In an article written by WTOP News in 2019, the International Spy Museum in D.C. estimated that there are “more than 10,000 spies in Washington.” They could be students, an old lady crossing the street, a man walking his dog, or a performer busking on the street that you passed by. In 1979, “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history” was committed by a former FBI agent named Robert Hanssen.

The Beginning of Espionage

Hanssen became an FBI Special Agent in January 1976 and was assigned to the FBI’s field office in Gary, Indiana. After two years, he was transferred to New York City, and just a year after, he was tasked to compile a database of Soviet intelligence for the FBI as part of their counterintelligence operations. It wasn’t long before Hanssen approached the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate, Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (GRU), and offered his services in 1979. You see, his task in the FBI gave him direct and legitimate access to the vast amount of classified information, including sensitive programs. As written by

Hanssen effectively used his training, expertise, and experience as a counterintelligence Agent to avoid detection, including keeping his identity and place of employment from his Russian handlers and avoiding all the customary “tradecraft” and travel usually associated with espionage.

Among the first information that he leaked to the GRU were the FBI’s bugging activities, suspected Soviet intelligence moles, and that Dmitri Polyakov, a Soviet Major General was actually a CIA informant. Polyakov would later be arrested in 1986 and executed in 1988.

Dmitri Polyakov. (PatrickCaproniCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The FBI, who was still clueless about Hanssen’s betrayal at that time, transferred him to the FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, and assigned him to the FBI’s budget office. It was the perfect position to know about and spill information about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s wiretapping and electronic surveillance activities. He paused with his espionage business until three years after, when this seemingly lucky spy was assigned to study, identify, and capture Soviet spies and intelligence operatives in the US by evaluating these Soviets who offered intelligence and making sure that they were not double-crossing them. So in 1985, he was back on business. He sent a letter to the KGB and offered his services for $100,000 in cash, an amount that’s more or less $241,000 today. He gave up two KGB agents working for the U.S. Government as “agents in place” at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Unbeknownst to him, another mole named Aldrich Ames had already provided this information. When these two KGB agents returned back to Moscow on pretextual orders, they were arrested, tried, convicted, and later executed via an unceremoniously applied bullet to the back of each of their heads.

Tasked By The FBI To Hunt For Himself

Hansen’s career as a double agent was it its zenith when, In 1987, he was assigned to study rumored spies within the FBI to find out who tipped off the Kremlin about the two KGB agents they had turned. In other words, he was tasked to hunt for himself. He must have been grinning from ear to ear knowing that he would play a major role in casting suspicions on others, anyone but himself.  He acted by turning over the entire list of Soviet double agents who tried to warn the FBI that a mole was operating inside the agency.

In 1989, he was paid $55,000 for disclosing that the FBI planned to dig a tunnel beneath the Soviet Union new embassy’s decoding room to eavesdrop, although they dropped the idea, worrying that it might be discovered.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made Hanssen decide to take a break from his espionage activities. After a year, he made a risky move by physically approaching a GRU officer in the parking garage and identifying himself as code name “Ramon Garcia,” who was a “disaffected FBI agent” offering spy services. The Soviet officer did not recognize him and suspecting a trap drove away. Later on, the Soviets protested to the State Department, thinking that Hanssen was a triple agent. Even then Hanson was not questioned or arrested by the FBI.

He did some other things like hacking into the computer of a fellow FBI agent and when caught, passing it off as his way of proving that FBI computer systems were vulnerable, an alibi that they bought.

“What took you so long?”

When Ames was arrested in 1994, they suspected a second traitor, and so FBI and CIA formed a joint mole-hunting team. Their investigation led to accusing an innocent person named Brian Kelley, a CIA operative. It wasn’t until a Russian informant named Alexandr Shcherbakov came and asked for $7 million in exchange for a file on “B.” He was not able to identify Hanssesn by name, but he had an audiotape of a conversation between “B” and a KGB agent. The voice sounded familiar, but they couldn’t pinpoint whose it was until the “B” in the recording mentioned “the purple-pissing Japanese,” a term that someone recalled Hanssen using before. That’s when they identified it was indeed Hanssen’s voice.

Photo of “Ellis” dead drop site in Foxstone Park used by Robert Hanssen. (Federal Bureau of Investigation. The source gives no specific photo credit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He was immediately placed under surveillance and was “promoted” to supervise FBI computer security in 2001, a way to keep him far from sensitive data and back at FBI headquarters for close monitoring. They gave him an assistant named Eric O’Neill, who was actually a young FBI surveillance specialist. O’Neill was able to obtain Hanssen’s Palm III PDA briefly. They downloaded the encrypted information, decoded it, and Ka-Boom! Hanssen’s career was over

He was caught red-handed dead dropping a sealed garbage bag of classified material by taping it to the bottom side of a wooden footbridge. The FBI agents spotted and arrested him in the act. His immediate question: “What took you so long?”

Robert Hanssen behind bars in ADX Florence. (Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Hanssen was sentenced to 15 consecutive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole on May 10, 2002, and is now detained at the ADX Florence and in solitary confinement for 23 hours every day.