The Two Lives of Robert Hanssen
How did Hanssen maintain his two personae, which even when examined closely, both appear to be his true self?
A Spy in Plain Sight: The Inside Story of the FBI and Robert Hanssen, America’s Most Damaging Russian Spy, Lis Wiehl (Pegasus, 2022), 336 pages.
Out of all the lingering scandals in Washington, D.C., I can’t think of one that puzzles people more than the case of Robert Hanssen. He was a devoted father, a faithful Catholic, and a lifelong public servant. At the same time, he was a sexual deviant, a pathological liar, and the FBI intelligence chief who for than thirty years sold upwards of a million dollars worth of American secrets to the Soviets and was responsible for the death of more than two hundred thirty American assets embedded in Russian intelligence. To this day, he holds the ignominious distinction from the Justice Department of having perpetrated “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” And since his arrest in 2001, his double life has been the subject of intense media speculation, numerous books, and a critically acclaimed film all concerned with the same question. How did Hanssen maintain his two personae, which even when examined closely, both appear to be his true self?
The answer is frustratingly simple, I think, and that is why most people refuse to accept it. Both personae were equally real. Hanssen really believed he was the faithful Catholic father of six. And he really believed he was a ruthless Russian spy. He managed both lives for so long because he possessed what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” That’s not odd at all, especially in the Washington area, where maintaining some sense of dignity for your family often means sacrificing your own self-identity. Robert Novak, no stranger to scandal himself, realized it too immediately after Hanssen was unmasked, writing in his column that Hanssen simply lived two coequal existences, “one as a patriotic, religious American and the other as spy of the century. Any other explanation fails.”
But for most people this is not good enough. Every few years, it seems, someone has a new theory or a new batch of interviews reexamining Hanssen’s case. The latest effort, A Spy in Plain Sight, comes from Lis Wiehl, a legal analyst who appears frequently on the major cable networks. She focuses mainly on the dysfunction within the FBI in the late 1980s (Hanssen’s most productive period) as well as the investigation that led a joint team of CIA and FBI agents to Hanssen only after months of targeting the wrong man. As for Hanssen himself, Wiehl explains his motives as a bundle of psychiatric conditions. He had an inferiority complex, she writes, which is why he felt the need to outdo his colleagues on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He had delusions of grandeur, she adds, pointing to a childhood love of James Bond films in justification. And, she concludes, he had a compartmentalized brain, which is how he managed to keep his spying a secret.
It is at this point that the book breaks down. Wiehl scored interviews with the likes of Louis Freeh and George Tenet, but in crucial ways her story is scantily sourced. She has nothing from Robert Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, who understandably does not generally answer media requests, or from fellow parishioners at Saint Catherine of Siena, the family’s church, or from anyone in the Washington-area involved with Opus Dei, the Catholic personal prelature to which Hanssen belonged. For the sake of the story, that is a shame. Wiehl is left with an incomplete understanding of politically conservative Catholicism in Northern Virginia, and more importantly, of what made Hanssen’s double life possible.
Her faulty grasp of Opus Dei, for instance, becomes apparent within the book’s first few pages. In a discussion of the Heights school, where Hanssen sent his sons, Wiehl refers to Opus Dei as reflecting “some of the most old guard strains within Catholicism.” This is not the case at all. In fact, Opus Dei is considered rather liberal by many militantly traditionalist Catholics. The group’s founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva, taught that everyone—not just people in religious orders—is called to sanctify the modern world. Most people can do this by treating their work as a prayer and offering everything their profession throws at them back to God. In the United States, Escriva was palatable to the many Catholic office workers, government officials, and other white collar professionals who realized that their jobs and suburban lives could quickly give way to decadence and despair without rigorous spiritual discipline.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
The fact that Opus Dei also appealed to Hanssen is unsurprising. He was devoted to his work and believed that it should be of the highest quality. And, if we can think with Fitzgeraldian logic for a moment, it also may have helped him justify his espionage. Up close, intelligence is often somewhat abstract. There are Russians and Americans, but to many of the mid-level techies actually working at the FBI there are mainly inefficiencies and incongruities. Hanssen was a master of finding these. Once he hacked a colleague’s computer to demonstrate that the department’s system was faulty. After he was arrested, he told a psychiatrist that when he was passing files to the Russians, he was doing something very similar, simply pointing out their own errors. He did good work for them, and his compensation allowed him to educate his children and keep up with his debts. What is more, perhaps he thought, he offered it up to God. Escriva recommended that office workers always keep a small crucifix on their desks to remind themselves of Christ’s sacrifice and his constant presence in their lives. Wherever Hanssen worked, he hung a silver crucifix on the wall.
This manner of magical thinking is also probably what animated Hanssen in one of the most lurid episodes of his career. Sometime in early 1991, while hanging out at a strip club on M Street, he befriended Priscilla Galey, a dancer whom he showered with gifts. But, according to Galey, he never tried to sleep with her, not even when he took her on a business trip to Hong Kong. (They stayed at separate hotels.) He was trying to convert her to Catholicism. Here, Hanssen’s actions had nothing to do with spying, but he operated under the same wobbly principle: even sordid business, perhaps, can be made holy by the right man.
All of this is to say that even a man of first-rate intelligence doesn’t necessarily have a coherent moral code. After Hanssen was arrested, an interrogator asked why he betrayed his country. He is reported to have replied, “Why did I do it? Oh geez, I don’t know.” The interrogator didn’t believe him, and very few other people do either. But I don’t see why it’s not a reasonable explanation. Hanssen did eventually express contrition and his family made peace with him. He did monstrous things, but mostly, it seems, because he had convinced himself that they were simply technical exercises. Hanssen’s moral mistake cost hundreds of lives, and it was entirely avoidable. I can only imagine that a blinding sense of pride in his own abilities prevented him from noticing it himself. After all, everything he needed to recognize his dereliction was in one of his favorite books, The Way, a collection of Escriva’s spiritual advice—if only he had listened. It is fitting then that Hanssen ignored Escriva’s observation about overly clever men: “When a layman sets himself up as an expert on morals he often goes astray: laymen can only be disciples.”