FBI Agent Sold Secrets to Russia for Years Before Being Caught
Robert Hanssen is a former FBI agent who sold highly classified material to Russian intelligence agents for decades before he was finally arrested in 2001. His case is considered one of America’s greatest intelligence failures, as Hanssen operated as a mole within the bureau’s counterintelligence division, the highly sensitive part of the FBI tasked with tracking foreign spies.
Unlike Cold War spies of an earlier era, Hanssen claimed to have no political motivation for selling out his country. At work, he often spoke of his religious faith and conservative values, traits which helped him avoid any suspicion during the years that he was in secret communication with Russian spies.
Fast Facts: Robert Hanssen
- Full Name: Robert Phillip Hanssen
- Known For: Worked as a mole for Russian spy agencies while serving as an FBI counterintelligence agent. He was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to life without parole in federal prison in 2002
- Born: April 14, 1944 in Chicago, Illinois
- Education: Knox College and Northwestern University, where he received an MBA
- Spouse: Bernadette Wauck
Early Life and Career
Robert Phillip Hanssen was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 18, 1944. His father served on the police force in Chicago and was serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II when Hanssen was born. As Hanssen grew up, his father was reportedly verbally abusive to him, often ranting that he would never succeed in life.
After graduating from a public high school, Hanssen attended Knox College in Illinois, studying chemistry and Russian. For a time he planned to become a dentist, but eventually wound up obtaining an MBA and becoming an accountant. He married Bernadette Wauck in 1968 and, influenced by his devout Catholic wife, he converted to Catholicism.
After a few years working as an accountant, he decided to enter law enforcement. He worked as a policeman in Chicago for three years and was placed on an elite unit that investigated corruption. He then applied and was accepted into the FBI. He became an agent in 1976, and spent two years working in the Indianapolis, Indiana, field office.
In 1978, Hanssen was transferred to the FBI office in New York City and was assigned to a counterintelligence post. His job was to help assemble a database of foreign officials posted in New York who, while posing as diplomats, were actually intelligence officers spying on the United States. Many of them were agents of the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, or its military counterpart, the GRU.
At some point in 1979, Hanssen made a decision to sell American secrets to the Soviets. He visited an office of the Russian government’s trading company and offered to spy. Hanssen would later claim that his goal was simply to make some extra money, as living in New York City was putting a financial squeeze on his growing family.
He began providing the Soviets with highly valuable material. Hanssen gave them the name of a Russian general, Dimitri Polyakov, who had been providing information to the Americans. Polyakov was carefully watched by the Russians from that point on, and was eventually arrested as a spy and executed in 1988.
In 1980, after his first interactions with the Soviets, Hanssen told his wife what he had done, and she suggested they meet with a Catholic priest. The priest told Hanssen to stop his illegal activities and donate the money he had gotten from the Russians to charity. Hanssen made the donation to a charity affiliated with Mother Teresa, and cut off contact with the Soviets for the next few years.
Return to Spying
In the early 1980s, Hanssen was transferred to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. To his colleagues in the bureau he seemed to be a model agent. He often steered conversations to talk of religion and his very conservative values, which were aligned with the very conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. Hanssen appeared to be a devoted anti-communist.
After working in the FBI division that developed secret listening devices, Hanssen was again placed in a position to track Russian agents operating in the United States. In 1985 he approached the Soviets again and offered valuable secrets.
During his second round of dealing with Russian agents, Hanssen was much more cautious. He wrote to them anonymously. While not identifying himself, he was able to gain their trust by initially providing information which the Soviets found both credible and valuable.
The Soviets, suspicious of being lured into a trap, demanded to meet him. Hanssen refused. In his communications with the Russians (some of which were eventually made public after his arrest) he insisted on setting the terms of how he would communicate, pass information, and pick up money.
His Russian contacts and Hanssen were highly trained in espionage techniques and were able to work together without ever meeting. At one point Hanssen spoke to a Russian agent over a pay phone, but they generally relied on placing signals in public places. For instance, a piece of adhesive tape placed on a sign in a park in Virginia would indicate that a package had been placed in a “dead drop” location, which was usually under a small footbridge in the park.
A Third Stint of Betrayal
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Hanssen became much more wary. During the early 1990s, KGB veterans began to approach western intelligence agencies and provide information. Hanssen became alarmed that a Russian with knowledge of his activities would tip off the Americans that a highly placed mole was operating within the FBI and the resultant investigation would lead to him.
For years, Hanssen stopped contacting the Russians. But in 1999, while assigned as an FBI liaison with the State Department, he once again began selling American secrets.
Hanssen was finally discovered when a former KGB agent contacted American intelligence agents. The Russian had obtained Hanssen’s KGB file. Realizing the importance of the material, the United States paid $7 million for it. Although his name was not specifically mentioned, evidence in the file pointed to Hanssen, who was put under close surveillance.
On February 18, 2001, Hanssen was arrested at a park in northern Virginia after he had placed a package at a dead drop location. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and to avoid the death penalty, Hanssen confessed and agreed to be debriefed by American intelligence officials.
During his sessions with investigators, Hanssen claimed his motivation had always been financial. Yet some investigators believed anger about how his father treated him as a child triggered a need to rebel against authority. Friends of Hanssen later came forward and told journalists that Hanssen had exhibited eccentric behavior, which included an obsession with pornography.
In May 2002, Hanssen was sentenced to life in prison. News reports at the time of his sentencing said American intelligence agencies were not entirely satisfied with the extent of his cooperation and believed he was holding back information. But the government could not prove he had lied, and wishing to avoid a public trial, the government chose not to void his plea agreement. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Impact of Hanssen Case
The Hanssen case was regarded as a low point for the FBI, especially as Hanssen had been so trusted and had committed such betrayals for so many years. In court proceedings the government stated that Hanssen had been paid more than $1.4 million during his spying career, most of which he never actually received, as it was held for him in a Russian bank.
The damage Hanssen did was considerable. At least three Russian agents he identified had been executed, and it was suspected that he compromised dozens of intelligence operations. One notable example was the information that the Americans had dug a tunnel under the Russian embassy in Washington to install sophisticated listening devices.
Hanssen was incarcerated in a “supermax” federal prison in Colorado which also houses other notorious inmates, including the Unabomber, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, and a number of organized crime figures.
- “Hanssen, Robert.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by James Craddock, 2nd ed., vol. 36, Gale, 2016, pp. 204-206. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
- “A Search for Answers: Excerpts From the FBI Affidavit in the Case Against Robert Hanssen.” New York Times, 22 February 2001, p. A14.
- Risen, James. “Former FBI Agent Gets Life in Prison For Years as a Spy.” New York Times, 11 May 2002, p. A1.