Spies, moles, and double agents sound like similar things, but they have varying types of meaning to each that populate the history of global intelligence. A loyal spy is among the most common type of employee within many national clandestine groups operating throughout history and in modern times, they may be found monitoring and engaging with various parts of a country’s bureaucratic infrastructure or enemy agencies and diplomatic personnel. Moles are much rarer because the classic definition of a mole requires them to be indoctrinated by enemy groups before they obtained access to classified information. Double agents however are less rare than moles because while they do betray the important secrets of their original agency, this betrayal is not premised upon a long planned ideological motivation. A mole is usually a strategically planned infiltration based upon years of training and plans, but a double agent often develops upon other circumstances and grievances. Yet some double agents have strategic access to intelligence than might allow them to produce damage comparable to a mole, and one such person deemed among the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most destructive betrayers was named Hanssen.
Robert Philip Hanssen was born April 18, 1944, as the only child of a Catholic family living near Rosemont on North Neva Avenue. He attended Taft High School during the early 1960’s and later studied Chemistry and Russian at Knox College which earned him a bachelor’s degree. Two years later he was pursuing courses in dentistry at Northwestern University before he abandoned that career path to complete a Business Administration Master’s degree.[i] Amidst 1972, he reportedly joined the Chicago Police Department, similar to his father, and his desire for a greater law enforcement credentials propelled him to seek membership within the Federal Bureau of Investigation. January 12, 1976, Special Agent Hanssen was sworn in to the Bureau’s ranks and began his US intelligence career investigating crimes within Indiana until his transfer to the Soviet counterintelligence unit at the FBI’s New York City field office. Robert Hanssen possessed Top Secret level file clearance during the nineteen seventies and this access was increased to further compartmented information by nineteen eighty. He was eventually able to access nearly any file within the FBI and State Department databases from various positions held at both groups.
The first two double agents were quickly recalled to Moscow, subsequently charged, and executed for treason. Yuzhin was recalled to Moscow to face a fifteen year sentence of hard labor in Siberia of which he served less than half the sentence. A further later disclosure identified retired GRU General Dmitri Polyakov, a former Deputy Rezident of the Soviet New York Rezidentura and prized FBI double agent code named Tophat. Polyakov after over two decades of undetected spying was captured, tried, and executed during 1968.[iii]
Since at least October of 1985, he was directly providing Russian intelligence with classified information, his crimes according to repeated official groups and public media led to the death of multiple FBI sources and exposure of double agents in the ranks of Russian officials. According to legal files his first letter to the Soviet’s KGB intelligence agency offered two FBI recruited sources within the Russian Embassy located in Washington DC. Embassy Third Secretary Sergei Motorin, Soviet embassy officer Valeri Martynov, and CIA source Boris Yuzhin that was placed inside the Russian state owned TASS news agency were all named in Hanssen’s communication.[ii]
Hanssen claimed he was inspired in his teen years by a book containing the story of notorious British intelligence mole Kim Philby and ideological reasons motivated him. However, this is challenged by the significant amount of money he received for his forbidden disclosures. At least one communication with Russian intelligence, during 1985, infers that not pure ideology but seeking to prevent FBI attention to large payments guided his attempts mask them by using gems, jewelry, and other luxury items. Repeated sources divulge he received over a million dollars in “cash, bank funds, diamonds, and Rolex watches” for the national security information offered to both the Soviet Union and later Russian Federation.[iv] [v] Among the other secret operations Hanssen was charged with exposing was a US intelligence operation code named MONOPOLY that had created a tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC to spy on Soviet officials. The hidden area was filled with an extensive amount of National Security Agency (NSA) equipment that was compromised as well.
He appeared to be a content family man and religious conservative member of the Catholic group Opus Dei that was married with six children. Some of his contemporaries stated he bore the appearance of a mortician due to his pale countenance and usual dark suited dress and was further known to ardently collect firearms. The Hanssen family eventually lived in four bedroom house located in Fairfax, Virginia and his children attended expensive preparatory schools funded by his illegal activities combined with his normal FBI salary. Yet this seemingly wholesome background concealed a separate dark side of his personality that included secretly photographing his wife nude and taping sex acts with her to show a close friend. Hanssen frequently met with exotic dancers but reportedly never had sex with those he encountered and instead attempted to convert them to Catholicism. “Priscilla Sue Galey, a stripper who befriended the spy, said she was given cash, jewels, and a Mercedes Benz” and claimed that Hanssen gave her a tour of the FBI training grounds at Quantico, Virginia.[vi]
During the period before Robert Hanssen’s detection, the FBI had been pursuing a different suspect for Hanssen’s crimes. Their suspect, code named Gray Deceiver, was Central Intelligence Agency counterintelligence officer Brian Kelly but when a tape was eventually produced from the KGB’s Ramon Garcia file it revealed not Kelly but Hanssen was the actual double agent. “A turning point came in 2000, when the FBI and CIA were able to secure original Russian documentation of an American spy who appeared to be Hanssen. The ensuing investigation confirmed the suspicion” and officials dubbed him Gray Day as they later prepared to catch him in the act of betraying the FBI. Officials moved Hanssen under the false premise of a promotion back to FBI headquarters to closely monitor his activities and wait for him to make an error that would expose his treachery.
Hanssen’s longevity as a double was explained by precautions he took that most later captured double agents and moles failed to utilize and they allowed him to function nearly sixteen years without detection. He never told the Soviet KGB and later Russian SVR intelligence groups his true identity and used the pseudonym Ramon Garcia to interact with foreign spy agencies. Since Robert was trained in counterintelligence and “held key counterintelligence positions, he had authorized access to classified information”.[vii] Investigators later discovered that Hanssen would spend a significant amount of time surveilling US intelligence by using FBI computer systems and was not held to the security check standards used by other American intelligence groups. Using chalk markers, a series of codes, and dead drops he delivered concealed documents in open areas such as garbage cans or under public bridges to provide classified secrets. Hanssen reportedly passed thousands of files and dozens of computer disks to his Russian handlers that compromised several of FBI’s most vital secrets. Among them was the FBI’s Double Agent program which summarized their current operations and multiple versions of the National Intelligence program papers which revealed interagency plans of the US government. One FBI agent stated of his several precautions “This guy clearly was a real genius at covering his tracks, and he didn’t spend a lot of money…I’ve never seen anything this crafty before.”[viii]
Amid February 2001, after twenty-five years of FBI employment, Robert Hanssen unknowingly was making his last dead drop of information to the Russians inside a northern Virginia park trash can. He was arrested less than month before his retirement and taken into custody with damning classified information held inside the abandoned rubbish package. Hanssen’s trial produced a sentence of life without parole and this was a stark legal example to other potential intelligence betrayers. Greed, prior deceptions that doomed multiple men, the shade of Kim Philby, and Hanssen’s ego led him to spend his final years imprisoned and he recently died in early June at the age of 79.
[i]. Lindsay Whitehurst, June 5, 2023, Robert Hanssen, ex-Chicago cop turned FBI agent who was convicted of spying for Russia, dead at 79, Chicago Sun Times, chicago.suntimes.com
[ii]. The United States v. Robert Philip Hanssen aka Ramon Garcia…, Affidavit in Support of Criminal Complaint, Arrest Warrant and Search Warrants, V. The KGB’s “B” Operation, The Federation of American Scientists, fas.org
[iii]. Nigel West, 2006, Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence, The Scarecrow Press, pp. 123-125
[iv]. L. Whitehurst, Chicago Sun Times
[v]. Robert Hanssen, n.d., History: Famous Cases and Criminals, Federal Bureau of Investigation, fbi.gov
[vi]. Richard Polina, FBI agent who took down sexually deviant spy Robert Hanssen says traitor wanted to be “James Bond”, June 6, 2023, New Pork Post, nypost.com
[vii]. Robert Hanssen, fbi.gov
[viii]. Peter Dizikes, February 20, 2001, How the FBI Tracked Robert Hanssen, ABC News, abcnews.go.com