for being un-American, for being namby-pamby fair-weather citizens. He waved the flag and chastised others for not doing so. He famously didn't suffer fools — but in the end proved to be one himself.

I suppose he was in part just covering his tracks. And, of course, all spies, by definition, lead double lives. Their hypocrisy is always of the 180-degree variety. One man's loyalty is another's betrayal. Kim Philby — whom Hanssen cited as a kind of spiritual mentor — did not regard himself as a traitor to England but as a loyal soldier to the old Soviet Union. In the end, as the Washington consultant Timothy Dickinson notes, he joined hands with his fellow authoritarians, where "what they dislike is so much more important than what they believe in."

What irks us are not the creepy traitors of super-power relations but the sanctimonious hypocrites of everyday life. The people who preach one thing and do the opposite. Who practice the very sins they persecute in others. Elmer Gantry. Jim Bakker. And, speaking of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. There's a special satisfaction when they get their comeuppance.

Sex and the double life

One of the things that was so nettlesome about the whole Monica Lewinsky business was not that it exposed Clinton's own double life, but that Clinton pretended to be so uxorious. He was always throwing his arm around his wife, making it seem that they were such lovey-dovey partners. Concerns over sexual orientation have in several instances led to such duplicities. Some believe that once the English spy Guy Burgess felt he had betrayed the idea of heterosexuality, it was an easy step to betray his country. He already felt like an alien at home. But the analogy is too facile. Real hypocrisy, Somerset Maugham once said, "cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practiced at spare moments; it is a full-time job." I'm sure Robert Hanssen well understood that.

We all lead double lives in some way. But our hypocrisies tend to be misdemeanors. Small deceptions. We say we're liberal and then vote for a conservative. We rail about Marc Rich as a tax evader and then don't pay the Social Security tax for our housekeeper. But we make a kind of peace with it. We know our limits. We know where the line is, and we don't cross it. Hanssen apparently not only crossed it, he lived it, he justified it to himself and held himself up as an example of fidelity. That's a moral crime all by itself.