By David W. Marston
Special To The Sun
Originally published January 19, 2002
An outpouring of serious books about espionage reveal the CIA and the FBI as incompetent in policing spying both inside and outside their agencies.
A splashy run of spy cases - including the first-ever FBI agent convicted of espionage for the Russians, and the first CIA agent to defect - led Time to label 1985 as "The Year of the Spy." Now, 2002 is shaping up as the Year of the Spy Book. Before Groundhog Day, five major new espionage books are already out.
Three feature FBI double agent Robert Hanssen, an extraordinarily damaging spy who went undetected for over 21 years, and was then caught only because a Russian gave him up. The other two trace the massive and ultimately unsuccessful government persecution of Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.
Together, these books - and an increasing flock of more peripheral ones - offer a sweeping survey of two decades of U.S. intelligence successes and failures. They also reveal a deeply troubling culture in the FBI and CIA in which secrecy routinely shrouds incompetence, bureaucratic inertia stifles action and the buck stops nowhere.
Bob Hanssen spied for the Russians because he was not appreciated by the FBI, after a childhood in which he was belittled and abused by his father, a Chicago cop. It's pure pop-psych, but Hanssen's deep need for Dad's recognition may well have motivated him to start spying.
But it's also clear that Hanssen's spying continued because the FBI made it absurdly easy. The bureau adamantly refused regular lie detector tests for agents (which the CIA has long required), and Hanssen was able to hack into a vast array of sensitive documents on his computer. Once, he bragged to a supervisor that he could hack into any document, then proved it, printing a classified document from the supervisor's computer. No warning flags, nothing happened.
At his father's urging, Hanssen studied dentistry, then accounting, then joined the Chicago police force (Dad did not approve). After a brief stint in internal affairs, he moved on to the FBI, and soon started serving up to the Russians a deadly cornucopia of classified secrets from virtually every U.S. intelligence agency.
Hanssen was a mare's-nest of contradictions. The prudish, religious (he confessed to at least one priest that he spied for the Soviet Union) father of six cavorted with a Washington stripper (who accompanied him on an FBI inspection trip to Hong Kong - no one noticed), but also tried to persuade her to quit stripping and go to church. Liberal ideas expressed in "Doonesbury" were enough to make Hanssen "vomit," but he posted sexually explicit material about his wife on the Internet, using his real name. The very mediocrity of his FBI career - and the fact that he was often left alone with documents - contributed to his unprecedented success as a spy.
The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History, by David A. Vise (Atlantic Monthly Press, 272 pages, $25) traces the superficially parallel careers of Hanssen and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Joining and leaving the FBI that "one loved and the other loathed" at about the same time, they were both members of the same Roman Catholic church, both were active in Opus Dei, a conservative, secretive movement within the Catholic church. But Hanssen and Freeh in fact had no direct interaction, and so Vise's structure occasionally seems forced, as the more compelling Hanssen spy story is interrupted by Freeh's career highlights.
Nevertheless, The Bureau and the Mole is a carefully researched and compelling account, with a startling bombshell: in 1990, Hanssen's brother-in-law and fellow FBI agent Mark Wauck reported to his FBI superiors in Chicago that Hanssen was spending far beyond his bureau salary, had thousands in cash hidden in his home and that Wauck suspected Hanssen was spying for the Russians.
Incredibly, the FBI did nothing. Hanssen's spying continued another 10 years. It was a criminal blunder, no one accountable, a bureaucratic indifference that supports Freeh's charge that the FBI's "hollow middle" (time-serving bureaucrats between eager new agents and skilled senior management) is susceptible to shoddy work and worse.
Unfortunately, such bureaucratic bumbling is not limited to the FBI. In The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History, by Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman (Little, Brown & Company, 256 pages, $26.95), the authors recount how CIA agent Aldrich Ames came under suspicion of spying after he began driving around in a white Jaguar and paid cash for a $540,000 home.
A preliminary inquiry quickly disclosed that Ames had received recent wire transfers totaling about $40,000. But before anyone traced the transfers, the investigator was ordered into a routine training program. After that, the probe was forgotten, and Ames sold secrets to the Soviets for three more years.
The Spy Next Door is a highly readable account that strips away Good Bob's straight-arrow facade, to reveal a Bad Bob who betrayed his country on an unprecedented scale.
The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold: The Secret Life of FBI Double Agent Robert Hanssen, by Adrian Havill (St. Martin's Press, 262 pages, $25.95) is an edgier story. Opening with a brief history of the FBI, Havill writes that "today's image of [J. Edgar] Hoover is of a pudgy man who lived with his chief assistant and sometimes wore dresses" (quickly noting that this was never proven).
Havill rejects as naive Hanssen's contention that the Russians never knew his true identity, and seems oddly sympathetic to the super-spy ("he spent most of his adult life as a caring, religious man, despite his disturbed personality"). A meticulous researcher, Havill generally paints on a larger canvas than the other accounts, adding fuller historical and diplomatic context. His intriguing speculation of how a Russian diplomat likely sold Hanssen's file to the FBI is unmatched in the other books.
But while the FBI never got Hanssen in its sights, Wen Ho Lee was a bureau target for more than a decade. A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, by Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26) details the FBI probe against Lee, the media leaks and political pressure, which finally culminated in a 59-count indictment.
Lee stood accused of stealing the "crown jewels" of America's atomic weapons program. Then the government case collapsed. After Lee served an extraordinary 278 days in pretrial solitary confinement based on perjured testimony, 58 counts were dismissed, Lee pleaded guilty to a single technicality and was released. The visibly angry federal judge apologized to Lee "...for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the executive branch."
A Convenient Spy, like the Lee probe itself, struggles - and mostly succeeds - in making immensely complex scientific concepts understandable to a lay reader. Despite the collapse of the government's case, however, the authors are unconvinced of Lee's innocence.
No such ambivalence clouds Lee's own book, My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy by Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia (Hyperion, 332 pages, $23.95). In this lively account, Lee describes himself as a patriotic American scientist, who enjoyed the gentle pursuits of gardening, fishing and cooking, and devoted his life to helping the U.S. improve defense capabilities.
In light of the Lee and Hanssen debacles, Congress needs to ask the FBI and CIA the precise question Robert Hanssen asked his FBI captors when he was arrested: "What took you guys so long?"
David W. Marston is author of Malice Aforethought, an analysis of abuses in law practice and co-author of Inside Hoover's FBI, with Neil J. Welch. U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, Marston is now a lawyer in civil practice in Philadelphia.
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