- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

By David A. Vise
Atlantic Monthly Press. $25, 269 pages, illus.

By Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman,
Little, Brown, $25.95. 247 pages

In November 2000 a courier bag crammed with KGB files arrived at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory on the third floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It contained a series of reports from an American spy known to his handlers in the old U.S.S.R. only as "B." The former KGB officer who supplied the papers asked that one particular envelope not be opened until he could visit Washington and explain the significance of the contents. Forensic technicians meanwhile processed the other materials, and FBI counterespionage agents sat around a table to listen to a cassette containing a brief conversation between an American and a man with a thick Russian accent.
The tape was old and scratchy, and the American said only a few words. But two officers immediately recognized the voice of one of their very own special agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet counterespionage specialist who was only weeks short of completing 25 years with the FBI.
Intense surveillance of Mr. Hanssen over the next weeks showed him paying regular visits to an apparent drop site a mile from his home in Vienna, Va., and snooping in a bureau computer to see if any attention was being paid to the area. Other evidence suggested strongly, but did not prove, he was a Soviet mole.
Just before Christmas, the KGB source came to Washington and explained the "do not open" envelope. It contained a shred from a plastic trash bag that had been wrapped around classified documents left at a drop site. The KGB had not attempted to lift fingerprints, but saved the fragment because "such a scrap of proof might come in handy." The fragment yielded two prints; both matched those of Mr. Hanssen. And, in due course "one of the most damaging spies ever to work against the United States" pleaded guilty to espionage charges that will put him behind bars for life without parole when he is formally sentenced on May 10.
Stated briefly, for about 10 years, off and on commencing in 1979-80, Mr. Hanssen gave the Soviets highly secret material on FBI counterespionage operations, including the names of perhaps a dozen doubled KGB officers who were executed. This material has received intensive media coverage since his arrest in February 2001. (Details of his perfidy are in an arrest affidavit that may be viewed on www.cicentre.com.) The "rest of the story" concerns (a) just who was Mr. Hanssen, and (b) how was he caught?
First of all, the man was a moral mess. Despite his staunch Catholicism, Mr. Hanssen posted lurid sexual fantasies about wife Bonnie on Internet adult sites, using his true name and accurate biographical information. Worse, he bought sub-miniature video cameras designed for surveillance and secreted them in his bedroom. The images of him making love with Bonnie mother of six children were transmitted to a guest room TV for the entertainment of a friend who frequently stayed overnight. Mr. Hanssen boasted in an Internet posting, "Bonnie may be the only teacher at the elite girl's school where she works who is also a porn star!"
Concerning the FBI's frustrating search for a suspected mole in its ranks, Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman have written by far the superior account. The veteran Time Magazine correspondents are especially adept in describing the aggressive counterespionage work that led to Mr. Hanssen's exposure. As has been well publicized, the intelligence disasters suffered in the 1980s and 1990s could not all be attributed to Central Intelligence Agency officer Aldrich Ames, who was arrested in 1994. As the authors recount, in searching for other moles, the FBI and CIA launched Operation Playback, in which agents vigorously recruited KGB officers cast adrift by the breakup of the U.S.S.R.
One of the Playback Russians told FBI and CIA contacts that case files from one American spy contained details that might be recognized by someone who knew the subject. In return for money and sanctuary, the Russian offered "an audacious plan." He walked into "the storage room containing old KGB case files, and purloined the documents and other items from the case of 'B.' Then he walked out with them (security … being, apparently, about as tight as it was at the FBI.)" He passed the materials to a CIA officer, who in turn got them to Washington. Just how he did so, an FBI official described to Elaine Shannon /Ann Blackman as "a terrific story which will never be told."
Peculiarly, David Vise skims over the counterespionage investigation and chooses to devote inordinate space to the career of FBI director Louis Freeh almost half of his book in an apparent attempt to show a good-guy/bad-guy contrast of FBI men with thinly parallel backgrounds. Both belonged to the Catholic lay group Opus Dei, both had large families. But as the other authors demonstrate, Mr. Freeh's role in the Hanssen affair was peripheral, and a rehash of Ruby Ridge/Waco/Oklahoma City, as well as hoary old Mafia cases, go far afield.
Amusingly, Mr. Vise shows adeptness at mind reading, perhaps a talent he acquired from colleague and mentor Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. He spends several pages describing what Mr. Hanssen was thinking during church services a few hours before his arrest. One can only wonder at the provenance of these passages. To his credit, Mr. Vise does have material missed by Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman, most striking being the suspicions of Mr. Hanssen's brother-in-law, Mark Wauck, also an FBI agent, that the thousands of dollars of cash Mr. Hanssen stashed around the house came from Soviet spying. Mr. Wauck so reported to superiors in the Chicago field office; he was ignored.
So how did Mr. Hanssen survive as a traitor for so long, and do such devastating damage? Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman note he was the good family man, a devout Catholic with a silver crucifix on his office wall. "He was a staunch anticommunist, a right-wing conservative, a proud FBI agent. It was a safe disguise. Perfect cover."
Perhaps. But I wonder if Mr. Hanssen could have survived in an FBI run by J. Edgar Hoover. When I came to Washington in 1967, the Washington field office had as a neighbor an extraordinarily seedy strip joint. When I met an agent friend for lunch one day he steered me across the street when we neared the place. I expressed curiosity, and he grinned and said, "Mr. Hoover doesn't want us going anywhere near that place, not even on the sidewalk." Yet Mr. Hanssen spent long lunches in a similar strip joint and even took a stripper/hooker along on a bureau trip to Hong Kong. Mr. Hoover, I suggest, would not have been pleased.

Washington writer Joseph C. Goulden just finished his 17th book, "The Lawyers."

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