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He was a churchgoing suburban dad--but for 15 years he allegedly sold top-secret files to Russia. The big mystery: Why?

Call him the spy who loved to take the garbage out. The spy who went to

church every Sunday, whose greatest neighborhood transgression was letting the family dog run loose without a leash in front of his Vienna, Virginia, home. Yet Robert Philip Hanssen, government officials allege, used his position in the FBI to forward hundreds of vital U.S. secrets to the Russians for more than 15 years, in the process probably sending at least two Russian double agents to their deaths and undermining major U.S. spy programs.

Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Think mild-mannered Clark Kent, who steps into a phone booth and comes out not Superman, but Spyman.

Since his arrest on February 18, Hanssen has been the focus of intense scrutiny by investigators and the media. Yet despite a flood of details about his life, experts say that the reasons the father of six betrayed his country may lie too deeply tangled in the riddle of human motivation ever to be known.

"There is a marvelous old Russian proverb," says Milt Bearden, a retired senior officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. "`Another man's soul is darkness.' Does anybody ever really know anybody else?"

Espionage experts say that spies betray their country for a variety of reasons. They may disagree with its politics or political system. They may just want the money. Or they may hate their job or be resentful about not being promoted. In some cases, it's just the adrenaline rush of leading a double life, the feeling of power that comes with keeping secrets and outsmarting other people.


In Hanssen's case, the answer might be all of the above. The voluminous record has enough evidence to support multiple theories and a host of contradictions. Born in Chicago in 1945, the son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen joined the FBI in 1976, after a stab at dental school and a stint as an accountant. The FBI soon assigned him to counterintelligence--the FBI division that tries to seek out spies operating against the U.S.

Meanwhile, he got married and began having children: three boys and three girls. All but two have left home and are in college or beyond. In fact, one theory holds that his need for cash to pay for his children's education might have driven him to betray his country. But unlike other spies, Hanssen seemed somewhat indifferent to money, and certainly didn't live a lavish life style (he drove a 1997 Ford Taurus).

Still more puzzling, although many earlier spies fervently believed that Communism was a better system of government, Hanssen was a fierce anti-Communist. Or at least he talked like one. One former friend grew so tired of hearing him rant against Communists that he dropped him. And not only was Hanssen a regular churchgoer, he was also a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group that takes a rigid view of Catholic doctrine.

Another theory suggests that the brilliant but introverted Hanssen was resentful at seeing more outgoing, though less talented, agents win promotion over him. A world-class computer nerd, he didn't possess the leadership qualities the FBI valued. Others, though, say the simple thrill of hide and seek drove him on. Says Rusty Capps, a retired FBI co-worker: "This is a guy who needed stimulation, who liked to walk on the razor's edge."

So will the real Robert Hanssen please stand up? Don't hold your breath. Without years of investigation, says Dr. Leonard Shengold, a New York psychoanalyst and author, "you can never figure out what made people the way they are with any satisfaction." Even then, he says, the answer often remains, "I don't know."

View to a Thrill and Secrets for Sale

FOCUS: The Motivations of Three Americans Who Became Spies for Moscow


To help students explore what motivated three American spies to sell U.S. secrets.

Discussion Questions:

* There is an old saying that "every man has his price." Do you believe anyone could betray the U.S. if he or she were paid enough?

* If Robert Hanssen is convicted of spying for Moscow, what punishment do you think he should receive?

* Suppose you're Daulton Lee when Chris Boyce first approaches him with the idea of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. What would you say to him?


What image comes to students' minds when they hear "spy"? Have them compare James Bond and Robert Hanssen.

Role-play: At this point, no one knows for sure what motivated Hanssen. Recall the motivations noted by experts: needing money, anger over one's job, disagreement with U.S. policies or political system, the adrenaline rush of leading a double life. If students were Hanssen's defense attorneys, which motivation would they rather explain to a jury that was deciding punishment?

Compare and Contrast: How do Hanssen, Boyce, and Lee differ? Do spies' motivations fit a pattern? What do differences among the three suggest about the difficulty of uncovering spies? Suppose the three meet in jail. What might they say to each other?

Cooperative Learning: Suppose a file is missing from CIA headquarters. How would spy-catcher students find the culprit? Have students write a one- or two-page "manual" for FBI spy catchers. What tactics would they recommend to agents whose job it is to ferret out spies?

Next, have students compare recommendations in their "manual," with this suggested list of spy-catching tactics. Discuss which might be effective, which not so effective--and whether they are morally permissible: * bugging the suspect's home and phone; * interviewing the suspect's physician; * examining the suspect's bank account; * secretly drugging the suspect to induce him or her to reveal secrets. (Remind students that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.)


CAR: Silver 1997 Ford Taurus

GIRL: Wife Bonnie Hanssen teaches religion at a Catholic girls' school; often bakes her own bread.

GADGETS: Palm Pilot III (he wanted a Palm VII, which has built-in wireless Internet) and white adhesive tape (to signal he was adhesive ready to receive a package)

CODE NAMES: B, Ramon Garcia

DRINK: Coffee

LOCALES: Hanssen dropped off computer disks and documents in suburban Virginia parks.

CLOTHES: Dark, shabby suit



CAR: Custom BMW Z8 convertible with side-mounted missiles, thermographic navigation, and titanium armor

GIRLS: Sophie Marceau as the daughter of an oil baron; Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist

GADGETS: Omega wristwatch with lasers and a rappeling cord, eyeglasses with X-ray vision, and a ski jacket with a concealed airbag


DRINK: Vodka martini (shaken, not stirred)

LOCALES: Bond's adventure begins in Bilbao, Spain, then moves to London, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul.


EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: Womanizing, saving the world

The Man With the Golden Palm Pilot

Full of code words and dead drops, the story of Robert Philip Hanssen, according to the FBI, reads like Cold War spy novel. But it still pales next to James Bond's.

Here's how the suburban dad turned alleged double agent stacks up against the most famous of fictional spies, as portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough.

--Patricia Smith
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:why 15-year public employee sold top-secret files
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 2, 2001
Previous Article:THE SPYING GAME.

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