Dirty Little Secrets

By Benjamin Schwarz


76436f19c1551f20d15a130fde9cd053Reading these three books on the Robert Hanssen espionage case is like viewing pornography. The exercise is at first vaguely diverting, but one is soon depressed by the tawdriness of the subject, bored by the slipshod methods of the medium that explores it and exasperated by the insubstantial nature of the whole experience. These books tell essentially the same story — one that the best newspapers and magazines have already reported with care, acumen and as much precision as possible, considering that it involves the theft of highly classified information as well as the dark inner life of a deeply unhappy, secretive and unsavory man.

Robert Philip Hanssen, who was a counterintelligence agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was by all appearances as devoted to the crusade against Communism as he was to his wife and six children and to his religion (he and his family were members of Opus Dei, the shadowy, conservative, some say cultlike, order in the Roman Catholic Church). Hanssen, however, sold secrets to the Soviet Union and to Russia off and on from 1980 to 1999. He also, without his wife’s knowledge, shared nude pictures of her with his best friend, and even repeatedly arranged for that friend surreptitiously to watch Hanssen having sex with his wife. Hanssen also regularly and secretly visited strip clubs, and engaged for over a year in what appears to have been a nonsexual but, again, secret and (no surprise) bizarre relationship with an exotic dancer.

These books recount Hanssen’s story with a degree of detail that borders on the prurient, yet they fail to answer most of the important questions. The authors, all experienced nonfiction writers or journalists, aren’t entirely to blame for this shortcoming; after all, the entire American intelligence community has, for reasons both of self-interest and of national security, tried to ensure that the really important issues surrounding the Hanssen case — the precise scale, scope and ultimate cost of the secrets he sold, as well as the security lapses that permitted him to conceal his activities for nearly two decades — remain unelucidated.

We will never know exactly why Hanssen became a double agent. Certainly, his relationship with his father, who denigrated him from childhood on, made Hanssen a less than well-adjusted adult. Hanssen’s thwarted ambitions in the F.B.I. and his justifiable sense that most of his colleagues and supervisors at the agency shunned and ridiculed him provoked him further. In this respect, it’s nearly impossible not to have some sympathy for Hanssen, who presents an almost classic case of the bright introvert (though not as brilliant as he fancies himself) who seethes with resentment as he finds that he can’t rise in an organization that prizes ”personal skills” (as one of his former bosses told The Los Angeles Times) over analytical ones. In large part Hanssen’s spying seems to have amounted to the revenge of the nerd. Perhaps the most chilling and repulsive passages in these books full of repulsive details are the messages Hanssen’s Russian handlers wrote to him, which show how astutely and intuitively (they never knew Hanssen’s identity) they played to his insecurities.

Like most recent spies, Hanssen was largely motivated by the dollars the Soviets and Russians would pay. But the lifestyle Hanssen’s gains financed, unlike those of Aldrich Ames, the Walker family and Felix Bloch, was hardly luxurious. True, he did buy his stripper friend a used Mercedes and he took her on a trip to Hong Kong (they stayed in separate hotels). But aside from this episode, Hanssen’s $470,000 in ill-gotten gains seems to have financed only a parsimonious lower-upper-middle-class life. While certainly not a member of the army of the working poor, Hanssen was struggling on his salary of $114,000. His wife didn’t work outside the home, and his six children each attended parochial school or college; the extra money went for tuition, everyday expenses like the upkeep on the family’s late-model cars and very modest home improvements. Hanssen spied, in part, not to transcend the life of a suburban Virginia family man but to live it.

Little important information in these books is new, although, astonishingly, David A. Vise reveals in ”The Bureau and the Mole” that Hanssen’s wife’s brother, also an F.B.I. agent, had reported to the bureau his suspicions that his brother-in-law was spying for the Soviets a full decade before Hanssen was caught. The report went nowhere (Vise, a reporter for The Washington Post, undoubtedly tried to determine why, but he doesn’t discuss this in his book). The bureau’s ineptitude here must be added to the lengthy bill of indictment against it for failing for so long to catch the traitor in its midst. Although at the time of Hanssen’s arrest Louis Freeh, then the bureau’s director, asserted the bureau ”didn’t stumble into this investigation,” that was precisely what the F.B.I. did. The American counterintelligence community wasn’t even looking for a mole in the bureau when a Russian agent, seeking money, presented the C.I.A. with the Hanssen case file.

Most of the substantive material in these books merely summarizes previous reports, as well as the F.B.I.’s 109-page affidavit, a document that, like these books, is at once enormously detailed and unrevealing. The affidavit and countless news stories had already told us that Hanssen had revealed to the Soviets the identities of a number of their own officials and agents who had been spying for the United States. Moscow executed at least two of these men for treason. This earns for Hanssen the sobriquet ”serial killer” from Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman in ”The Spy Next Door.” Although unfortunate, the fate of the two Soviets wasn’t unusual for double agents and was hardly catastrophic for United States national security. The truly devastating secrets that Hanssen might have sold involve specific satellite intelligence collection capabilities — because such revelations would have meant the waste of staggering sums of money. Very little information on the real damage assessment concerning the Hanssen case has so far been reported, and those seeking it from these books will be disappointed.

With a dearth of new facts to relate, all three books resort to a deadening amount of padding. Adrian Havill, the author of several biographies, devotes two and a half pages of ”The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold” to the suspected spy Felix Bloch’s post-State Department career as a bag boy and his shoplifting arrests. He also takes five pages to explain two data interception projects — the National Security Agency’s Echelon project and the F.B.I.’s Carnivore — although neither had any bearing on the Hanssen case. Shannon, the author of a book about America’s war against drugs, and Blackman, a biographer of Madeleine K. Albright, stick most closely to Hanssen’s story. But they also explore the unrelated spying case of Earl Pitts. And Vise gives readers nearly as detailed an account of Freeh’s life and career as he does of Hanssen’s. Vise also piles on pages on the Ames case — and then an entire chapter detailing the Timothy McVeigh, Randy Weaver and Richard Jewell cases, although none of these men were involved in espionage. Wen Ho Lee, at least, was accused of spying — but that hardly justifies the pages Vise spends on him.

Add to this bloat the sloppy, clichĂ©-ridden and hyperbolic writing common to instant books, and the effect of these volumes, singly and collectively, is stupefying. Robert Hanssen may have been one of the most destructive spies in American history, as the three books claim, but that’s an assertion none of them have convincingly argued. Long on titillation and superfluous storytelling and short on keen analysis, these books fail as even a first draft of history.

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