Robert hanssen

Most damaging traitor was a fed

The dead drop site used by Robert Hanssen on the day of his arrest, Feb. 18, 2001.

Screen Time / By Peter McDermott

Twenty years ago today, the FBI arrested Robert Hanssen at Foxstone Park in a suburb of Washington DC. He’d just left a package of classified materials at a dead drop site.

The failure to detect him before then was announced as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” He had sold secrets to the Russians, and the Soviets before that, on and off over a 22-year period. In return for his betrayal, he received $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. Hanssen was a devout Catholic, a daily communicant, and married father of six children. Raised Lutheran, he converted to his wife Bonnie’s faith and was active with her and extended family members in the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei.

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What was most shocking for the FBI in all of this was that Hanssen was one of its own agents, one who had first approached the Soviets just a few years after joining in 1976. The Feds by the late 1990s knew that there was a high-level mole at work, but had focused their investigation on CIA counterintelligence officer Brian Kelley, who was suspended with pay for about a year.

Robert Hanssen.

Kelley, who died in 2011, was the “wrong man” fully exonerated and reinstated after Hanssen's arrest. His widow speaks from the floor in a two-hour International Spy Museum presentation from 2013 that is posted on YouTube entitled “Witness To History: The Investigation of Robert Hanssen.” The main speakers are Mike Rochford, the retired FBI section chief of Russian Overseas Espionage, and the late David Wise, author of “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.”

Dr. David L. Charney, the psychiatrist who interviewed Hanssen in prison, is invited to contribute from the floor. It’s all very compelling stuff for anyone interested in the topic. (The convicted spy, now 77, is serving 15 life sentences at a supermax federal prison in Colorado.)

The great Norman Mailer was quickly on the case, writing the script for “Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story,” a television movie that was broadcast in late 2002. That’s also posted to view on YouTube; but even with William Hurt playing Hanssen, it might be a bit of a slog at 2 hours and a half. The well-regarded 2007 Hollywood version, “Breach,” is a better bet, available via Netflix DVD and other sources, with Chris Cooper as Hanssen and Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent investigating him. O’Neill’s memoir on this chapter of espionage history, “Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” came out in 2019, and the former agent appears in another International Spy Museum presentation on YouTube.

Hanssen’s psychiatrist Charney and others mention that he was influenced by Kim Philby’s memoirs “My Silent War,” although his complex motives were apparently rather less about ideology and more about money than in the Briton’s case. It’s interesting in this regard to note that Lee Oswald was obsessed as a teenager with the FBI-themed 1950s show “I Led Three Lives,” based on the real life story of Herbert Philbrick, an advertising executive who infiltrated the Communist Party USA in the 1940s. Retired United States Naval War College Professor David Kaiser in his book “The Road to Dallas” argues that this explains a great deal about Oswald’s mysterious behavior during his short adult life.

Helena Sheehan’s excellent “Navigating the Zeitgeist” — featured here and in this week’s print/digital edition — refers to the show’s depiction of party members as “cold, alien, menacing creatures.” In contrast, she says, the comedy spy spoof “Get Smart,” via Mel Brooks from the mid-1960s, indicated the easing of international tensions.

Novelist Mary McCarthy once said that the authorities seemed to regard communism as “catching.” The “I Led Three Lives” show certainly expressed the 1950s FBI view that communism was almost literally a virus (whole episodes are available on YouTube, while “favorite moments” from “Get Smart” are, too). Spare a thought, then, for Walter Bernstein, who died on Jan. 23, 2021, at the age of 101. Born to East European Jewish immigrant parents, Bernstein became a young communist at college in the 1930s, but it was after his service in the U.S. army during World War II that he joined the party proper. He felt that the communists he’d met abroad were the “most noble” fighters and the most serious in opposing fascism.

Bernstein became a successful TV writer, but was hounded constantly by the FBI, and eventually blacklisted. Just a year before the Hanssen story broke, I did a piece marking the 50th anniversary of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s launch of his crusade with the claim in a speech in Wheeling, West. Va., on Feb. 9, 1950, that there were 205 communists working in the State Department. I met and interviewed Arthur Hermann, a conservative scholar who’d just written a favorable biography of McCarthy, Ellen Shrecker of Yeshiva University, the author of “Many Are the Crimes,” an in-depth study of the post-war Red Scare, and Bernstein.

The still very active writer was a gentleman and, naturally, a particularly interesting person to talk with. His illiterate mother, he told me, was proud of his success and advised that he give them, the Feds, whatever it was they wanted. He said he’d have to name names, point the finger at others. She said, “No, you can’t do that.”

Bernstein had the last laugh with “The Front,” which won him an Oscar in 1976. In it Woody Allen (the only movie in which he stars but is neither writer nor director) plays the title role, a restaurant cashier who sells TV scripts on behalf of a blacklisted writer (played by Michael Murphy). It starred several formerly blacklisted actors, such as Zero Mostel, and is perhaps best remembered for its profane, cathartic last line. These days it’s still available to rent or buy.