America’s Most Infamous Spy in Plain Sight

BOOK REVIEW: A Spy in Plain Sight: The Inside Story of the FBI and Robert Hanssen – America’s Most Damaging Russian Spy

By Lis Wiehl / Pegasus Books

Reviewed by John Sipher

The ReviewerJohn Sipher retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations. Sipher served multiple overseas tours, as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station, in Europe, the Balkans, Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. He also ran Russian operations at headquarters. He is the co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

REVIEW — Lis Wiehl’s A Spy in Plain Sight is the latest in a series of books related to the little understood world of counterespionage (catching spies). The Cipher Brief also reviewed Howard Blum’s reassessment of the Nosenko defection in  The Spy Who Knew Too Much and Robert Baer’s The Fourth Man which speculates on potential spies inside the CIA. Of the recent books, Wiehl’s study is the most sober, meticulously researched and accurate.

Wiehl is a former federal prosecutor and legal analyst for a variety of media outlets, and the daughter of an FBI agent. In A Spy in Plain Sight she takes on the investigation that led to the arrest of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen for espionage in 2001. Although largely focused on the details of the specific case, the book also surfaces similar issues and problems that plagued counterintelligence professionals in the other recent studies; how easy it is in the world of intelligence for investigators to get lost in complexity, allow personal and professional biases to impact decisions, and ultimately make fateful choices that damage innocent victims.

In the investigation that led to Hanssen’s arrest, FBI investigators consciously avoided examining the possibility that the spy they were hunting might be one of their own, instead presuming the mole was inside the CIA. As a result, they focused their considerable investigative powers on an innocent officer in the CIA, failing to follow leads that might lead them elsewhere. It is a story of lost professional objectivity.

The book covers the outlines of the case that have been reported before — an overview of Hanssen’s odd personality and the FBI’s lax security. However, Wiehl also explores the arrogance and cronyism of an FBI culture that often acted as if its mission was to scrutinize others while acting as if their own organization was above reproach.

Following the loss of key intelligence assets and human sources to the Soviet KGB in the 1980s, the FBI and CIA began a hunt to seek the source of the damage. The probe led to the arrest of a group of spies in the 1990s, including CIA officer Aldrich Ames, FBI Agent Earl Pitts and CIA officer James Nicholson. However, it was clear to both CIA and FBI investigators that anomalies remained that could not be explained by their treachery. Additionally, CIA sources in Moscow provided leads suggesting a mole remained hidden inside the U.S. intelligence community. However, the sources provided conflicting information as to whether the mole was in the CIA or FBI.

A joint FBI-CIA special unit was set up to investigate the losses. The FBI quickly settled on a suspect at CIA who worked on some of the programs that had been leaked to Moscow. CIA officer Brian Kelley became the target of FBI searches, interviews of his family members, a directed polygraph, provocations to test his loyalty, sting operations, surveillance which included listening devices and cameras in his home, and even threats of the death penalty — all without success at confirming his guilt. The FBI even set up a worldwide program offering Russian intelligence officers a million dollars to confirm Kelley’s culpability. Despite the conflicting information from sources that the mole might be in the FBI, the Bureau refused to look inside their own house, instead directing all of its efforts at Kelley. As Wiehl lays out, once the FBI decided that Kelley was the mole, the Bureau lost any sense of objectivity, instead looking for anything to support their conclusion.

If there is a protagonist in the story it is FBI counterintelligence specialist Mike Rochford, who plays the role of both villain and (ultimately) hero. (Personal note: Mike Rochford is a friend. I worked with him inside CIA directly on this case.)

Rochford led the on-the-ground investigations throughout the 80s and 90s. A bigger than life character, he embodied the insular and brash culture of the FBI. Once he became convinced that Kelley was the spy, he – for too long – failed to question his assumptions, twisting information to fit his preconceived conclusion. Rochford had invested so much of his professional life into catching the spy that was devastating U.S. security, that it became personal.

Despite his clear institutional bias, it was also Rochford whose positive corporate relationship with the CIA led to the recruitment of a key Russian spy – codenamed Mr. Pym – who led to a breakthrough and pointed the finger at FBI Agent Robert Hanssen as the real culprit. Rochford worked with the CIA to recruit and resettle Pym and put together a sophisticated and successful plan to catch Hanssen in the act of espionage. Instituting blanket surveillance and breaking into Hanssen’s communications with the Russians, the FBI arrested Hanssen on February 18, 2001 while he was placing a dead-drop for his Russian handlers.

To his credit, Rochford is also the only FBI official who publicly admitted the FBI’s mistakes and apologized to Brian Kelley’s family.

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Hanssen was the son of a Chicago police officer. He became a certified CPA, and eventually worked in the Chicago police department prior to joining the FBI. Once inside the FBI, Hanssen became a specialist in counterintelligence, but also made himself the Bureau’s de-facto computer expert in an organization that shunned technology. He was seen as an outlier who did not fit well into the dominant culture of the FBI. He had poor social skills, wore his religion on his sleeve, and could not hide his arrogance. He had a high opinion of himself, and a low opinion of his colleagues, treating his co-workers as simpletons.

Hanssen volunteered to spy for the Soviet GRU in New York shortly after joining the FBI in the 1970s. In 1980, his wife caught him writing to his Russian handlers. At her insistence, he confessed to their local priest, who reassured the couple that they were not obligated to inform the authorities if they instead provided money to Catholic charities to atone for their crime.

Hanssen again volunteered to the Soviets in 1985, this time to the KGB. Hanssen had risen in the FBI’s counterintelligence bureaucracy and was able to steal a massive and wide-ranging trove of secrets, including information on U.S. sources in Moscow, White House National Security priorities, U.S. nuclear and counterintelligence programs, leadership protection in time of war, and even details of a billion-dollar tunnel under the Russian embassy in Washington designed to collect encrypted communications.

In a series of secret notes and regular dead drops, the KGB played to Hanssen’s ego. Hanssen passed reams of secret U.S. security information, and the Russians returned wads of cash and diamonds along with their praise. The KGB officer overseeing the relationship with Hanssen later noted that the Soviets valued his information at more than ten billion dollars. During his active spying, Wiehl characterizes Hanssen as the most dangerous man in America, and among the most destabilizing in the world given what he was providing our enemies.

Following the arrest, the public learned information about Robert Hanssen that had long been hidden or ignored. Hanssen was able to compartment disparate parts of his life. He was able to convince his co-workers that he was an avid anti-communist, while secretly working against the US. He portrayed himself as a religious zealot and good husband, while cheating on his wife. He rigged his TV so that his best friend could watch him have sex with his wife, he posted naked pictures of her on internet bulletin boards, and even discussed secretly giving her date-rape drugs so that his friend could participate in their lovemaking. He maintained a covert relationship with a stripper, paying for her dental work and apartment, giving her a diamond ring and a used Mercedes, and flying her to Hong Kong during one of his trips to the region. He later dumped her and left her destitute when she made it clear she would not allow him to control her life.

As a spy, Hanssen easily exploited the FBI’s lax security to facilitate his treachery. As Wiehl describes it, “Hanssen had the Bureau doing reconnaissance for him.” The FBI’s sensitive computer system lacked any serious protection. Hanssen routinely surfed extremely sensitive FBI databases to search his own name, address and phone number to determine if he was under scrutiny, and rigged an FBI camera to cover the sites where he made clandestine drops to the KGB. He was even able to monitor the FBI’s most sensitive investigative efforts, passing the Russians information that the FBI had mistakenly set their sights on Brian Kelley. Despite his access to national secrets, Hanssen was never polygraphed and was never required to provide a financial disclosure, which would have highlighted his bloated bank account.

Further, the FBI’s inability to protect sensitive information allowed Hanssen (and anyone else) to access information from other agencies without scrutiny. Whereas mole hunts traditionally start by determining who had access to the information that was lost, the FBI was unable to track who was given access to its most sensitive documents. As Wiehl commented, “…in the end, the greatest force multiplier Bob Hanssen had at his disposal is the fact that the FBI – one of the world’s most honored and famous investigative bodies – has almost no capacity to investigate itself.”

One of Wiehl’s most valuable contributions is to pierce the narrative that Hanssen was a “master spy” whose skill made him almost impossible to uncover – a narrative promoted by former FBI senior David Major and others to help relieve criticism aimed at the FBI. In reality, Hanssen took a number of reckless actions that were inexplicable for a trained professional seeking to hide his tracks. For example, Hanssen copied material on FBI Xerox machines and simply walked out of FBI headquarters with reams of classified documents. He used an FBI phone line and answering machine for communicating with the KGB. Seeking to re-establish contact in the 1990s after a hiatus, Hanssen approached a GRU official in Washington. Assuming it was a provocation, the Russians reported the approach to the FBI. Even Hanssen’s brother-in-law reported his concerns that Hanssen might be a spy to a senior FBI counterintelligence official, citing Hanssen’s odd behavior and unusual financial situation. Nothing was done. The Justice Department Inspector General report on the Hanssen case noted, “In sum, Hanssen escaped detection not because he was extraordinarily clever and crafty, but because of long-standing systemic problems in the FBI’s counterintelligence program and deeply flawed FBI internal security program.”

Wiehl’s book is a workman-like overview of Hanssen’s espionage and the actions that ultimately led to his arrest. If I have a criticism, it is that almost all of her sources seem to be from the FBI. Even as she criticizes the Bureau, she cannot drop an apparent anti-CIA bias. For example, she refers to the CIA as the “spy-riddled CIA,” and claims that the FBI was right to focus on the CIA since it has many more traitors and spies. The comments are unnecessary and come across as cheap shots. If she had dug a bit deeper, she would have learned that the CIA was indispensable to Hanssen’s downfall, and that without the CIA, the FBI would have taken an innocent man to trial. Indeed, Mike Rochford, who played a central role in the investigation and figures prominently in Wiehl’s narrative, was fully integrated at CIA headquarters for much of the investigation and the operation that led to Hanssen’s arrest.

Nonetheless, Wiehl’s study is a serious look at a critical counterintelligence event. Although not central themes of the book, her study highlights two counterintelligence truisms. Despite the investment in necessary investigative techniques to search for traitors, it still takes a mole to catch a mole. It is not until a spy inside the enemy camp provides information that points to a suspect, that can investigators can build a case for prosecution. Also, the Hanssen case underlines the relentless nature of Russian intelligence. Hanssen’s spying continued without hiccups through the collapse of the Soviet empire, the wild-west days of 1990s Russia and into the Putin era. In this sense, Wiehl’s book is a reminder that our intelligence and law enforcement professionals need to work cooperatively and can’t take a day off.

A Spy in Plain Sight earns an impressive rating of 3.5 out of four trench coats.

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