Santa Barbara author Lis Wiehl investigates Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to Russia while working for the FBI
Computer nerd Robert Hanssen deceived his FBI colleagues and sold crucial secrets to Russia.
Mr. Hanssen, who worked for FBI counterintelligence, got away with that throughout the 1980s and ’90s right under the FBI’s nose. On top of that, the FBI caught the wrong guy. CIA agent Brian Kelley was falsely accused and saw his reputation ruined.
Eventually, the truth came out. Mr. Kelley was exonerated, and Mr. Hanssen, who was arrested in 2001, is spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
It’s the kind of story that piqued the interest of Lis Wiehl, a former prosecutor and the daughter of an FBI agent.
The Santa Barbara author investigated the Hanssen case for her latest book, “A Spy in Plain Sight: The Inside Story of the FBI and Robert Hanssen — America’s Most Damaging Russian Spy” (Pegasus Books, $27.95).
Ms. Wiehl will discuss “A Spy in Plain Sight” during a conversation with Erin Eamer at 6 p.m. Thursday at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St., Santa Barbara.
The author will also sign copies of her book.
Ms. Wiehl recalled her father talking about Mr. Hanssen.
“I thought it would be interesting to look at this man (Mr. Hanssen) and the history of this case with some hindsight,” said Ms. Wiehl, who has worked as a legal analyst for networks such as CNN, CBS, NPR, NBC and the Fox News Channel.
“I researched it for two years,” Ms. Wiehl said. “I interviewed all the people around him, his psychiatrist, his best friend and all his colleagues in the FBI and CIA.”
Ms. Wiehl, who conducted more than 50 interviews, said she found it surprising that someone like Mr. Hanssen was able to be in the FBI and get away with his acts of treason under the agency’s nose.
“Hanssen was there for 20 years, never had an updated background check, never a polygraph, never financial disclosure,” Ms. Wiehl said. “It was unbelievable. He was able to get into the highest ranks of the FBI without being checked.
“One of the first things he did for the Russians was to identify our major Russian assets,” Ms. Wiehl said. “Russian assets are people who are on the ground who we’ve flipped, who are working for us. Where we really get our intelligence is from flipping assets and having them work for us.
“He gave the Russians the identity of our major Russian asset,” Ms. Wiehl said. “The Russians gathered him, executed him in a brutal fashion and made a videotape of him to deter other spies.”
Mr. Hanssen continued to reveal Russian assets to Russia until the FBI had none, Ms. Wiehl said. “They were all dead.
“And he gave away locations of where the president and vice president would be at any time,” she said. “It was top level security stuff because he was the computer guy, and he had access to everything across the FBI.
“You can just imagine the wealth of material he had to sell,” Ms. Wiehl said.
“They (the FBI) finally figured out there had to be a mole,” she added.
After investigating, the FBI concluded that Mr. Kelley of the CIA was the mole.
“They got the wrong guy,” said Ms. Wiehl, who interviewed Mr. Kelly’s widow for the book. (He died in 2011.)
“They (the FBI) didn’t think it was one of their own,” Ms. Wiehl said. “They didn’t want to think that one of their own agents was the spy. That kept them from getting the real guy.”
Ms. Wiehl said Mr. Hanssen was “narcissistic to the nth degree.
“He thought he was the smartest guy in the room,” Ms. Wiehl said.
And she said Mr. Hanssen had a fixation with James Bond. “All the glamor, the saving the damsel from distress. He loved that as a kid. He wanted to be a James Bond character.”
As a spy, Mr. Hanssen lived a double life.
“His life to the outside world was he was a devout Catholic, going to Mass, had kids who went to a parochial school, hated the communists,” Ms. Wiehl said.
“He wasn’t that great of a spy,” the author continued. “He was copying things on a Xerox machine and walking off with them (documents) in his briefcase. He dressed in black all the time, and they (his co-workers) called him the Mortician.
“They didn’t think he was a spy. They just thought he was weird,” Ms. Wiehl said.
She added that money was among Mr. Hanssen’s primary motives for spying for the Soviets. “He had all these children in parochial school and lived in the nicest suburban home in the Washington, D.C., area. It was way above what an FBI agent could afford.”
The FBI came to realize that it still had security problems despite believing it had caught the traitor. So it set up a sting operation in 2001 and finally caught Mr. Hanssen, whose response was, “What took you so long?”
During her research, Ms. Wiehl interviewed many past and current FBI and CIA agents. She asked them all the same question, “Could there be another Hanssen today?”
“One hundred percent of them said ‘yes,’ ” Ms. Wiehl said. “Many of them said there probably already is.”
Ms. Wiehl said it is both more and less likely that another spy like Mr. Hanssen could rise in the ranks of the FBI.
She noted the FBI’s security today includes random polygraph tests and regular investigations for security clearances.
“But it’s easier today to be a spy,” she said. “You don’t have to copy things on a Xerox machine. You put it on a thumb drive, or you put it on the cloud.”
Ms. Wiehl said the Hanssen case demonstrates the importance of vetting FBI and CIA agents, again and again, to keep America secure.