Robert Hanssen: A Brief History

In 2001, the FBI's Robert Hanssen was charged with selling U.S. secrets to Soviet and Russian sources. Spy Museum historian Dr. Thomas Boghardt reviews the details of a tale of treachery.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

On February 18, 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia. His treachery has been called the worst breach of U.S. intelligence in the history of the FBI. To get some background on Robert Hanssen's case, we braved icy drizzle and, well, some slow traffic on Route 66 to sweep the scene of Hanssen's arrest, Foxstone Park, not far from Hanssen's home in Vienna, Virginia.

Our intelligence was from spy museum historian Thomas Boghardt.

Mr. THOMAS BOGHARDT (Spy Museum Historian): Hanssen, when he had information to deliver, he would come to this bridge, leave whatever he had in a black plastic bag. He would then leave a sign at the entrance of the park so the Soviets, or Russians, would know he had loaded the dead drop. They would come in, pick it up, leave a bag with money. He would return, pick up the money and then the exchange would be over. And the whole point is, you know, it would be non-personal. He would never meet the Russian handlers in person.

ROBERTS: And what sort of information was he passing on?

Mr. BOGHARDT: Well, he was passing on, I would say, three types of information. For one he gave the Soviets and Russians the names of American assets in the Soviet Union, Russia. And at least three of them were executed thanks to Hanssen's information.

Then of course he told the Soviets how the FBI was trying to survey them and track them down. So he gave the Soviets information about how the FBI was trying to monitor them. And then third he gave them a bunch of information that he just had access to because he had a clearance. For instance, he told the Soviets that the NSA and FBI was digging a tunnel underneath the Russian embassy. Cost, I think, over a billion dollars. Thanks to Hanssen, it never became operational.

ROBERTS: And given that he was able to do this for so long without suspicion, how did the FBI finally get onto him?

Mr. BOGHARDT: The FBI started to run a program called Backlore(ph), in which they attempted to essentially pay off disgruntled KGB Russian intelligence officers for information. And one of these people actually had access to Hanssen's file at KGB headquarters in Moscow.

So a price was negotiated. They eventually paid this person $7 million. And this file contains all the information about Hanssen. Did not contain his name, but there was a bag with his fingerprints in there, there was a tape recording of his voice in there and a lot of information, you know, information he had given the Soviets that clearly pointed to him. So once they had this file, they just needed to nail him.

ROBERTS: Hanssen is sort of variously referred to as the most damaging spy, the worst spy. Does he deserve those superlatives?

Mr. BOGHARDT: Yes, he was certainly one of the most damaging spies in modern American history. I mean it's always a question of, you know, who's the most damaging. But you know, as I said, you know, he delivered the names of American assets in the Soviet Union, people were executed thanks to Hanssen's information, very valuable American spies.

The fact that he worked for FBI counterintelligence, I mean that paralyzed our surveillance on the Russians to some extent. So that was really critical information. It's kind of hard to say was he the most damaging. It's the most recent big spy case and certainly one of the most damaging. I think most people would agree on that.

ROBERTS: Thomas Boghardt, thank you so much for joining us on this cold day out in Vienna.

Mr. BOGHARDT: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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