I spent a great afternoon eating poboys and getting caught up with an old friend who is a TV news producer back East. We’ve known each other since our Washington days in the early 1990s, when we were both getting started in our careers. He’s passing through town visiting relatives for the holidays.
We were talking at one point about the lack of trust people have in the news media these days, and both agreed that Donald Trump is only exploiting something that was already there. We also agreed that you can’t separate people’s distrust of the news media from its distrust of almost all major institutions in American life.
Our conversation brought to mind one of the weirdest and most disturbing things that I experienced in my career. It was a story that my friend, in his job, also reported on at the time: the 2001 arrest of senior FBI agent Robert Hanssen as a Russian mole. If you are, like me, a fan of the F/X spy series “The Americans,” this would be like the Stan Beeman character being secretly in the employ of the Soviets.
At the time of Hanssen’s arrest, I was a news columnist for the New York Post. A year earlier, pro-lifers were very concerned about then-AG Janet Reno’s decision to investigate pro-life organizations as potential domestic terrorists. Some official documents had been revealed indicating that this was going on. I received a tip from a very well connected Catholic church source who told me there were senior people at the FBI who were resisting what they believed was the Clinton administration’s attempt to use the agency to go after enemies of abortion rights. This source put me in touch with a friend of his: a very conservative pro-life Catholic FBI special agent named Robert Hanssen. My church source vouched for Hanssen. Besides, he was high up in the FBI, which is about as golden a source as you can hope for.
When I reached out to him by phone, Hanssen told me that the Clinton Justice Department was indeed trying to get to pro-lifers, but the FBI was resisting this internally. Citing “an FBI source,” I wrote about this in a column that got passed around a lot.
A year later, I found out that my source was indeed very well placed inside the FBI — and had been a Soviet agent since 1985. He had been living a double life as a rigidly conservative Catholic suburban dad, but was secretly a sexual sicko whose espionage was allegedly connected to his perversions. Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei, and attended a suburban Catholic parish where other Washington elites, including Justice Antonin Scalia and then-FBI director Louis Freeh, worshipped. It was the perfect cover. In fact, Hanssen’s own wife had no idea what he was doing, and was betrayed by him in intensely personal ways.
I tell you that personal background to point out that as a conservative Catholic opinion columnist, I was exactly the kind of journalist who was prepared to believe anything Hanssen told me. Even if I had not been a conservative or a Catholic, there would have been no reason to disbelieve such a highly-placed FBI source. Hell, the guy even fooled the FBI. I found out later that Hanssen was also a source for at least one other media conservative columnist, one with a much higher profile than I had.
All of this happened before the age of social media. If I were a TV screenwriter, I would love to develop a spy series set in the present day — maybe a successor to “The Americans” — in which a small cabal of Russian agents well placed in Washington institutions manipulated “fake news” to destabilize the United States. Hanssen manipulated my trust in fellow conservative Catholics, as well as in an institution like the FBI, and used me to undermine trust in the Clinton administration. It was ultimately not that big a deal — I don’t think I ever wrote another column about this particular story — but it easily could have been, had Hanssen wanted it to be. Experienced journalists have a more sensitive b.s. detector than I had at that stage in my career, but the other guy (that I know of) who used Hanssen’s information was a much savvier and experienced journalist than I was, and he got taken too.
In the end, Hanssen’s job as a Russian spy wasn’t to manipulate people like us. But if it had been, Hanssen could have done considerable damage. Today, in a Wild West information environment that includes social media, and a public that is predisposed to believe only what it wants to believe, a Hanssen figure inside the FBI, the CIA, or other agencies of government, and even the Church (Hanssen’s credibility with me depended greatly on his status as a solidly conservative Catholic) could do incredible damage by playing journalists and working social media.
The series I imagine would be only partly about spycraft. It would be as much about the nature of politics and media in an era of widespread institutional mistrust and fake news. An editor friend once suggested to me that it is very hard for any institution to hold on to its authority in an age of radical transparency, when every flaw stands to be exposed and exploited. Now, imagine a Russian espionage operation in which media-savvy moles buried deeply within Washington institutions — political, military, intelligence, legal, media, even religious — had this kind of material to work with. Imagine what they could do within our radically decentralized and anti-hierarchical media environment, in which professional standards mean less than ever, and entities like Wikileaks and Breitbart can be major political players. “The Americans,” in earlier seasons, had a recurring character who was a former leftist journalist turned celebrated right-wing firebrand, but who was secretly on the KGB payroll, but they never developed that storyline.
What kind of media figure would be a Russian asset today? What kind of institutional figures would be Russian assets precisely because of the radically shifting media environment, and the loss of institutional trust in American life — and their understanding of how to manipulate them? How would they operate? Just imagine the creative possibilities.
That would be a hell of a show. Somebody should make it, especially now that “The Americans” is filming its last season. I need something like it to watch.