Hanssen

Due to length of topic, print
out for easier reading. Click
on PRINT in browser toolbar.

Hanssen joined the FBI as an idealist eager to nab Soviet spies. Disillusioned, the only way he could become a master spy was to work for the other side.

Hanssen: Deep Inner Conflicts

This is a description of Robert Hanssen as person, not a full account of the case. It illustrates character weaknesses that have been found in many American spies.

Robert Philip Hanssen was an FBI agent from 1976 to February 2001. Starting in 1979, during three separate periods, he was also a spy for the Soviet Union and later Russia. He passed thousands of pages of extremely sensitive Secret and Top Secret documents and dozens of computer disks to his Soviet and Russian handlers.

The majority of Hanssen’s time with the FBI was spent in its counterintelligence (CI) division, with a particular emphasis on Soviet and Russian intelligence. Ironically, he was even responsible for a large scale study that would be used in the hunt for the unidentified mole inside the FBI—in the hunt for Hanssen himself.

Hanssen was known during his teen years to be avidly interested in Soviet espionage. He believed that the Soviets were the very best in the spy trade, and he sought to understand the functional mechanisms at work within the KGB and its military counterpart. This became a favorite topic of conversation for Hanssen. While completing his FBI training in Quantico, Virginia, Hanssen joined several classmates on an excursion through the Washington, DC, area. During the tour, he led them to the Soviet Embassy on 16th street and began to describe his own knowledge of radio signals. He went on to impress them with his detailed knowledge about the types of communications the Soviets could intercept due to the hilltop location of their Washington, DC, embassy. One colleague who was on the trip later noted, “He knew all this stuff. The first time I ever heard of a KGB Center was from him.”1

No doubt Hanssen was more knowledgeable than his FBI colleagues about many things, a fact that was not lost on Hanssen. He was exceptionally bright and the FBI utilized his superior analytical and technological skills and abilities for many important projects and operations. But what Hanssen offered in terms of intelligence, he severely lacked in social skills—a critical trait for a successful FBI field agent.

Although he had a longing to be involved in spy work—in catching the Soviets—Hanssen was always relegated to the back room, where accounting and computer work awaited him. He was never deployed as a field agent, and he was never involved in field work, so he never worked the jobs that he knew would gain him respect among his FBI peers. Because of this, Hanssen felt unappreciated and undervalued within the Bureau. As one former supervisor has said, “He never got the respect he thought he deserved.”2 After his arrest, a psychiatrist who interviewed him noted that this treatment may have been what triggered Hanssen's espionage. If he couldn’t fulfill his spy dreams within the FBI, he would find another way.

Each of Hanssen's three periods of espionage was triggered by financial needs. When he contacted the Soviets in 1979, he was overwhelmed by the financial pressures of living in New York and providing for his growing family. He recontacted them in 1985 when he needed to pay off a $50,000 balloon mortgage on his home. In 1999, he was paying for private school education for his six children. His spending continually outstripped his income, even though his salary was near the top of the FBI pay scale.4

Hanssen was indeed motivated by money, but most Americans have financial needs and very few commit espionage or other financial crimes in order to solve those problems. What made Hanssen different? The Department of Justice Inspector General's report concludes that:

"Hanssen's initial decision to commit espionage arose from a complex blend of factors, including low self-esteem and a desire to demonstrate intellectual superiority, a lack of conventional moral restraints, a feeling that he was above the law, a lifelong fascination with espionage and its trappings and a desire to become a "player" in that world, the financial rewards he would receive, and the lack of deterrence -- a conviction that he could 'get away with it.'"4

The information presented below is not intended as an account of Hanssen’s life or of his espionage. Rather, it focuses on the psychological characteristics and behaviors that are potentially relevant to understanding what, in addition to money, caused Hanssen to commit espionage. These same characteristics are also found in other espionage cases. It is important to note that, despite what you read here, Hanssen appeared to many people to be a simple, quiet, God-fearing family man with a relatively uninteresting life. He was a devout Catholic who attended mass every day and was actively involved in Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic lay organization. He espoused conservative and anti-Communist views and had no alcohol, drug, or gambling problems. Unfortunately, things are not always what they seem.

Abuse by Father

From the time he was a child, Bob Hanssen had a love-hate relationship with his father, Howard Hanssen. In some ways, he worshipped his father. He was intensely proud that his father was a Chicago police officer, and wanted to be just like him (and he did spend some time with the Chicago Police Department prior to his job with the FBI). In other ways, the son justifiably feared and loathed his father. As a child, young Bob was repeatedly abused physically and emotionally by Howard. One particular incident occurred when Bob was six or seven; his father wrapped Bob in blankets and spun him around until he became so dizzy he vomited, then his father punished him for vomiting, telling him to “be a man.”1 In another instance, Howard picked his son up by the ankle and pulled his hamstring until he urinated on himself. Again, Bob was punished for losing control of himself.

Emotionally, Hanssen's father was equally cruel. He would publicly belittle Bob to anyone who would listen, including Bob’s friends and their parents. When Bob was old enough to drive, he was thrilled with the idea of getting his driver’s license, but his father bribed the official at the driving test to fail Bob. The son, who was aware of what his father had done, felt bitterly betrayed.

The effects of this abuse carried into adulthood, as did the abuse itself. While in college, Bob dreaded his parents’ visits, because he could not anticipate what kind of mean and insulting things his father might say about him to his professors or his friends. Even after Bob Hanssen was married and had children he felt vulnerable to his father’s emotional abuse. Eventually his wife, Bonnie, made him write a letter threatening to cut off all contact with his father, including from Bonnie and the children, if his father didn’t stop belittling Bob every chance he got. Although he worshipped his father outwardly, he revealed to both Bonnie Hanssen and to his psychiatrist (after his arrest) that he sometimes hated his father and was “infuriated” by the way his father treated him.2

In an interview after his arrest, Hanssen claimed that he loved his father and respected him and looked upon him almost as a god. He believed his father presented this hard exterior to him in an effort to make him tough and inure him to criticism. However, he recognized that the relationship with his father caused him to have a severe lack of self-confidence and a fear of failure that plagued him through his life.3

Inability to Make a Commitment

The unstable relationship that Bob Hanssen had with his father could have led him to fear relationships in general. If he could not get his father to love him, how could he get anyone to care about him, to stand by him, and to support him? How could he feel safe committing himself to relationships that were most likely doomed?

He had a difficult time committing to anything. For example, he dropped out of dental school after he had completed the majority of the coursework because he decided it just wasn’t the thing for him. Even more telling is that, within days of his marriage to Bonnie, Hanssen cheated on her with an old girlfriend. When Bonnie found out, he swore it wasn’t meaningful and that nothing of the sort would ever happen again. He did, however, admit his sin and beg her forgiveness.

Hanssen may have thought that joining the FBI would fill a void he had felt for most of his life. He may have believed that the FBI would offer him a place where he really fit in and where he would be accepted by those around him. But this was not to be. Very early in his FBI career, Hanssen learned that his fellow agents looked at him the same way his father did, as mediocre at best and definitely not fit for a “man’s job.”

Hanssen developed few, if any, real friendships while working in the FBI. His very best friend was Jack Hoschouer, a friend from his high school days in Chicago. Jack was the one person whom Hanssen felt he could really trust, the one person who Hanssen knew truly cared for him. Jack was also the person who brought out the impulsive and immature side of Hanssen that was rarely, if ever, seen by his FBI colleagues.

Even Hanssen's espionage career illustrates this difficulty in making a commitment. After volunteering his services to the Soviets, he dropped the contact and then voluntarily restarted it -- and he did this twice.

Impulsivity/Immaturity

As a teenager, Bob Hanssen was very quiet, withdrawn, and introverted, but he had another side of him that often scared his closest friends. He had a tendency to take enormous risks. Some described him as unpredictable. One high school friend said of Hanssen, “When he got a crazy idea in his head, he was going to do it.”1 His out-of-control behavior was sporadic, and those around him were never sure what he might do next. On one occasion, for example, he and Jack were shooting rifles into a bullet trap in Jack Hoschouer's basement when Hanssen suddenly moved very close to the target and began erratically shooting at it, ultimately shooting chunks out of the basement wall and terrifying Jack.

Young Bob Hanssen was also unpredictable behind the wheel, which scared some of his friends. After studying the physics behind auto racing in a high school class, he took his car out and tried to find the maximum speed he could attain while turning corners. He was a daredevil in his car. His friends advised that he never warned them or asked them before taking off on an erratic driving spree, and that they often feared for their safety. He also enjoyed challenging other drivers to races where he would find narrow, twisting roads and dare the other driver to follow him through them.

In addition to his sporadic, risky behaviors, Hanssen was enamored with Russian espionage. "Starting at a young age, Hanssen enjoyed spy-related entertainment, especially James Bond books and movies. He collected items associated with espionage, such as a Walther PPK pistol, a Leica camera, a shortwave radio, and opened a Swiss bank account."4  During college he studied the Russian language and had privately studied the history of communism to help him better understand the KGB. He was very interested in, and knowledgeable about, the Rosenbergs, who sold atomic secrets to the Russians in the 1950s, and about Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who successfully spied for the Russians for many years. He was especially impressed with Philby because the officers and investigators surrounding Philby didn’t believe that it was possible for him to be a Russian spy. One of Hanssen's acquaintances said that he had an “encyclopedic” knowledge of Philby and his relationship with the Russians. As previously noted, he impressed his peers during FBI training with his knowledge of Russian communications intercept technology long before he would have been trained in the subject by the Bureau. (Obsession with foreign and domestic espionage is a sign of immaturity sometimes seen in convicted spies.)

Hanssen's favorite movie was Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion about a high-ranking official who committed a crime, but who because of his status was never suspected even though he left many clues. His favorite book was The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, about a poet-turned-policeman-turned-spy who, like Hanssen, was a walking contradiction. Perhaps Hanssen saw pieces of his own life in each of these works; he had drawn up the picture of the perfect spy. Paul Moore, a fellow agent and friend of Hanssen, believes that he may have been driven by a desire to be the greatest spy in history.

Robert Hanssen’s immature and impulsive behaviors as a youth took on a sexual nature as he matured, most frequently when he was accompanied by his best pal, Jack Hoschouer. Together they acted like teenagers, gawking at attractive women as they walked down the street, visiting strip clubs, and once even visiting a brothel while overseas where they fulfilled Hanssen’s fantasy of them both having sex with the same woman. Hanssen often shared pornographic web sites, erotic fantasies, and sexual conquests with Jack, and without his wife’s knowledge, he sent nude photographs of Bonnie to Jack while he was away fighting in the Vietnam war. Over time, and unknown to Bonnie Hanssen, Hanssen invited Jack to watch him having sex with Bonnie. First he told Jack he could watch through the bedroom window, and eventually he set up a closed-circuit TV so that Jack could watch the activity from the Hanssens’ living room.

Both alone and with Jack Hoschouer, Hanssen spent many lunch hours at local strip joints. (This was a totally different side of Hanssen than seen by his fellow agents, whom he frequently ostracized and condemned for going to the same places.) He even met and developed an ongoing relationship with one stripper, Priscilla Galey, although the sexual nature of their relationship has not been fully determined.

What is known is that over the course of several months Hanssen openly splurged the fruits of his espionage on Priscilla Galey, buying her expensive jewelry, a computer, a Mercedes, and a trip to Hong Kong. (If Hanssen’s relationship with Galey had ever been investigated, it would have surely raised questions as to how he was funding such extravagances.) After Hanssen's arrest, Galey reported that he was always kind and very giving, and that he was one of the few people who had a positive influence on her life.1

But Hanssen was known to behave crudely and impulsively around other women. On two different occasions he walked up on one of Bonnie’s sisters while she was breast feeding and touched her breast. (This sister reported that she never liked nor trusted Hanssen.) While working at the FBI, Hanssen once grabbed a female subordinate by the arm after she left a meeting in which he had ordered her to stay; he chased her down the hall and then tried to drag her back into his office. (Although he received a reprimand, the incident was never seen as a reason to investigate his mental state.)2

Grandiosity

Grandiosity is a common trait seen in spies. Grandiose persons grossly overestimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments. They are often preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, love, or, in Hanssen's case, of being a master spy. Grandiose persons also feel they are so smart or so important that the rules, which were made for ordinary people, do not apply to them. Their unwarranted feelings of self-importance typically mask inner doubts and insecurities. They may need constant reinforcement of this fantasy image of themselves. Relationships with people and organizations depend upon whether the relationship supports or undermines their grandiose impression of themselves.

Grandiose thoughts become a security concern when the individual overreacts to let-downs, perceived slights, or unfulfilled fantasies, and lashes out against the offending party. In Robert Hanssen’s case, the offending party was the FBI. When he first went to work at the FBI, he was excited by the challenge. He believed that he had finally found his life’s cause—to catch the Soviet spies who were working against the United States. His first let-down occurred during his early years with the Bureau when a weekend attempt led by Hanssen to break a Soviet spy ring was undermined by his own colleagues. He was working in the New York field office and organized a sting on Soviet spies to be carried out on Sunday. He had figured out that was one day the Soviets were most active because the Soviets knew FBI agents didn’t work on Sunday. Hanssen, however, was sorely disappointed by his fellow agents. Over half the agents from the operation called in from home, not wanting to work on a Sunday, and no progress was made.

The lack of support he received left him with a sense of betrayal and dejection. It also left him feeling immensely smarter and more adept than his FBI counterparts. Although he knew what needed to be done to stop the Soviets, he knew he could not count on his fellow agents to follow through or make a concerted effort to capture the Russians in the act of espionage. This may have been a defining point in Hanssen’s spy career. As one colleague said, “He went in extremely idealistic and found out to his dismay that it is made up of fallible human beings who sometimes screw up and don’t do things right. This is one of his triggers. I don’t think he ever really accepted that.”2

Unfortunately for Hanssen, his colleagues and supervisors in the FBI did not recognize or appreciate his superior intellect as anything extraordinary, which left him feeling “overlooked and unappreciated in an organization that, in his view, valued the macho, door-kicking lawman even as it increasingly relied on analytical minds like his to solve complex, technical cases.”1 Further, Hanssen often felt he was being ostracized by inferior agents, which caused a great deal of resentment. It brought about feelings that had been manifest during his childhood years when his father berated him for “not being a man.” 

This feeling only intensified as Hanssen rose through the ranks of the FBI and felt surrounded by those he considered mentally inferior individuals. Following his arrest, when asked why he spied, he stated two reasons: fear and rage. Fear that he would not be able to support his family and would, in turn, lose their respect, and rage at the way he was treated by the FBI. Apparently this rage grew each time he was passed over for a promotion he thought he deserved or was treated as inferior to the field agents whom he considered weak and unintelligent.1

While Hanssen was, in fact, more intelligent than most of his fellow agents, he believed himself to be superior to them in every way. He despised the investigative and resourcing practices used by the Bureau as inferior to what he expected and what he would have done. In addition, he really believed that he understood the Russians better than almost anyone in the United States government.

Hanssen behaved accordingly, projecting himself to his colleagues as being far superior to them. He despised having to use lay terms when discussing technical matters, and he also hated working with women and homosexuals, whom he considered to be weak and incapable of FBI work. One longtime associate described him as an elitist: “He is not a guy who would sit there and drink a cup of coffee…with the plumber….”1

Hanssen felt that he had been treated unjustly all his life, beginning with his father, and was extremely sensitive to unfairness. He believed that he was unjustly excluded from the Bureau’s inner circle. In his mind he was far and away more intelligent and technically capable, and he believed that he belonged in the limelight of FBI operations against the Soviets—where he was markedly left out.2

John Lewis of the FBI recalls that Hanssen seemed to be an individual with very low self-esteem underneath his tough exterior, who was trying to get revenge for something. He said, “He lived in this world of shadows. He recognized he was not sought after. He was there, but kind of wasn’t there…He hated so many of the people he worked with; he felt superior but wasn’t making it. A lot of people just wrote him off as a technical weenie. He didn’t fit the [FBI Agent] mold. And there is this possibility that this guy committed himself to saying, ‘What a bunch of assholes’ and ‘I’ll get my revenge someday, somehow.’” Another fellow agent said, “He was a mumbler on the back bench. We didn’t want to talk in front of him. He was just creepy. You would look up, and he would be lurking in the hallways.”1

Disappointed and angry with the FBI, Hanssen turned his attention to the KGB, which he knew would appreciate him. He knew the value of the material he had access to and also knew the value he would have to the KGB if he provided that material. Robert Hanssen finally felt needed.

Other Factors

Interviews after his arrest revealed that, although Hanssen was very troubled by the pain his spying caused his wife and children, he did not feel guilty about the espionage itself. He believed that he was simply involved in playing a fair spy game. But clearly he was deeply conflicted as indicated by is on-and-off relationship with the Soviets/Russians. One side of Hanssen was deeply religious and well aware of the immorality of what he was doing. His first period of espionage ended in 1981 after Bonnie inadvertently discovered what he was doing. Subsequently at church he declined to receive communion, feeling that his unconfessed espionage "put him in a state of sin that made him unworthy of the sacrament."3 After that, he confessed to a priest. He began to tell several of his closest friends that he did not deserve their friendship; he began to withdraw and became quiet and introverted, much like he was during his childhood.

During his espionage, Hanssen took some significant risks—perhaps because in his own mind he thought he was smarter than the FBI, understood counterintelligence and, therefore, didn’t believe he could be caught. In addition to the expensive gifts he bought for Priscilla Galey, other high risk behaviors that might have drawn suspicion included:

  • Taking spy “work” home and writing notes to his KGB handlers from his home computer.

  • Maintaining copies of his correspondence with the Russians on hard drives in his office at the FBI.

  • Using postal mail to conduct transactions with the KGB.

  • Keeping large sums of money in his home.

  • Breaking into a supervisor's computer and downloading classified documents in an apparent attempt to prove to his superiors that Bureau computer security was poor.

Nevertheless, Hanssen became concerned during the latter period of his espionage, as indicated by searches he made on the FBI’s online investigation tracking system. In an effort to learn if he was under suspicion, he made more than 80 searches of this database between June 1997 and February 2001 to see if there was any reference to himself or to the dead drop or signal sites he used to communicate with the Russians.1

All of these factors together point to a disturbed, lonely man striving for recognition in his chosen profession, and who finally found in the KGB people who valued and appreciated his services. In one post-arrest interview, Hanssen compared himself to Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He placed all of his negative actions in one compartment separate from his normal life.3 While many behaviors were known to various people prior to his arrest, no single individual had seen the entire portrait of Robert Philip Hanssen that is now available in retrospect. No one behavior was ever enough to raise suspicion of this strange, socially unskilled, yet seemingly innocuous FBI agent.

Related Topics: Exploring the Mind of the Spy, Ames, Pollard, Walker.

References
1. D.A. Vise. The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2002.
2. D. Wise. Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America. New York: Random House, 2003.
3. N.J. Ciccarello & T.J. Thompson.. Money, the Fear of Failure, and Espionage: Report of an Interview with Robert Philip Hanssen. Langley, VA: Personnel Security Managers' Research Program, 2002.
4. Office of the Inspector General. A Review of the FBI's Performance in Deterring, Detecting, and Investigating the Espionage Activities of Robert Philip Hanssen. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2003.

 

HOME   |   SPY STORIES CONTENTS   |   TOP OF PAGE   |   HELP

INFORMATIONCONDUCT | THREATS | TECH VULNERABILITYASSISTANCE
SPY STORIES | TREASON 101