Robert Hanssen was one of America’s most known spies. He was an FBI agent who betrayed his country by selling highly sensitive information to the Soviet Union and later Russia for more than two decades. On June 5, 2023, he was discovered dead in his prison cell at the age of 79.
A Double Existence
Robert Hanssen was born in 1944 in Chicago to a Lutheran household. He received a chemistry degree from Knox College and an MBA from Northwestern University. In 1976, he joined the FBI and worked in counterintelligence units in New York, Washington, DC, and Virginia.
Hanssen appeared to be a committed and loyal spy, but he harbored a dark secret. He approached the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) in 1979 and offered to work as a spy. He adopted the alias “Ramon Garcia” and began sending confidential documents to his handlers via dead drops and encrypted messages.
Hanssen’s espionage operations were temporarily halted in 1980 when his wife Bonnie discovered certain classified documents in their house. When she challenged him, he claimed that he was merely deceiving the Soviets with bogus information. He pledged to quit spying and confessed to a priest linked with Opus Dei, Hanssen’s conservative Catholic organisation.
Hanssen, on the other hand, resumed his spying in 1985 and continued until 2001. He went from the GRU to the KGB, and eventually to its successor, the SVR. He went by several aliases, including “Jim Baker,” “G. Robertson,” and “B.” He never met his handlers in person and remained unidentified to them.
A Significant Loss
Hanssen’s treachery wreaked havoc on the US national security and intelligence communities. He sold hundreds of confidential documents that exposed US nuclear war plans, advances in military weapons technology, and components of the US counterintelligence program.
He also compromised the identities of dozens of Soviet and Russian spies working for the US in secret, some of whom were executed or imprisoned by their own governments. He revealed a hidden tunnel created by the FBI beneath the Soviet embassy in Washington DC to listen in on their communications.
Hanssen received more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds in exchange for his espionage. He also claimed that he spied on ideological grounds, citing his admiration for the Soviet system and his disdain for US actions. He also mentioned how much he enjoyed the excitement and challenge of espionage.
A Final Capture
Hanssen’s spying career came to an end in 2001 when he was finally caught by the FBI. The FBI had been hunting for another mole since 1994, after arresting Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer who had also spied for the Soviets. The FBI suspected that there was another spy who had leaked information that Ames did not have access to.
The FBI paid $7 million to a Russian agent who provided them with a file on an anonymous mole that matched Hanssen’s profile. The FBI then conducted a surveillance operation on Hanssen and obtained his fingerprints and voice samples that confirmed his identity.
Hanssen was detained on February 18, 2001, near his home in Virginia, after dropping a package of classified materials at a dead drop site. He faces 15 counts of espionage and one count of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Hanssen pleaded guilty and cooperated with police in order to avoid the death penalty. He was convicted to 15 consecutive life terms without the possibility of release and was imprisoned in ADX Florence, a Colorado supermax prison.
Hanssen died on June 5, 2023, after being discovered in his cell unresponsive. His cause of death was not revealed.
A Legacy of Infamy
Robert Hanssen is widely regarded as one of the worst spies in US history. His espionage has been described by the Department of Justice as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history”. His former colleagues at the FBI have expressed their anger and disgust at his betrayal.
Hanssen’s life and crimes have been depicted in several books, documentaries, and movies. The most notable ones are The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise, Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America by David Wise, Breach (2007) starring Chris Cooper as Hanssen, and The Spy Within (2019) starring Eric McCormack as Hanssen.
Hanssen’s case has also raised questions about the security and oversight of the US intelligence agencies and the motivations and psychology of spies. Hanssen’s legacy is one of shame, tragedy, and mystery.