Robert Philip Hanssen, double agent, 1944-2023


When authorities arrested Robert Hanssen, the FBI’s most high profile double agent had just one question for his colleagues: “What took you so long?”

Hanssen, who was found dead this week in his cell in a Colorado supermax prison, was serving out a life sentence after being found guilty of spying for Moscow for more than $1.4mn, for more than two decades.

Hanssen’s case was dubbed “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history” in a government report. He compromised more than 50 FBI human sources (including several who were later executed), handed over thousands of classified documents and revealed top secret intelligence gathering techniques as well as the US strategy for responding to nuclear conflict.

Outwardly, Hanssen was a suburban father and patriot, who drove his six children around in old cars and was devoted to Opus Dei, a conservative movement within the Catholic church. But the spy led a secret life which inspired half a dozen books and several films for television and cinema.

“What made him so egregious was that he was in the rare category of people who had great access . . . and he so blatantly betrayed that trust,” said Paul McNulty, a former senior Justice Department official who oversaw the case.

The son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen dropped out of dental school and joined the FBI in 1976. He emulated former director J Edgar Hoover by wearing dark suits, but his quick temper and dour manner made him unpopular.

Hanssen first started working for Soviet military intelligence in the late 1970s, helping to blow the cover of top US double agent Dmitri Polyakov, a Soviet general who was later executed. His work in US counterintelligence gave him access to classified information and an understanding of just how poorly the FBI guarded its nascent computer databases.

The agent’s treachery extended to his personal life too. He allowed a friend to spy on himself and his wife Bonnie while they had sex, and he struck up a bizarre friendship with a stripper who he took on trips and bought gifts for, even as he lectured her about going to church.

Hanssen went dormant in the early 1980s, after Bonnie caught him trying to hide some papers in their home in Scarsdale, New York. She confronted him, made him meet with their priest and donate the Soviet spying proceeds to charity.

But as his FBI career stalled, Hanssen started working for Moscow again. His handler lavished praise and money on him, playing on his need for acceptance. 

“There was certainly a financial benefit, but Hanssen was far more complex psychologically. He held very conservative views and was deeply religious but at the same time, he betrayed his country. It was a very strange set of competing beliefs and behaviours,” said Preston Burton, one of his defence attorneys.

The stacks of cash that Hanssen kept around the house eventually roused the suspicions of his brother in law, who also worked for the FBI. He reported Hanssen to their superiors in the early 1990s. But nothing happened.

FBI investigators leave the house of Robert Hanssen in Vienna, Virginia, in 2001 © Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hanssen stepped back from spying for nearly a decade. When he got back in touch in 1999, the Russians were ecstatic, writing “dear friend: welcome!”

By now, the FBI were on the trail of a superspy who had been passing thousands of documents to Russia since at least 1985. After mistakenly focusing on a CIA officer, they linked a fingerprint on a garbage bag used for document drops to Hanssen. He was moved to a bogus job in a bugged office, and assigned an assistant who was secretly tasked with keeping an eye on him.

By February 2001, Hanssen, whose every move was being monitored by a team of 300, was spooked. He wrote a letter to his Russian handlers warning that “something has aroused the sleeping tiger”, saved it on an encrypted computer disk and wrapped in a garbage bag, along with classified documents.

After he dropped the package in a Virginia park, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage, and agreed to talk about his betrayal to escape the death penalty.

During his debriefing, Hanssen was scathing about the FBI’s internal security, saying “It was pathetic . . . What I did was criminal, but it’s criminal negligence.”

“In some ways, Hanssen is the architect of the modern FBI,” said Eric O’Neill, who wrote a book about his work as the young agent assigned to win Hanssen’s confidence. “He exposed the many flaws of the FBI, and the FBI rebuilt in a way that would never allow another Hanssen.”