Intelligence: February 26, 2001


The Perfect Spy; In February, the FBI arrested one of it's veteran counterintelligence agents, Robert Hanssen, for espionage. Hanssen worked for Russia from 1985 until the present, earning $1.4 million in the process. For the Russians, Hanssen was the Perfect Spy. He was the much feared, and long suspected, Russian mole in the American intelligence establishment. But Hanssen apparently didnt do it just for the money. He had something of a Walter Mitty complex, seeing himself as a dashing secret agent. Since he was a senior agent working in counterintelligence, he was in a position to know who the FBI was currently looking for and how best to avoid getting caught. But he didn't have access to a top secret FIB/CIA "Mole Hunting Squad," which eventually arrested him. The FBI also had another ally, a Perfect Spy of their own.

Hanssen was a dour and colorless agent. He was one of the FBI's first computer experts. He was quite the professional's professional. For example, he never let the Russians know who he was. The Russians didn't care, as Hanssen provided quality information, which sabotaged dozens of (sometimes very expensive) U.S. spying operations. Hanssen's work also got two U.S. agents in Russia (KGB officers) executed. This last item could cost Hanssen his life. After Aldrich Ames was caught in 1993, and it was revealed that his work got ten U.S. agents executed, the law as changed. Any American traitor who's work leads to the death of U.S. agents is subject to the death penalty himself. 

The damage Hanssen did was considerable, and Hanssen can easily beat the death penalty by speaking freely about what he gave the Russians. Knowing what the Russians know about our spies, and attempts to catch spies (counterintelligence) makes it much easier (although still quite expensive) to repair the damage. Many current American spies are probably compromised, being watched by the Russians and fed false information. Hanssen's reports to the Russians have made it much more difficult to catch Russian spies. Moreover, since the Cold War ended, Russian espionage has concentrated more on economic targets. Many of their spies are now looking for secret information on new technology and trade negotiations. Post Cold War espionage has been more about making money than winning wars. The aftermath of Hanssen's capture should be quite interesting.

But in one respect, Hanssen was quite unusual. After the Soviet Union fell, and Russian spymasters could talk somewhat more freely, they admitted that the easiest way to recruit American spies was with money. Hanssen was attracted mainly by the adventure of it all, and apparently spent very little of the money. He admitted as much in his letters to the Russians and stashed it in an offshore bank. He was thinking of leaving it to his six kids, long after he retired from the FBI and was less likely to be watched. 

In other parts of the world, the Russians could use their preferred (and cheaper) method for recruiting; ideology. But the supply of dedicated communists was drying up in the decade before the Soviet Union fell and the recruiting worldwide was more frequently done with cash. The Russians also had an advantage in that they did not have any moral scruples at all, and no pesky Congress or public opinion to crimp their style. The Russians needed these advantages, for although they were able to attract the best and brightest recruits within Russia, the KGB itself was a petty, bureaucratic and paranoid organization. These were not particularly bad traits for an espionage organization that depended so much on spies (or HUMINT; human intelligence operatives.) The Russians were always carefully monitoring the loyalty of their own agents. America's greater dependence on "technical means" (satellites and electronic eavesdropping) kept the United States well informed about what Russian military capabilities were. 

Another result of the Soviet Unions disintegration was that Russian's were even more tempted by cash. Many of their brightest agents left for more profitable civilian opportunities. For the same reason, the best recruits were no longer available. This made it easier for America to recruit Russians and buy information. Numerous long time Russian spies have thus been compromised by America buying secrets from former or current Russian intelligence officers. America apparently purchased it's own Russian mole, who turned in Hanssen. The entire file on Russias most valuable American spy was delivered to the FBI. The American mole has apparently been brought to the United States. 

Having a Perfect Spy is considerable advantage, until your enemy gets one of their own.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close