On the afternoon of 18 February last year, Robert Hanssen, a 25- year veteran special agent with the FBI, pulled up in a small, gravel car-park close to his home in the suburbs of Washington. He climbed out of the silver Ford Taurus, collected a black plastic bin- bag from the car and walked towards the wooden sign reading Foxstone Park where, to one of its upright posts, he stuck a small strip of white tape, no more than a few centimetres in length.
This done, Hanssen turned away and walked the few yards to the footbridge over the shallow water of Wolftrap Creek, which runs through the park. On the wooden planks that cross the slow-moving stream, he reached down and stashed the rubbish bag he was carrying - jamming it up underneath the slats. He then walked back towards his car. But before he could reach his vehicle Hanssen was surrounded. With weapons drawn, agents from the FBI encircled their colleague, telling him to "freeze", and then pulled his hands behind his back, snapping handcuffs shut over his wrists. Hanssen appeared to almost gloat as he looked at them. "What took you so long?" he smirked.
The arrest of Robert Hanssen on that cold afternoon marked the end of the clandestine career of probably the most dangerous and damaging double- agent ever to betray the FBI. For more than two decades Hanssen passed to the Russians a huge and unparalleled wealth of US secrets that not only compromised vast areas of American operations but may have helped lead to the death of two spies working for Washington. A recent review of the damage perpetrated by Hanssen concluded that he betrayed the identities of more than 50 people spying for the US and forced the FBI to halt the operation of a number of projects - among them the use of a secret spy tunnel built beneath the Russian Embassy in Washington.
Even on that winter afternoon in northern Virginia when he was finally arrested, the married family man was selling his country's secrets: to Hanssen and his Russian handlers the footbridge across the quiet stream was code-named Dead Drop Ellis, and the plastic bag he had stashed beneath the planks contained classified FBI documents. The tape was a signal to his Russian handlers that he had made the drop. Nearby, in another rubbish bag, investigators later found $50,000 (pounds 34,500) in cash and a note of thanks from the Russians.
Within the next two weeks, the story of Hanssen will reach some sort of culmination. On 10 May at a Federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, Hanssen is due to be sentenced to life imprisonment with no option of parole, under a deal hammered out between his lawyers and the prosecutors which saw him plead guilty to 13 counts of espionage in order to avoid the death penalty. That sentence will also mark the end of a story almost too unlikely to believe and so full of internal contradictions that it seems Hanssen ought only to exist as a character from the pages of fiction.
Here, after all, was a staunch Republican and anti-Communist who approached the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and offered them some of his country's most classified secrets; here was a deeply religious and God-fearing man who could launch into an illicit relationship with a nightclub stripper; here was a father- of-six who had the love of his family and yet sought affection from his anonymous handlers in Moscow while betraying his wife's trust in the most explicit and degrading fashion.
But Hanssen's is not simply the story of a good spy turned bad. Details that have emerged since his arrest reveal weaknesses at the heart of the US's secret world that allowed such trust and responsibility to be placed in a man who left many clues that he was mentally unfit to reciprocate that trust. At a very basic level, the story of Hanssen's treachery has also sickened most Americans - more so than ever following the attacks on 11 September and the revelation that some of those fighting for the Taliban were US citizens. "I don't want to say anything bad about him," one of Hanssen's closest neighbours says, "but I think they ought to hang him."
Determining where to begin the story of Robert Hanssen is no simple matter. One may as well start on the day in 1980 when he was confronted in the basement of his home - then in Scarsdale, New York - by his wife, Bonnie.
At that time Hanssen had been an FBI agent for four years, a position for which he was accepted after a stint with the Chicago Police Department. It was a job he had always wanted. After graduating from business school, Hanssen had defied his bullying and abusive father to join an internal investigation unit of the Chicago force. It was the sort of position that would have been anathema to most new recruits, but to Hanssen - with a love of secrecy and buoyed by an inherent sense of his own superiority - it was ideal. From there, the move to the FBI seemed natural and, in January 1976, when he started its 16-week intensive-training course, he did not hesitate to swear his allegiance of loyalty to the bureau.
Hanssen was a huge fan of the late J Edgar Hoover, the controversial director of the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972. Colleagues have recall-ed how he admired Hoover's sense of elitism and near-despotic rule. He even took to wearing dark suits and white shirts, which agents were encouraged to wear during Hoover's reign. As a result of his clothes and his dour manner, Hanssen earned the nickname The Mortician.
By 1980 Hanssen was working in the FBI's counter-intelligence section, focussing on the Soviet Union. It was a job that, at least initially, gave him a sought-after sense of purpose as well as access to secret information. For his wife it was a less attractive arrangement: the couple were struggling financially with the cost of living in New York and after Hanssen had admitted cheating on her soon after they were married, Bonnie became convinced he was having another affair.
So that day, when Bonnie surprised her husband as he sat hunched over a letter he was writing in their basement, she was certain that he was corresponding with a secret lover. She was only partly correct. In fact, Hanssen told Bonnie, the letter was correspondence to agents from the Russian military intelligence unit, Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie (GRU), to whom he had sold secrets. They were worthless documents, Hanssen lied, for which he had received $20,000 (pounds 13,800). In fact, Hanssen had revealed to the Russians the identity of a valuable double-agent who had spied for Washington for more than 20 years. The agent, General Dimitri Polyakov, was subsequently recalled to Moscow and executed.
Hanssen's wife, presumably feeling a mixture of both shock and relief, wanted to know what they were going to do. Was he going to admit everything to his superiors? Was he going to stop his contact with the Russians? Hanssen promised he would cease his behaviour but that he could not afford to lose his job - something that was certain if he confessed to the FBI. So instead the couple went to church.
The Reverend Robert Bucciarelli is man used to hearing all sorts of confessions. But the one he would hear from Robert and Bonnie Hanssen that day in 1980 was probably like no other. Hanssen told his story to the New York priest, who initially proposed that he return the $20,000 to the Soviets and hand himself in to the authorities. After considering the matter some more the priest came upon another plan: Hanssen would keep his confession private, pray for forgiveness, cease all contact with the Russians and donate the money he received to charity.
Bonnie thought the matter had ended there. Hanssen told his wife that he had donated the money in small installments to charities run by Mother Teresa, though the charities have since said they have no record of any such donations. While still shocked by her husband's behaviour, it is perhaps significant that she was prepared to forgive him again, ready to put aside thoughts about what her husband had really been doing. It is significant too that the Hanssens went to Reverend Bucciarelli.
Bucciarelli is a member of Opus Dei, the secretive and elitist Catholic movement that some have criticised for operating almost like a cult. Bonnie was a member of Opus Dei - which perhaps has only 3,000 followers in the US - and she had persuaded her husband to become a member. Later, the couple would join the Church of St Catherine of Sienna, close to their home in Vienna, Virginia. It was also the church attended by a number of FBI officers, including the then director Louis Freeh, the man who would ultimately snare Hanssen.
But for all his promises, for all his pious confessions, Hanssen was not through betraying his country. Indeed, he had barely started. In 1985, with a sixth child on the way and the family again in financial difficulty, Hanssen decided to renew his acquaintance with the Russians. This time he went straight to the top, contacting by letter the KGB's number-two ranking agent in Washington, Viktor Cherkashin, and setting out a series of contact rules along with a promise to furnish him soon with a box of classified documents in exchange for $100,000 (pounds 70,000). "They are, for certain, the most sensitive and highly compartmentalised projects of the US intelligence community," wrote Hanssen. "All are originals. To aid in verifying their authenticity, please recognise for our long-term interests that there are a limited number of persons with this array of clearances. As a collection they point to me. I trust that an officer of your experience will handle them appropriately."
To further establish his credibility, Hanssen provided the names of three Soviet agents recruited by the US. Unknown to Hanssen, their identities had already been revealed by the CIA traitor, Aldrich Ames. All three were recalled to Moscow, where two were executed and the third sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp.
Cherkashin and his colleagues played Hanssen brilliantly. Aware from the letters that followed from Hanssen that they were dealing with a man seeking friendship, they responded in kind. In all of their correspondence with Hanssen they praised his intelligence and taste, asked after his well-being and assured him that additional payments they had agreed had been made to a bank account in Moscow. They referred to him as "friend". Hanssen clearly appreciated what he wished to consider a real friendship. "I also appreciate your courage and perseverance in the face of generically reported bureaucratic obstacles," he wrote in one letter. In another he added as a PS: "Your `thank-you' was deeply appreciated."
Hanssen was a goldmine to the Russians. An internal review of the damage he caused and the secrets he gave away has concluded that between 1985 and 2001, Hanssen was a "traitor of unparalleled dimensions". Because of his far-reaching security clearance and his computer expertise, he had access to secrets held not only by the FBI but the CIA, the National Security Council, the National Security Agency and the Pentagon. It is also likely that Hanssen compromised secrets passed to the US by the British, Australian and Canadian intelligence services. The British Foreign Office has refused to comment on the matter.
Robert Vise, a Washington Post reporter whose book, The Bureau and the Mole, is among the more exhaustive accounts of the Hanssen affair, says: "Robert Hanssen is the most prolific and dangerous spy in American history. He sold secrets to the Russians, not just from the FBI [but from a range of other agencies]. He single-handedly increased the threat of nuclear war. He also sold to the Russians a piece of software which eventually found its way into the hands of Osama bin Laden. That package helped Osama bin Laden evade detection by the US for a number of years. The focus on Bin Laden did not start on 11 September."
According to court documents and interviews with intelligence officials carried out by Vise, just a few of the key secrets revealed by Hanssen in his two decades of spying include: the Continuity of Government Plan - the super-secret plan to ensure the survival of the US President and the operation of the government in the event of a nuclear war. Some observers say that once the Soviets obtained this information and believed they could take out the US leadership in a first strike, the risk of a nuclear attack increased dramatically. The identities of up to 50 people passing intelligence to the US, among them at least nine Soviet officials recruited by the US. The National Intelligence Programme for two years, detailing precisely what Washington's intelligence community intended to do for that period and how much it intended to spend doing it. Also, the existence of a secret electronic eavesdropping tunnel which the US built beneath the Russian Embassy in Washington's Glover Park at a cost of several hundred million dollars. When the Russians learnt of the tunnel they used its existence to intentionally feed the US false information.
The full impact of Hanssen's disclosures is only now starting to be realised. A recently completed internal review concluded that even now some FBI sources "apparently fear that information Hanssen passed will lead to their discovery and their handlers can do little to assuage their fears".
Apart from the damage wreaked on the intelligence community, the behaviour of Hanssen has also had a profound impact on the wider US public, angry and sickened by the betrayal by one of its own citizens. This sense of betrayal has become even more extreme since the terror strikes on New York and Washington, even though the FBI has assured Hanssen's family that his treachery did not lead to those attacks. "No one has been put to death [for spying] in the US since the Rosenbergs in the 1950s," says Vise, referring to the couple, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were both electrocuted in 1953 after being convicted of passing secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
"In the Hanssen case, President [George W] Bush and the Attorney General [John Ashcroft] wanted to go for the death penalty. Vice President [Dick] Cheney and the intelligence community argued that Hanssen was more use alive than dead because of his co-operation. That was the deal they agreed. That deal was done last Summer. That deal could not have been done after 11 September. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and asked why the American government is not looking to seek the death penalty," adds Vise.
While he was betraying his country, Hanssen was outwardly living the sort of life many would recognise as the epitome of the American dream. A few years after he recommenced spying for the Russians, Hanssen and his family had moved to Vienna, a small town in northern Virginia that effectively forms part of the suburbs of the nation's capital. They lived in a large, wooden-built house with a sizable garden at Talisman Drive, their home backing on to woods populated by deer.
The community was close-knit, the Hanssen family's lifestyle was comfortable. But while Bonnie threw herself into things enthusiastically, Hanssen remained aloof. He attended mass every weekday morning, his life was ordered and regular - neighbours recall that he would always leave for work at precisely the same time every morning - and he helped his wife bring up their children, whose ages range from mid-teens to the early thirties.
But despite the impression he gave of being a devoted husband and father, an image that many believe was genuine, few people ever warmed to Hanssen. "Bob participated in the block parties [but he] was rather aloof," says one neighbour, who asks not to be named. "He was not one to plunge in with a great big hug or a handshake."
Another neighbour, Fraser Jones, who lives with his wife and family just a house away from the Han-ssen property, adds: "We moved here 12 months before he was arrested. I think I may have spoken to him once, at a party. I think everybody felt he was aloof. The people who were here before us were here for 20 years and I don't think they were friends. I feel sorry for his family. There are different levels to this. How can you do it to your children? How can you do it to your family?"
So why did Hanssen do it - both to his family and his country? How did a man, who outwardly had so much, feel the need to risk everything? Hanssen himself has given some clues. Under the deal brokered between the Justice Department and his lawyer, Hanssen agreed to co-operate with the investigating authorities - to reveal to them what secrets he had compromised, how he had gained access to them and the methods by which he had passed them on. But investigators also wanted to know why. "Fear and rage," Hanssen reportedly told them. "Fear of what?" he was asked. Hanssen replied: "Fear of being a failure and not being able to provide for my family."
Vise writes that in the world of espionage there is an acronym that is used to explain a spy's motives. The acronym is Mice, and it stands for money, ideology, compromise and ego. "In Hanssen's case," explains Vise, "ego was considered the most important factor, though money also played a contributing role. Hanssen contained a fractured ego seeking recognition and a desire to be a global player after being overlooked."
Indeed, both ego and money seem to have been a factor in Hanssen's behaviour. In addition to believing that he was "beating" the employers who had failed to recognise and reward his full talent, the money he received from the Russians was certainly welcome. But even here there is a contradiction: Hanssen was aware from the downfall of other spies that to ostentatiously display his new-found wealth could instantly betray him. He actually ended up giving away much of the $600,000 (pounds 420,000) he received over a 20-year period. What else may have fuelled Hanssen's treachery?
Dr Alen Salerian works from an office in north-west Washington, where he is medical director of the Washington Psychiatric Centre. For several years he worked as a consultant to the FBI, helping to treat officers who had suffered psychological illnesses during their work. In the spring of 2001 he was retained by Hanssen's defence team and spent 30 hours with the spy, delving into the recesses of his psyche. Salerian came to a very simple conclusion: that Hanssen was suffering from a multi-faceted illness with which he was born and which was exacerbated by his rocky childhood.
Furthermore, Salerian believes that had he been treated early enough, Hanssen would not have spied. "It was an illness he was battling, a psychological condition he did not know he was suffering from," he says. "His psychological demons... were constantly harassing him. He was bombarded with thoughts, unwanted wishes, intrusive thoughts and compulsions. They were the biggest cause and trigger of his spying because spying, for him, was a way out. It was a way of keeping himself busy: he discovered that when he was facing dangerous situations he could distract himself with those things and his mind would focus on those challenges."
Astonishingly, Salerian says that when he treated Hanssen with Paxil - a simple, easily available, anti-depressant - within just 10 days there was a marked change in his behaviour. Salerian says, "He came to me and said, `This is a miracle. This is the first time in my life that at night I can sleep. I can turn my mind off. My mind is not racing, it's not being bombarded with all these incredible compulsions and I'm not guilty with having all these horrible thoughts.' He said, `I think that last night I heard God's voice. This was my first good night in so many years, perhaps ever.' I said, `Bob, it's not God, it's Paxil.' We both laughed at that."
Salerian says that patient confidentiality prevents him from divulging the precise nature of the demons that tormented Hanssen, but it is clear that most prominent among them was an obsession with sex and pornography.
When he was based in Washington, Hanssen often spent his lunchtimes in a seedy strip-club close to the city centre. This may have not been particularly unusual, but what was unusual was the relationship Hanssen struck up with a stripper he encountered there. Hanssen spent thousands of dollars on Priscilla Galey, buying her a car and a computer and giving her a credit card in an attempt to "improve her". He even took her on a holiday to Hong Kong, the one occasion the couple may have had sex. "He just wanted me to realise that I should be closer to God," Galey, now a drug-addict and a prostitute, later told reporters. "You know, life could be better and I should not be tempting men and being in front of them naked. He wanted me to change his life."
But Hanssen saved his most obsessive behaviour for his wife, fantasising about other men watching him have sex with Bonnie. He shared these obsessions with his close friend, Jack Hoschouer, a Viet-nam veteran who had been visiting Hanssen the day he was arrested. It has since emerged that on numerous occasions, Hanssen invited Hoschouer to watch as he and Bonnie had sex. Bonnie knew nothing of the arrangement: Hanssen had set up a hidden video camera in their bedroom that allowed his friend to watch from another room.
His obsession did not end there. Hanssen posted fantasy stories about himself and his wife on the Internet. The theme was usually the same: his wife being aroused by the idea of being watched by other men. "I learnt early on that when she was sexually aroused she was stimulated greatly by situations where she might be seen naked by other men or be seen in sexual activity," Hanssen wrote in one such creation he posted on the Web.
There were secrets everywhere in Robert Hanssen's life - at work, at home, even at church. With perspective it is easy to see that such an arrangement could not persist forever. What is astonishing is that Hanssen got away with things for so long. In regard to his spying he was able to because he was careful and because the FBI was slack in its security procedures. As far back as 1990, Hanssen's brother-in-law, Mark Wauck, an FBI officer based in Chicago, warned his superiors that he suspected his in-law was spying after finding thousands of dollars in cash at Hanssen's home. The Bureau never investigated.
Hanssen was eventually caught when a US spy passed to the CIA the file the Russian's kept on him. After the CIA passed the file on to the FBI an elaborate surveillance operation, which even involved buying the property opposite Hanssen's home in Virginia, was set up in order to catch the spy red-handed. That is exactly what happened on the afternoon of 18 February last year.
The future for Hanssen is now clear - it is extremely unlikely that he will leave prison alive. For the FBI it is a matter of reviewing its errors, trying to establish where it went so badly wrong and how it might prevent a repeat of such events.
Bonnie Hanssen - who has never spoken publicly about the matter - continues to try to rebuild her life. Every day she leaves the home she once shared with Hanssen to travel to work at Oak Crest private school for girls, where her daughter is a pupil and where she teaches religion. Her friends say she has found it in her to forgive her husband, whom she often visits.
"Her perspective is this," says a close friend. "Everything that her husband did that was good, really happened. All the nights of homework, all the soccer practises, all the exam study [with the children] - he really did that.
"That is her dilemma. She loves him for everything he has been for all these years, even though she deplores the other part. She surely knows he is sick - this is clearly a major problem. That has all been very hard."…