Friday, March 20, 2015

Spy vs. Spy in the Lead-up to 9/11

Review: The Bureau and the Mole by David Vise


For two decades, Robert Hansen was the picture of the “man in black” FBI agent: industrious, immersed in his family life, a member of the strict Catholic Opus Dei movement, openly scornful of fellow agents who drank or engaged in love affairs. He was, if somewhat self-righteous, apparently a good agent and an honest man. Yet all that time, Hansen was stealing thousands of top-secret documents and transferring them to the KGB.

David Vise’s book, The Bureau and the Mole, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of this double agent, and also the man who finally brought him down, FBI Director Louis Freeh. Coincidences between the lives of these two men abound; both were Catholic, and went to Mass each week in the same church. Their sons attended the same school.

But the differences between them are far more instructive. Freeh knew early in his life that he wanted a career in law enforcement. Hansen drifted; cursed with a critical, verbally-abusive father whose approval he craved, Hansen first studied to be a dentist to please him, even though he hated the prospect of practicing dentistry. Freeh truly wanted to be with his wife and children, to the extent that he nearly turned down the time-intensive position of FBI Director when President Clinton offered it. Hansen’s fidelity was superficialhe shared nude photographs of his wife with a friend, Jack Hoschauer, and arranged for Jack to watch him as he had sex with her. Hansen also had a protracted affair with a local stripper, to whom he gave a Mercedes and expensive jewelry, as well as cash.

And, of course, Hansen betrayed the Bureau and his country by selling secrets to the KGB. He was unique in the history of KGB operations with double agentsnot even his Russian handler, Victor Cherkashin, knew his identity. The KGB only had signals to let Hansen know when they would pay him; Hansen signaled them when he had information to pass to them.

One of the more interesting things is that Hansen does not seem to have been doing this primarily for money. His motivation, Vise shows, was hubris, the sense of being more subtle, cleverer than all the other agents. He seems to have wanted to be the dashing “secret agent” of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which was a favorite book. He openly admired “third man” Kim Philby, the British agent who defected to Russia after having betrayed that country by selling secrets.

Other agents and Bureau cases provide a rich background for the spy-versus-spy maneuvers of Hansen and Freeh. CIA agent Aldrich Ames was selling US secrets at the same time as Hansen; the FBI mounted a concerted effort to find Osama bin Laden, whom Louis Freeh considered the most dangerous terrorist at the turn of the century; the Olympic Park (Atlanta) and Murrah Building (Oklahoma City) bombings fit into the context of ATF actions at Ruby Ridge and the Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Hansen was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Among the items he had sold to the Soviets (which it was rumored had then been sold to bin Laden and al-Qaeda) was some sophisticated software used by the FBI to follow their Most Wanted criminals. If bin Laden had this software, he knew what US law enforcement knew (and what they didn’t) about al-Qaeda’s operation in the US.

In the end, Hansen’s unmasking and the extent of his betrayal would combine with many other factors to tarnish the FBI itself. As then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said,
No American has escaped injury from the espionage to which Robert Hansen pled guilty. But for the men and women of the FBI, the wound is deeper. Together, Americans have felt the shame caused by the betrayal of a countryman; the FBI has felt the pain inflicted by the betrayal of a brother.