Confessed spy Robert P. Hanssen, described by federal prosecutors as one of the most “disturbing and appalling turncoats” in U.S. history, is portrayed in Adrian Havill’s latest biography as a man conflicted by his own inner demons a staunch conservative and strict Catholic who took money from communists to send his children to Catholic school and also to buy diamonds for a stripper.
“The Spy Who Stayed Out In The Cold” is both compelling and frustrating as Mr. Havill pieces together more than 100 interviews of the veteran FBI agent’s friends, colleagues, co-workers and family members along with information from several confidential sources to answer the important questions of why and how he did it.
Hanssen pleaded guilty July 6 to spying after cutting a deal with federal prosecutors to avoid the death penalty. Looking pale and wearing green overalls with the word “Prisoner” stamped on his back, he entered the plea in a federal courthouse in Virginia, admitting to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy. In exchange for his promise to cooperate with prosecutors during ongoing interrogations by the FBI, CIA and other U.S. intelligence officials to determine the extent of the damage he caused, the government agreed to drop six counts of an indictment handed down in May and to waive the death penalty.
The 27-year FBI veteran, who spent more than half his federal law-enforcement career as a counterintelligence agent, pleaded guilty to 13 separate acts of espionage against the United States, one count of conspiracy and one count of attempted conspiracy. U.S. Attorney Ken Melson described as “shocking” Hanssen’s courtroom admission of spying against the United States. The prosecutor said Hanssen “betrayed his country, betrayed his fellow Americans for no reason other than greed, and he caused irreparable damage to the national security of the United States.”
Enter Mr. Havill, who attempts to explain why this devout Catholic a member of the conservative Opus Dei organization who worked as a trusted counterintelligence agent ended up being arrested by FBI agents on Feb. 18 as he tried to leave a package of classified documents at a drop location in a park near his Vienna home. Mr. Havill persuasively portrays Hanssen as a quiet and often dull family man who used a photographic memory in a line of work he chose for himself at a young age, probably 14. The author, who also has written the unauthorized biography of former Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and the compelling tale of “Deep Truth,” the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, convincingly shows that Hanssen didn’t do it only for the money but for the thrills.
Thrills for the man no one suspected was a thrill-seeker.
Was he smarter than his FBI colleagues? Maybe. He didn’t get caught until weeks before his last drop, some 20 years after he first began giving information to the Soviet KGB and later to its successor intelligence agency, the SVR. At the time of his arrest, he was about to retire.
The meticulous portrait Mr. Havill paints of Hanssen as a loner who reached out for thrills is both reasonable, based on the facts of the case, and interesting, considering the conflicts the FBI agent created for himself with diamonds and cars and strippers, the church, and his wife and six children. Hanssen, using the code name Ramon, received $600,000 in cash and diamonds from his Russian handlers, and the Russians placed additional funds in escrow in a Moscow bank on his behalf.
Many of the bizarre and intricate notes Hanssen and his Russian handlers exchanged are included in Mr. Havill’s tale of deception, some with eye-popping content, although they lack the specific explanations that might be expected had the book not been rushed into print. But Mr. Havill should and could have spent more time developing his connection to Opus Dei, an organization that is a secretive lay group within the Catholic Church, with more than 80,000 members worldwide. It seems paradoxical that Hanssen would spy for the Russians, a moral adversary and a satanic force in the eyes of Opus Dei.
Did Hanssen, a regular parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena Church, cultivate the perverted idea of himself as not only imperfectly a child of God, but actually godlike? As a child, Hanssen repeatedly described a recurrent dream: He would be sitting on a throne, like Emperor Ming in “Flash Gordon,” passing judgment on his enemies and he would be Ming.
Overall, the book is well worth the effort and provides a significant overview of Hanssen and his deeds, a fine-tuned tale of what motivated the veteran FBI agent to sell out his country. Mr. Havill, born in England and schooled in Canada and the United States, lives in Virginia not far from Hanssen’s Vienna home. He served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, after changing his citizenship from British to American in 1961.