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.