Intelligence in the
By Brian Kelley
Supervisory Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen was a reprehensible traitor.
Off and on for more than 20 years, he spied for the GRU (Soviet military
intelligence), the KGB (Soviet state intelligence service), and the SVR
(Russian intelligence service). Hanssen’s espionage career came to an abrupt
end when he was arrested on 18 February 2001, just after he had placed a
tightly wrapped package containing highly classified intelligence documents
into a dead drop under a footbridge in Foxstone Park in Vienna, Virginia.
certainly one of the most complex and disturbing spies of our time. An enigmatic
loner, Hanssen spent most of his 25 years in the Bureau specializing in Soviet
intelligence matters on assignments in New York and in Washington DC—at FBI
headquarters and as the FBI’s representative to the State Department. A senior
agent once said of Hanssen, “I can’t think of a single employee who was as
disliked as Hanssen."  One of the FBI’s foremost authorities on technical intelligence, Hanssen
understood how technical applications could be brought to bear on the Bureau’s
most challenging operational initiatives. Moreover, Hanssen knew how to
navigate the bureaucratic labyrinths of the FBI, and, as a certified public
accountant, he understood especially well how work on the Bureau’s most
sensitive and high-profile cases were funded.
most damaging spy in US history, Hanssen repeatedly volunteered his services to
Moscow’s intelligence services, cloaking his activities in a fictitious persona
(Ramon Garcia) and adamantly refusing to reveal to his handlers the identity of
his genuine employer. By all accounts, Hanssen was arrogantly confident in his
ability to “play the spy game” according to the rules he created and employed.
He gambled that he could deceive the FBI and the Russians and avoid
being compromised by any US agent that might have penetrated Moscow’s services.
questions exist about Hanssen’s rationale for acting as he did for as long as
he did. But nothing has been debated as vigorously as the reasons why he was
able to elude detection for two decades. Attempts to confer on Hanssen the
mythological status of a “master spy” (e.g., CBS’s made-for-television movie Masterspy:
The Robert Hanssen Story) are not supported by the facts of the case, and
the key question remains: Why did it take so long for the FBI to catch a mole
that had operated with impunity within its ranks for such a long period of
Breach, a fast-paced movie directed by
Billy Ray, attempts to answer some of these perplexing questions. The movie
covers only the last six weeks of Hanssen’s two-decade-long espionage career,
opening in the late fall of 2000, when Hanssen first came under the investigative
microscope. According to David Wise, author of one of the best of several
accounts of Hanssen’s life and perfidy, a successful joint CIA-FBI initiative
obtained a package containing a portion of an operational file pertaining to a
mole deeply embedded in the US counterintelligence community.  In addition to the file, the package contained three other exceptional pieces
of evidence: an audio tape containing two brief telephone conversations between
the mole and a KGB interlocutor in 1986, copies of letters written by the mole
during 1985–88, and two partial fingerprints lifted from a plastic garbage bag
the mole had used to wrap a delivery to Moscow. Wise wrote that the purchase
price of the package was $7 million.
It did not
take the FBI long to piece together the shards of evidence and come to a
stunning conclusion: The mole was one of their own special agents. Equally
shocking to the FBI was the realization that the person its investigators had
firmly believed to be the mole, a senior CIA counterintelligence specialist who
had been the object of an extraordinarily invasive counterespionage
investigation over the previous five years, was innocent. Despite the absence
of evidence, the FBI had convinced CIA officials that it had good reason to
believe that one of CIA’s officers had been responsible for compromising more
than 50 compartmented FBI operations against the Soviet and Russian
intelligence services operating in the United States during the period
should have seriously questioned its conclusion that the CIA suspect was a KGB
spy and considered opening different lines of investigation. The squad
responsible for the case, however, was so committed to the belief that the CIA
suspect was a mole that it lost a measure of objectivity and failed to give
adequate consideration to other possibilities. In addition, while FBI
management pressed for the investigation to be completed, it did not question
the factual premises underlying it. Similarly, the CIA's SIU did not serve as
an effective counterbalance to the FBI, because it was not an equal partner in
—DOJ IG Report, 2003.
five years, the FBI invested a staggering amount of technical and human
resources to try to obtain evidence to corroborate its suspicions against that
officer. He was placed under 24-hour surveillance, his home and work spaces
were covertly searched, and computers and telephones in both his home and
office were put under technical surveillance. Even an elaborate “false flag”
operation was run against him—it proved no guilt; the officer dutifully
reported the unsolicited contact. On top of that, the officer was subjected to
a ruse polygraph administered by a senior FBI polygrapher.
The results of
all these efforts revealed nothing pointing to the officer’s guilt. Moreover,
the senior FBI agent who administered the polygraph was adamant that the
examination determined without a doubt that the alleged CIA spy registered a
“no deception indicated” response. With nothing to substantiate contentions
that the CIA officer was a “master spy” who somehow managed numerous acts of
treason without leaving behind any clues and who always stayed a step ahead of
their efforts, frustrated FBI counterespionage investigators took to calling
the officer the “Evil Genius.”
information contained in the acquired package, while damning to Hanssen, was
only enough to support charging Hanssen with relatively minor offenses, and the
FBI wanted to build an ironclad case that would lead to the death penalty. To
do this, Hanssen had to be caught in flagrante in an operational activity
involving his Russian intelligence handlers. Time was of the essence, as
Hanssen was facing mandatory retirement in less than six months.
To buy time,
the FBI concocted a plan to lure Hanssen back to FBI headquarters from his
position at the State Department. Knowing Hanssen’s frustration with and
professional disdain for the FBI’s antiquated computer systems, the FBI created
a bureaucratic entity called the “Information Assurance Division,” complete
with a well-appointed office, and offered him a promotion to the senior
executive service. The FBI also offered to waive Hanssen’s mandatory retirement
if he agreed to take the apparently prestigious position. Hanssen agreed to the
challenge and was told that the FBI had already selected a young FBI
surveillance specialist, Eric O’Neill, to be his first employee. What Hanssen
did not know was that O’Neill had been assigned to report on Hanssen’s
activities inside their office.
Breach compellingly portrays much of the
above. As the movie opens, O’Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, is summoned to
FBI Headquarters and informed that he is being reassigned from surveillance
duty to an office job in the Hoover Building. Senior FBI officials inform
O’Neill that he will work for a Special Agent named Robert Hanssen to monitor
his questionable sexually “deviant” behavior, which O’Neill is told “could be a
huge embarrassment to the Bureau. 
On his first
day of duty, O’Neill greets a scowling Hanssen, portrayed exceptionally by
Chris Cooper, who immediately establishes his authority by telling O’Neill that
he can call him either “sir” or “boss.” Hanssen dismissively refers to O’Neill
as a “clerk,” a derisive label that has had a long history in the historically
caste conscious FBI.
initially disdainful of the young support assistant, Hanssen soon begins to
reach out to O’Neill because of their common interests in technology,
computers, and Catholicism. Taking O’Neill under his wing, Hanssen squires the
young officer on a tour of some of the FBI’s working areas. They pass a vault
with a sign reading “Restricted Access Area: Special Compartmented Information
Facility” (SCIF) and as they move down the corridor have the following
know what is going on behind those doors?
There are analysts looking for a spy inside the Intelligence Community. Highest
clearances but there are no CIA officers in there. You know why?
Because it is a CIA officer we’re trying to build a case against. Now, could
the mole be someone from the Bureau and not CIA? Of course. But are we actively
pursuing that possibility? Of course not. Because we are the Bureau and the
Bureau knows all.
innocent CIA officer alluded to in that dialogue, I felt chills through my body
when I saw that scene, and it triggered immediate flashbacks to that two-year
period in my life, when the FBI intimated to me, my family, and friends that I
would be arrested and charged with a capital crime I had not committed.
The scene and
the dialogue in Breach were fictional, but official retrospectives on the
Hanssen case suggest that the scene was a completely apt characterization of
the perspective of the FBI team investigating the case. (See passage from the
Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report on facing page.)
In this brief
segment, director Billy Ray perfectly captured the arrogant, snarling Hanssen
flaunting his “I’ve got a secret” attitude that he inflicted on those he felt
were below his intellectual station in life. As I was later to learn from many
who worked with him, Hanssen’s frequent sarcastic comments were often laced
with veiled references showing utter disdain for what he believed to be the
FBI’s hopeless ineptitude in the field of counterintelligence.
What the scene
also revealed was that even though he was assigned to a backwater position in
1995, Hanssen knew details of the highly compartmented hunt for the alleged CIA
mole. The FBI later determined that, starting in the spring of 1999, Hanssen
had made thousands of unauthorized probes into the FBI’s investigative records
system called the Automated Case Support System (ACS) and was preparing to
reenter the spy world he had abruptly left in December 1991, after the collapse
of the Soviet Union.  To ensure that the FBI was not tracking him, he had taken to querying the
databases for his name and home address. In one of his forays into the ACS he
stumbled onto what should have been highly compartmented reporting detailing
the FBI’s intensive investigation of me. His later inquiries at FBI
headquarters yielded my name as the subject of the investigation.
I first met
Hanssen in the early 1980s, when we worked together on some sensitive
counterintelligence matters of common interest to the FBI and CIA. We once
lived on the same street and took official trips together. He once visited my
office at CIA, when he was negotiating the placement on my staff of one of his
senior analysts. I was told he was shocked to learn that the FBI believed I was
a master spy. Ironically, he downloaded relevant investigative reports on me
from the ACS and included them as part of his initial communication with the
SVR when he alerted them that “Ramon Garcia” was back in the game.  For more than a year and a half, Hanssen passed copies of the FBI’s
investigative reports on me to the SVR via his customary dead drops. (He would
later claim that he was trying to “save” me.)
People who have lived events that are about to be portrayed in films have
every reason to worry about what the films will contain. I was no different.
Some months before the film was finished, a contact in Hollywood sent me a copy
of the original screen play. I felt it was appallingly poorly written, and in
my mind, the movie had the makings of a disaster as bad as the much ballyhooed The
Good Shepherd, which promised much but delivered little.  With some trepidation, I
attended a pre-launch showing of Breach as the guest of a media
acquaintance. I fully expected the movie to sacrifice reality to a skewed
Tinsel Town vision of real life. To my great surprise, 20 minutes into the
movie, I realized I was very wrong.
showing, I was introduced to Director Ray, who was interested in my opinion of
his production. He was pleased to hear my positive response. After I remarked
on the SCIF scene, he told me he knew the basic outline of my story but could
write no more about me than was contained in the scene: “I could only make a
passing reference to your case due to time and story line restrictions. What
happened to you was so powerful that it would have overwhelmed the story if I
tried to bring your case into the film any more than I did.” I told Ray that I
fully understood and completely agreed.
He asked me if
there were any noticeable mistakes in the movie. I laughed and told him the
first mistake I saw was when the movie opened with a clip of the press
conference at which Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Hanssen’s arrest.
I pointed out that the crawler used to show the date of the press conference
was off by a day. Ray looked crestfallen and told me he realized the mistake
just hours before final production and said it had been too late to make a
correction. He said he would ensure the correct date was used on the DVD
version—and he did.
mentioned scenes in the movie involving Hanssen’s sexual behavior. The movie
suggested that some of his activities were discovered before his arrest, but in
reality investigators did not learn of them until after Hanssen’s arrest. These
included Hanssen’s bizarre one-year relationship with an “exotic dancer,” his
clandestine filming of his love-making with his unsuspecting wife, and,
finally, his posting on the Internet of soft porn stories in his true name. Ray
acknowledged that the information came after Hanssen’s arrest, but in this case
he claimed literary license to make sure he captured this aspect of the man.
Later, Ray and
I were to have several discussions and E-mail exchanges about scenes that
struck me as particularly compelling. One such scene involved dialogue in which
O’Neill’s supervisor unburdened herself to him, saying:
A task force
was formed to find out who was giving them [KGB officers who had been recruited by
the FBI] up. We had
our best analysts pouring over data for years trying to find the mole but we
could never quite identify him. Guess who we put in charge of the task force?
He was smarter than all of us.
I can live with that part, but the idea that my entire career had been a
waste of time is the part I hate. Everything I’ve done since I got to this
office, everything we were paid to do, he was undoing it. We all could have
just stayed home.
commentary sums up the feelings of intelligence officials who must come to
grips with the knowledge that someone very close to them has become a traitor.
Colleagues who worked with traitors such as Rick Ames, Jim Nicholson, Earl
Pitts, and Ana Montes all had the same sick feeling upon learning that someone
they trusted had breached their trust.
In a closing
scene, Hanssen has a discussion with a senior FBI official as he is being
transported to jail after his arrest:
imagine sitting in a room with a bunch of your colleagues, everyone trying to
guess the identity of a mole and all the while it is you they’re after. It must
be very satisfying, don’t you think?
The scene was
fiction, but it, too, was very believable and haunting. No one should feel
sorry for the likes of Hanssen, who caused the deaths of several Soviet
intelligence officers. We must be reminded of two comments in Hanssen’s
Even though Aldrich Ames compromised each of them [executed Soviet Intelligence officers], and thus shares
responsibility for their executions, this in no way mitigates or diminishes the
magnitude of Hanssen’s crimes. Their blood is on his hands.…That we did not
lose the Cold War ought blind no one to the fact that Robert Philip Hanssen,
for his own selfish and corrupt reasons, placed every American citizen in
harm’s way. 
Breach is not a perfect movie but it
hammers home how precious our freedoms are and how vulnerable we are to
potential traitors within.
1. I. C. Smith. Inside: A Top G-Man Exposes Spies,
Lies, and Bureaucratic Bungling Inside the FBI. Nashville, TN: Nelson
Current, 2004, 301.
2. David Wise. SPY: The Inside Story of How the
FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America. New York: Random House, 2003.
Reviewed in Hayden Peake, “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf,” Studies in
Intelligence 48, no. 3 (2003)
3. Many of the details of this case were published in
the unclassified US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General
report, A Review of the FBI’s Performance in Deterring, Detecting, and
Investigating the Espionage Activities of Robert Philip Hanssen, August
2003. Fuller accounts were published in Secret and Top Secret versions.
4. In the commentary on the film the accompanies its
CD release, O’Neill says that in reality he was told that Hanssen was the
subject of a counterintelligence investigation, but he was not told of the
acquisition of evidence against him.
5. US Department of Justice, Commission for Review of
FBI Security Programs (Webster Commission), A Review of FBI Security
Programs, 31 Mar 2002.
6. USDOJ, OIG Report, 15.
7. See David Robarge et al., “Intelligence in Recent
Public Media, The Good Shepherd,” Studies in Intelligence 51, no.
8. www.fas.org/irp/ops/ci/hanssen_senmemo.pdf, 10 May