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. 288 pp. $25.95
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. 352 pp. $25
The subtitles tell the story: "The Most Damaging FBI Agent in U.S. History" and "The Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History." For those who have forgotten the saga in the massive blur of post-Sept. 11 news coverage, the basic facts are these. Agent Robert Hanssen, arrogant yet socially awkward, abused and denigrated by an angry father, believed his talents to be unrecognized and unappreciated. Between 1979 and 1991, he delivered to Soviet operatives in Washington, D.C., an enormous number of secret documents and other valuable information from virtually all segments of American intelligence. In return KGB officials gave him substantial cash payments and (just as important) the continuous stroking his bruised ego demanded. He resumed spying, this time for Russia's new foreign intelligence agency, SVR, from 1999 until his arrest in February 2001.
To those closest to him, Hanssen seemed the very model of a loving husband, a father devoted to his six children and a devout Opus Dei Catholic. To his colleagues at the FBI over a quarter-century, he was a competent but tedious bureaucrat, somewhat respected for his technical skills but considered a haughty loner. His covert friends at the KGB, however, were more appreciative.
Hanssen proved his bona fides to his initial KGB contact, the talented spymaster Viktor Ivanovich Cherkashin (who was also kept busy handling the CIA's Aldridge Ames), by identifying a number of Russians who were working for American intelligence, most of whom went to their deaths as a result of Hanssen's and Ames's treachery. The troves of information Hanssen and Ames provided over the years to the Soviet Union were possibly the most extensive since the golden age of Soviet espionage during World War II. "Simultaneously," David Vise writes, "the biggest spy in CIA history and the biggest spy in FBI history were answering Soviet questions about sensitive intelligence matters without knowledge of each other."
These two intelligent and well-researched books follow different strategies in narrating the evidence of Hanssen's treason and the motivation behind it. The Spy Next Door provides a detailed and meticulous chronological tracing of Hanssen's life and times, from cradle to capture. The Bureau and the Mole devotes attention not only to Hanssen's development but to that of Louis Freeh, the "anti-Hanssen," an FBI agent who in contrast moved from career success to success, ending as director of the agency. Seven of Vise's 21 chapters deal with Freeh. The two stories intersect only occasionally, but for some reason Vise believes that the men "were inextricably intertwined in the Bureau that one loved and the other loathed."
The Spy Next Door presents a somewhat fuller portrayal of Hanssen's personal life and espionage career. Both books describe in detail the FBI's dismal failings and problems over the course of Hanssen's covert career. Not the least of these was the Bureau's feckless inattention to the various signs of suspicious actions that might have tipped them off that a KGB mole was in their midst. Among the damning evidence the Bureau ignored was a 1990 report received from Hanssen's own brother-in-law alleging that Hanssen could not account for significant cash in his possession and might have become a Soviet spy.
Meanwhile, Hanssen was patronizing a Washington, D.C., strip club and maintaining a protracted liaison with one of its star performers. He also logged on to adult Web sites, where he posted erotic fantasies relating to his own wife.
On the other hand, he was always highly cautious and organized in his dealings with Moscow, and his Soviet interlocutors never even learned his real name until his arrest. As Shannon and Blackman note, his exposure was not only "the worst blotch on the FBI's record" -- in an era of repeated blotches -- but "one of the most damaging penetrations of the American national security apparatus in history." Hanssen gave the Soviets an amazing variety of highly classified FBI, CIA, NSA and White House files.
At his trial last year, Hanssen promised cooperation, which gained him a life sentence without parole rather than the death penalty. With him convicted and imprisoned, U.S. intelligence debriefers are only now meeting regularly with the former agent to complete a full damage assessment of his treachery.
Both books provide suggestive insights into Hanssen's motives for working with the Soviets. Both recognize the extraordinary contradictions in his fragmented personality: "the devout Catholic who wrote sick porn about his wife," as Shannon and Blackman characterize him. "The loyal husband who mailed out nude photos of his beloved without her knowledge. The anti-communist who got a paycheck from [the KGB]. The American patriot who was an American traitor." In much the same vein, Vise quotes Hanssen responding to a post-conviction query about what made him spy: "Fear and rage . . . . Fear of being a failure and fear of not being able to provide for my family." The rage, of course, sprang from Hanssen's belief that the Bureau did not appreciate his talents.
The Spy Next Door offers a more thorough account of the Hanssen story, and the index is helpful (The Bureau and the Mole lacks one). For those focused on the ongoing tribulations of the FBI -- the backstage drama to Hanssen's actions -- David Vise's book will probably be more useful. At times, however, he reaches directly into his characters' minds, especially in a dramatic scene set at church the day of Hanssen's arrest. "Louis Freeh also felt the presence of the Divine in the sunlit nave of St. Catherine of Siena Church," the journalist-turned-novelist writes at one point. And soon thereafter: "Hanssen thought back to the times that he had hid from his father in his bedroom, afraid to venture out."
The bare record of events, at any rate, furnishes plenty of drama by itself. Hanssen's undetected career as a Soviet spy reflected a major failure of American intelligence. Periodically, counterintelligence personnel at both the FBI and CIA tried to unearth the source of the copious amounts of information being leaked to the Soviets. In the end, a 1999-2000 focus on a possible CIA agent as the sought-after mole ended only when a former KGB official -- working for money and the promise of American sanctuary -- walked into SVR headquarters in Moscow and stole all of Hanssen's documentary files; in Shannon and Blackman's words, "security at the SVR [was], apparently, about as tight as it was at the FBI." He then conveyed the material to CIA officers for transmission to the FBI. Only at that point did the Bureau launch an intensive probe of Hanssen. When he was caught in the act of delivering classified documents to a "dead drop" near his home, the FBI finally arrested him.
A spy novelist could hardly improve on this concluding act in the Hanssen drama. Spy fact and fiction do indeed merge at times, and (as both books point out) Hanssen had a special fondness for a novel of G. K. Chesterton's, The Man Who Was Thursday. As Shannon and Blackman recount, the novel "tells the story of an undercover spy ring composed of seven men, all Catholic, each one code-named for a different day of the week . . . . The gentleman who holds the position of Thursday thinks of himself as a poet and is, in his other life, an undercover policeman." Hanssen apparently identified with Thursday -- before joining the FBI, he had been a Chicago police officer assigned to investigate corruption among fellow officers.
If prison has inspired Hanssen to reflect critically about himself, he might consider another fictional spy, Victor Maskell in John Banville's novel The Untouchable, based upon the life of Anthony Blunt, a key British agent for the Soviets. The book includes this meditation by Maskell on the question of why he spied: "Perhaps it was not the philosophy by which I lived, but the double life itself -- which at first seemed to so many of us a source of strength -- that acted upon me as a debilitating force. . . . We were latter-day Gnostics, keepers of a secret knowledge, for whom the world of appearances was only a gross manifestation of an infinitely subtler, more real reality known only to the chosen few . . . for us, everything was itself and at the same time something else. . . . Let the whole sham fortress fall, we said, and if we can give it a good hard shove, we will."
Happily, after he had given the fortress of America's national security a good hard shove for more than two decades, it was Robert Philip Hanssen who finally fell. •
Allen Weinstein is the author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case" and co-author of "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company