“America's Most Damaging Russian Spy, FBI Agent Robert Hanssen" – with Lis Wiehl
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week, we'll look at one of the most notorious and damaging spies in American history, Robert Hanssen, who worked for the FBI but also secretly worked for the Soviet Union and then the Russians for over 20 years. Using the alias Ramon Garcia, Hanssen passed on highly classified national security information, including the identity of an agent called the jewel in the crown of American intelligence, Dmitri Polyakov, a major general in Soviet military intelligence, which led to his torture and execution. He was paid in dollars and diamonds, but Hanssen's diamonds were not forever. His sentence at the Florence Supermax Penitentiary in Colorado, though, most certainly will be.
Andrew Hammond: To talk about her new book on Hanssen, "A Spy in Plain Sight," I sat down with Lis Wiehl, who is a former federal prosecutor, a legal analyst and reporter for major news outlets, including 15 years at Fox News, and a bestselling author of 20 books and counting. She is also the daughter of an FBI agent. In this episode, we discuss the many contradictions of Robert Hanssen, the sworn FBI agent who betrayed his oath, country and colleagues for cash, the devout Catholic who asked his best friend to watch him and his wife have sex on a hidden TV system she was unaware of, the effect the Hanssen case had on the relationship between the FBI and the CIA and the damage Hanssen did to American intelligence and to his wife and family.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks for joining me to speak about your book. But I think to start off, congratulations. It just came out yesterday, right?
Lis Wiehl: Yes, just yesterday. Thank you so much for having me on here. I've been so excited about this interview.
Andrew Hammond: How does it feel to have the book out? It's not a new feeling for you, is it? You've - I believe this is the 19th.
Lis Wiehl: Twentieth - the 20th book.
Andrew Hammond: Twentieth. Oh, sorry (laughter). Yeah. Wow. And I was just thinking, looking at some of your previous publications, I think it would be really fascinating to have some kind of book that compared the lives of Charles Manson, the Unabomber and Robert Hanssen. They're three very different and complicated figures psychologically, personally and in a whole variety of other ways.
Lis Wiehl: That's right. They are. And I did a book on the Unabomber as well and - which is ironic that the Unabomber and Robert Hanssen are in the same facility, the same Florence Supermax facility in Florence, Colo., and they're both under 23 hours a day of solitary confinement. And I wonder what they do in that last hour, whether they cohort and talk to each other. That would be fascinating conversations with the Unabomber. And Manson's no longer with us, and - but Manson and Hanssen - I mean, such weird characters and such interesting psychological profiles.
Andrew Hammond: Well, let's start digging into Robert Hanssen. And I'm so pleased that we are speaking because we've got a suit of Hanssen's at the Spy Museum. We have the handcuffs that were used to arrest him. We've got a bunch of artifacts. He's in our exhibits. And by almost any definition, he is a classical spy, an intelligence professional for the United States but a spy for the Soviet Union and then Russia. So for listeners that haven't been to the museum or don't know who he is, just give us a brief overview of who Robert Hanssen was and why he matters.
Lis Wiehl: He had a relatively benign upbringing. He was raised in Chicago primarily, and his father was a police officer. And the father treated him, I would say, rather - we would say child abuse - I mean, rather brutally sometimes. But other than that, he had an unremarkable childhood. He loved James Bond. You know, anything James Bond he loved, according to his friend Jack Hoschouer, who I interviewed. And he grew up to be an accountant and then get into the FBI because in those days, you needed to be a lawyer or an accountant to get in. And that was sort of a pinnacle of what anyone would have wanted for him - his father included.
Lis Wiehl: And he gets into the FBI. He's married now to Bonnie Hanssen. They're devout Catholics on the outside - Opus Dei even, going to mass every day. He gets into the FBI. He's in the anti-espionage unit, goes into the Russian department. And within a year, Andrew, his joining the FBI, he approaches the Russians, not the other way around. They don't, you know, come after him. He approaches them with this letter and saying, I've got this information. He doesn't say, I'm Robert Hanssen of the FBI. But he says, I have this information.
Lis Wiehl: That information was about a Russian asset, somebody that we had flipped that was working for us from Russia. And he got that person killed. I mean, in a brutal way. And a videotape was taken of the execution of this guy. That was just the start. And so for 20 years, Andrew, 20 years - he was still in the FBI and still spying for the Russians, revealing some of our top national security secrets and getting other of our Russian assets killed. So for 20 years, it took until the FBI looked inward and realized that Robert Hanssen was indeed their mole.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about some of the high-profile people that he got cowed or betrayed. I know that Polyakov was one of them.
Lis Wiehl: Right.
Andrew Hammond: So maybe just discuss a couple of the main things that he'd done that our listeners can maybe hang their hat on?
Lis Wiehl: Sure. I mean Polyakov was the first one. This is in my first chapter. I outline his death - his execution at the hands of the Russians. But he wasn't the last. I mean, there were other Russian assets - four to five at least that we can count - where he got - gave the information to the Russians. And the Russians don't do what we do, which is, you know, have a trial and decide whether - you know, what to do with them. They execute them.
Lis Wiehl: So what was happening as it was going along is we realized in our counterespionage unit that we didn't have any Russian assets. And that's critical because you need people on the ground there who are spying for us. I mean, we rely on that information as opposed to politicians and political channels - diplomatic channels. We rely on those spies to give us information. So it was - the damage was done in the death toll of our Russian assets directly on the information that Hanssen gave them.
Lis Wiehl: And the FBI tried to put a dollar value on the national secrets that were sold. And back in the day - remember, Hanssen was arrested in 2001 - back in the day, they estimated it to be about $10 billion, with a B. But I'm not sure you ever really can estimate in a dollar amount the national secrets that were sold - including nuclear plan and where our president and vice president would be during a nuclear operation. So really, really important top-secret stuff - I can't emphasize that enough - that he divulged to the Russians.
Andrew Hammond: And it seems to me that there's also something that probably hasn't been quantified and is very difficult to do so - the institutional damage, the effect on the FBI, who I know you have a long association with, even the relationship between the FBI and the CIA. That was a blind spot in the Hanssen case. And I guess some people, you know, could say that this is part of the background context. I mean, we're coming up to 9/11, where you have the FBI and the CIA not really communicating properly and so forth. So there's all kinds of other ways that are not quantifiable that you can assess the damage that Robert Hanssen done, right?
Lis Wiehl: Absolutely. And you're right. This is personal to me in some ways 'cause my dad was an FBI agent and worked during that - some of the Hanssen time. And I remember growing up just hearing, what a, you know, black mark he was against the FBI. And, you know, I worked with FBI agents when I was a federal prosecutor. And the stories about Hanssen just still reverberated through the FBI and cast such a black mark against them. And it's so sad, Andrew, because my dad and all the agents I worked with - really good people that are doing God's work, really, trying to keep us safe and out there every day risking their lives. And to have this black mark was just really difficult for the FBI. And it showed all the lack of security.
Lis Wiehl: I mean, Hanssen was never polygraphed in 20 years. They never did an additional background check on him or financial check on him in 20 years. I mean, I was a federal prosecutor in my fifth year. They did a new background check on me because people's lives can change, right? You can start when you're not susceptible to blackmail. And five years later, you might be. But they never did that. They never checked him. They never checked him. And that's part of the incredible story here.
Andrew Hammond: Do you think they never checked him because there was always the sense that the FBI - and I'm sure that's - you know, I know this is a joke in other institutions and stuff - they're the kind of squeaky clean, the suits, the G-men. They are known as a bastion of moral probity and uprightness. You know, and this is part of the reason why it blindsided the FBI so much because it's - like, it couldn't be one of our people, you know? This is not the FBI. So I just wondered if you thought there was a connection between the sense of themselves as an institution and their ability to look at what's going on internally amongst their own staff?
Lis Wiehl: That's right. They just wouldn't look internally. They fingered a CIA agent, Brian Kelley, at one point because the investigation was run by the FBI. And by the way, all the while, Hanssen was checking on the investigation. He was the computer guy there at the FBI. So he was monitoring what the FBI agents were doing. And when they fingered Brian Kelley, the CIA agent, I mean, he must have done, like, a little happy dance (laughter). But it was because they didn't want to look internally. Once you're in that federal family, I mean, the good part about it is you're trusted, right? You have to be. You're going out there, and your colleagues - you've got to trust your colleagues. The bad part of it is you're trusted because trust, but verify, to coin that phrase. You need to be checking on these people to make sure that they are always trustworthy, and that didn't happen with Hanssen, egregiously so.
Andrew Hammond: And do you think that with Robert Hanssen, do you think that part of it was outside, he did seem like - in the opening chapter of your book, which I really enjoyed, you outline the FBI director going to the school where Hanssen's kids also go. Hanssen and the FBI director are both in Opus Dei, and on the outside, both of them seem to be cut from the same cloth, but one of them's the real deal, squeaky clean, and the other one's really psychologically compromised in all kinds of ways.
Lis Wiehl: Absolutely, and then in that opening chapter with Louis Freeh addressing the graduating class because both Hanssen and he had his kids in the same parochial Catholic school - it just outlines for you the compartmentalization that Hanssen did - right? - because to the outside world, he was this devout Catholic, five children and - including one that graduated with Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI. Hated the Commies, as he called them, called them godless people. And all of this - right? - while he was betraying our country so horribly. I mean, talk about dual personalities, talk about compartmentalization. Exhibit A would be Robert Hanssen because he did it so well for so long.
Andrew Hammond: I want to go on to discuss the narrative arc of his time as a spy for the Soviets and for the Russians, but before we get there, one of the things that we explore at the museum as well is the motivations. In, you know, in one of our exhibits, we have the money, ideology, ego, and those other ones, of course, like love and adrenaline and so forth. If you were to pin it down to a couple of things, what would you say it was? Like, for me, I would say it was basically about ego, and the money came after that, whereas for someone like Ames, it was about the money, and the other stuff came after that. So I just wondered if you had - you've done a really great job of digging into all of this and speaking to all of these people, so what's your take on Robert Hanssen? Why did he do what he did?
Lis Wiehl: It's complicated because you're right. It's not just money. I mean, he needed the money. He had these five kids in parochial school. He moved out to Westchester and to Scarsdale, which is an expensive suburb in New York. Really, you can't afford that on an FBI salary. So they needed the money. They were always tight on money. But you're right, it was much more than that. It was partially the glamour, the James Bond stuff because Jack Hoschouer, his best friend, told me that a - he loved James Bond, anything James Bond - you know, more like Dr. Evil - but he fashioned himself sort of a James Bond character.
Andrew Hammond: And he had a Walther PPK, right?
Lis Wiehl: Yes, he did, he did. It's crazy. And it was shooting it off as a kid. But it was even more than that. It was his feeling like he had to be the smartest guy in the room, the smartest person around, and he didn't feel that he got his appreciation from those colleagues at the FBI, many of whom he thought were - well, all of whom he thought were not as smart as he, and some of them absolute dullards. He had to be smarter. He had to show them. He didn't feel appreciated by his employer. And the Russians on the other side were loving and welcoming and familial with him. And he gobbled all that up, and the Russians played him.
Lis Wiehl: So - and then there was one other factor that I thought was fascinating. When I spoke with Dr. Charney, his psychiatrist, who interviewed him multiple times over months and months and months in the prison, Charney said that Hanssen had this warped - it's warped. It's - to try to explain this - feeling that by giving the Russians our secrets and showing us our weaknesses therefore, we would shore up those weaknesses, we would fix them, and therefore, in the long run, would we become a better country. That is absolutely warped thinking, but you have to - when you try to get into the mind of someone like this, you have to think, you know, what is it that motivates them? And I think that was a big part of it.
Lis Wiehl: The motivations that I've just outlined, you know, were peculiar to Hanssen, but they're not - they're universal - right? - the need for money, the need for acceptance, the need for loving and - right? - and appreciation from your colleagues. Hanssen wasn't getting any of that. And - but the scary thing is that, when I outline those generic motivations, they're applicable to a lot of people. There are a lot of people out there in high positions who aren't happy with their colleagues, underappreciated and need money - right? - and want the glamour. So that's really frightening to me that, you know, it's not like I can say what - Hanssen's motivations were so unusual. They aren't. I mean, they're universal. They can be applied to lots of people that we probably know right now.
Andrew Hammond: And I guess in - it's in various degrees, and there's various combinations of those ingredients, right? And with Hanssen, there was a particular combination of ingredients. And, I mean, it's also interesting to me as someone that used to live in New York and knowing how expensive it was when I lived there - it's interesting that he first approaches the Russians when he gets transferred to New York.
Lis Wiehl: That's right. I mean, he goes to Scarsdale, which is a very expensive suburb in Westchester. Bonnie is not working. His wife is not - she's not working outside the home, five kids that are going to parochial school, and, you know, it's expensive. And the Russians paid in cash. So Bonnie bought all the groceries in cash, and, you know, everything was - it was a cash household. But again, a lot of people in those positions - the FBI agents aren't paid enough. And it's just astounding to me to think that these motivations are interesting and applicable to Hanssen, but they can apply to a lot of people as well.
Andrew Hammond: And it's interesting as well, just thinking about it in terms of the Cold War - if you were to look at someone's career and say, where is the worst places that they could bounce between to do damage to U.S. national security? - you would probably say, New York and D.C., which is where...
Lis Wiehl: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Hanssen spent almost all of his career, right?
Lis Wiehl: That's right, and at the top level of our counter espionage unit. So he knew about all our Russian assets. He knew who they were. I mean, he was one of the very top guys. We're not talking about just a line agent. He was operational. He was there. And he was very well-versed in computers and IT. He liked that stuff. FBI agents by and general aren't that interested in computers. They're not that interested in all that stuff. They want to make arrests, knock down doors, what we know them for. But Hanssen loved that, the computers, and that, of course, gave him access to all our top information - top-secret information.
Andrew Hammond: And I think it's interesting in the book - the impression that I get is that Hanssen, of course, is bright enough. You don't just get into the FBI if you don't have something about you. But he's not the smartest person in the room. But by being the kind of tech person when other people aren't, then he can be the smartest person in this little area, which makes him feel like he really is the smartest person in the room.
Lis Wiehl: Exactly.
Andrew Hammond: Would you agree with that?
Lis Wiehl: Exactly. That's exactly right. He needed that. You know, it may have gone back to - I'm not a psychologist, but it may have gone back to his father being so rough on him and telling him he's stupid, he's never going to amount to anything - wouldn't let him get his - made sure he didn't pass his driver's license. I mean, that kind of thing - I'm sure that hurts your psyche, and you need that constant approval once you grew up. And there - he loved being in the FBI. He loved the cachet of it. But he looked around and said, I'm smarter than all these guys. And yet, he was not appreciated. He was not very liked in the FBI. He always wore black. They called him the mortician. He had a very dour expression on his face. And, you know, he just - he didn't want to join in in activities, so he wasn't really very liked. He wasn't appreciated.
Andrew Hammond: In the book, some of the various people that you speak to, they - one of them calls him the most loathsome person in the...
Lis Wiehl: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...FBI and the - probably the least liked person in the bureau. And someone else describes him as - sometimes he was there, but he wasn't really there. His body...
Lis Wiehl: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...Was on FM, but his mind was on AM or something like that.
Lis Wiehl: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: There was just some kind of disconnect (laughter).
Lis Wiehl: Yeah. Yeah, most people didn't like him, but you saw in the book, too, that there were a few that did like him, that did appreciate his intellect. And Jack Hoschouer, his best friend, says he's still his best friend, I mean, to this day, even though Hanssen tried to betray him, tried to get - list him potentially to be a spy.
Andrew Hammond: I guess this is speculative, but how do you account for the kind of almost flabbergasting loyalty that is given to him still by a very small handful of people? So I believe he's never been divorced. He's still married to Bonnie...
Lis Wiehl: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: ...Despite all of the stuff that came out. And then Jack Hoschouer - he's still his best friend. What - like, why would you be - why would you continue that relationship? Like, other spies in the past - their wives and their friends have all walked sideways or are like, I don't even know who you are...
Lis Wiehl: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Anymore. Why have they stayed loyal to him in some respect or another?
Lis Wiehl: You know, Bonnie - well, she's a devout Catholic, so maybe she doesn't believe in divorce. And she's gone to visit him there, and she's also getting his pension because one of the agreements that the FBI made in not executing him, in giving him the death - or not giving him the death penalty, giving him life without the possibility of parole - they debriefed Bonnie, and they also gave her his pension. So it could be a combination of religious beliefs and money for her. For Jack, it's hard to tell. It's just a loyalty that's there. I mean, they've known each other since they were little kids, went through a lot. And I guess he sees whatever good there is to see in Hanssen. But I will also tell you that he went to the sentencing in D.C. - Jack Hoschouer did, and Hanssen didn't really even acknowledge him. So I don't know if it's a two-way friendship anymore. But Jack didn't do anything to turn him in or anything like that. He had no involvement in it. I mean, Jack was used and abused in this friendship.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this. Let's establish a narrative arc for Hanssen's career as a spy. So I know he's in New York, D.C., New York, D.C. But another thing that fascinates me is he starts and stops and starts and stops, and I believe it's three times he does that. So yeah, why does he keep flicking the switch on and off? Is it just financial circumstances change or he gets scared or there's some other motivation there? Yeah. Why does he kind of keep flicking the switch?
Lis Wiehl: Well, the first time he flicks the switch is probably the most interesting, I guess. Bonnie, his wife, finds cash in a sock drawer - underwear drawer. I'm not sure what drawer it was, but it was a drawer. She finds cash. And she goes to Hanssen, and she's all worried that it's cash to find a mistress because that's another part of Hanssen's background. And Hanssen basically tells her, no, I'm not seeing anyone. This isn't for a mistress. I'm just spying for the Russians. And I'm making light of it. It wasn't quite like that, but sort of like that. And so Bonnie, being a devout Catholic, says, all right, let's go to our priest. They go to the priest. And the priest says - again, I'm synthesizing here - says, that's bad. You shouldn't be spying for the Russians. But if you give the money to - back to the church that you got from the Russians, I'll absolve you. So I mean, that's just incredible to me that the whole thing could have been stopped right there and then, but it wasn't. Hanssen gave the money to the church, and he did stop for a while. And then he started back up again. And I don't know that Bonnie ever really knew, or maybe she turned a blind eye after that, as many spouses do to, you know, their spouse's behavior. Maybe she didn't want to know. But from there on, he pretty much - it was a pretty relatively non-bumpy course. I mean, he stopped and started a few times because things changed in Russia. But he - after that initial bump where the priest gave him absolution, maybe he felt more empowered at that point. If this priest is going to let me go - untouchable. If Bonnie is going to let me go, I'm untouchable.
Andrew Hammond: I find that part of the story really fascinating. It's almost like the modern-day papal indulgences which led to the reformation. If you hand over X amount of money, you don't have to worry about this. And it seems to me that it's almost like a modern form of that.
Lis Wiehl: Yes. I'm not a Catholic, so I don't know all the ins and outs. But - and I know there's a confessional, you know, aspect to, you can't turn over information that's given in confession, but I'm not sure this was a confession. This was just a talk with the priest 'cause Bonnie was concerned about it. And for him just to say, just turn over the money that you made and stop it, and not follow up - another misstep along with many missteps. But this one's not on the FBI. This one's on that priest.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about that religious belief. So it seems to me that he's - on the one hand, he's saying that he's going to protect and defend the Constitution and fulfill his oaths and so forth. But he doesn't do that. And analogous to that, on the one hand, he says that he's a law-abiding member of the church as a paragon of the community and so forth. But he's not. So I just wonder, do you - is that religious belief genuine, and does he still have it just now? Does he still hold it? Or do you think it was just another thing, like the FBI, that he pulled on top of himself to try to deal with these underlying psychological issues?
Lis Wiehl: I think the latter because he converted to Catholicism when he married Bonnie. And I think he used it. I think he used it, like he used the Russians, like he used the FBI, for his betterment because being a devout Catholic - Opus Dei, even - going to mass every day, having his five children and his wife that was a devout Catholic as well - gave him a veneer - right? - gave him a persona that he gave to the rest of the world. I hate the communists. They're godless people. I'm God-fearing - gave that persona to the FBI. It made him even more trustworthy, I would think - a little strange, a little weird, but trustworthy. I mean, a good Catholic boy who hates the commies, as he calls them - he would never do anything. No fingers were ever pointed to him until the very end. And so I think the religiosity cloaked him for the FBI. Whether he still believes or not - anybody's guess. Maybe he's - like I said, maybe he's hanging out with the Unabomber, and they're both praying together (laughter). I don't know. But he certainly wasn't very Christian in what he did.
Andrew Hammond: Give us a sense of the arc of his career. He starts off in New York, and he's relatively junior. But then when the - when he gets arrested in Foxstone Park, he's at a much different position. So just give us a brief overview of the types of things that he's concerned with, the types of positions that he has and the upward narrative arc of his career. Although, by no means is he a high flyer, but he does get promoted, right?
Lis Wiehl: He does get promoted. I mean, he starts as a line agent like everybody else, and is going to D.C. And then when he moves to Washington - I'm sorry - to New York. And when he moves to Washington, he's at a very high level in the counter espionage division focused on Russia. He is not well liked, but because he's so good at computers and computerization, they let him do his thing and is trusted and he gets - he really ascends. Now, he's never going to be to a top level of the FBI because people didn't like him. There was an incident with the secretary where he was - it's a he said, she said. There was a potential assault. So when that happened, that was such a black mark on his career that he would never reach, you know, the highest level, like, the director or anything like that. But he was high enough up and in that department - that espionage department - where he knew everything and having access to the computers gave him full carte blanche to all the information in all of the different departments and many of departments had to report to him. I mean, Hanssen was a boss.
Andrew Hammond: I find it really fascinating, the role that computers play and the ability of spies to exfiltrate information. Like, back in the day, you would have to maybe transcribe a copy by hand. And then with someone like Daniel Ellsberg, you have the ability to take photocopies and so forth, but now - or photographs. But now with a computer, I mean, you can get extraordinary quantities of information. And if you're the person that sits at the crossroads of all of that information, even if you're not at the top of the hierarchy, if you're someone that that information comes across your desk, then it empowers you to just do much more damage. And you discuss that in the book, especially towards the end. So just talk to us a little bit more about that, about his ability to get information out and over to the Soviets and then the Russians.
Lis Wiehl: Well, it was actually fairly low tech. He didn't have to handwrite anything, but he would get his information off the computer and then he would copy it on a Xerox machine basically outside his office and put stuff in his briefcase to take home. So that - today, spies wouldn't have to do that, right? They can just pull all the information up from a computer onto a thumb drive or load it to the cloud and walk out, and no one's the wiser. But back in the Hanssen era, he walked out of the FBI with briefcases of top secret information that he'd just copied on the Xerox machine. So computers played a part in that it gave them access, but it was fairly low tech in the sense of what he just was actually able to carry on out of the FBI headquarters.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, I find that one interesting depending on the specific time period, right? Because now, yeah, on a USB stick, you can get just tens of thousands of documents. But at that time, the ability to take the information away is constrained, but the ability to get the information is accelerated because before you read about these intelligence officers during the Cold War and whenever you would try to go to the archives to look at other stuff that was going on, or whenever you tried to stick your nose into something else, you immediately roused everybody's suspicions. But if you're just sitting at a computer in an office, you can rummage around in a whole variety of places without arousing suspicion.
Lis Wiehl: Yeah, no, I'll give you an example, too. He at one point hacked into one of his colleague's computers to get more information. He was found out and he said - his excuse was, I was just trying to show you how easily we're hacked into so that we can make sure that we don't. And they believed him. They believed him because he was the computer guy. So they're kind of like, OK, that's weird. Hanssen's kind of a weird guy. That's kind of a weird thing to do, but that's Hanssen, and he's our computer guy, and he wants to show us how smart he is, so OK. I mean, I call them puffs of smoke in the book where things could have happened, you know, differently for him. He could have been caught sooner, and that certainly was one of them. But they just believed him when he hacked in this other person's computer.
Andrew Hammond: And I'd like to talk about some of the other dramatis personae in this case and just some fascinating figures - so Cherkashin, his handler, Yurchenko is just such an interesting defector and then re-defector, Brian Kelley who, his career is destroyed in large part. There's all of these interesting people. So we can't discuss them all, but maybe just discuss a couple that you think are particularly important for this story.
Lis Wiehl: Well, Brian Kelley - I mean, we've got to talk about him. Because I talked to his widow, I mean, he's no longer with us - Patricia McCarthy. And Patricia said what happened to him basically killed him. Here was this upstanding, family man, CIA agent for many years, did nothing wrong except be a very good CIA agent, which when they put the matrix together of who possibly had the knowledge of all these operations and could be the mole, they fingered Brian Kelley, and they did it in a very public way. So the whole world knew at this guy was potentially a spy. They were brutal to his family, you know, got his son and daughter and really grilled them. And even after the FBI knew that Brian Kelley wasn't the guy and they were setting up a sting to get Hanssen, they didn't let Brian Kelley know this because they thought if they let him know, that would mean the whole world would know and it would take the heat off of him and that's not what they wanted. They wanted Hanssen to think that Brian - that they caught Brian Kelley - Brian Kelley was going to go down for this. And so the guy just languished, and he was eventually exonerated when Hanssen was arrested, but it ruined his life. And, you know, speaking to his widow, it just - it's awful.
Lis Wiehl: Also, I wanted just to - on a note on that, a lot of the research I did was through interviews, but some of it, too, was going to your museum and looking up old footage interviews that you've done in the past, and one of them was of Mike Rochford, who ran the investigation. And Patricia, Brian Kelley's wife - widow was in the audience. And it was a traumatic moment. If you - your listeners hadn't looked at it, they should look it up. It's with Mike Rochford and Patricia Kelley McCarthy. And she stands up, and she says, I want an apology from the FBI. And Rochford kind of delivers one, you know. He feels bad. He feels bad that he didn't get more of an exoneration. But it's a fascinating video. You should - it's there, it's in your archives, and everyone should watch it.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about one of the Russians in the story - so Yurchenko or Cherkashin.
Lis Wiehl: Cherkashin, his handler, just invited him in when - again, they didn't know it was Hanssen. They didn't have a name on him. Hanssen never gave that to - I think they were as surprised as anyone else when Hanssen was arrested. But the letters that go back and forth between these two are just flowery letters. I mean, Cherkashin is just, you know, you're part of our family. We appreciate you so much. You're so good. You know, all this stuff that Hanssen was crazy - craving, Cherkashin was perfect for because he then became that family. He became that enabler. He became the glamorizing, flattering character. And Cherkashin was, for Hanssen, a fabulous handler. And he got a lot of information over the years from Hanssen. But what a character.
Lis Wiehl: You can't - it's funny because I've read a lot of fiction. And if I were to try to write this as fiction, people would say, oh, that's unbelievable. You know, I'm glad I've got, like, 50 pages of footnotes in the book, you know, showing exactly how. This is very believable. This did happen. And these are live primary sources that I'm quoting. But you can't make this stuff up (laughter). Cherkashin was just a super handler, a super Russian handler.
Andrew Hammond: One of the other things that I was hoping to discuss was, like, with this whole thing, a little bit more on the relationship between the CIA and the FBI, so with Brian Kelley and the sense that it has to be someone in the CIA. It can't be FBI. Were there people in the CIA that were, let's just say, irritated when it was found out that it was someone from within the FBI, and how did that affect that relationship? Were there any bureaucratic or institutional changes? Were there any, OK, we need to put our counterintelligence people together and make them talk about more or other director level or further down? Help us understand the effect that this case had on that relationship.
Lis Wiehl: Yes. If anything good happened out of this - as you talked about with 9/11, the CIA and the FBI are famous for not talking to each other. And they really didn't during this investigation. But when it turned out that it wasn't a CIA agent, it wasn't Brian Kelley, it was somebody within the FBI, the FBI had to - the egg on their face. And there have been more spies historically through the CIA than the FBI. But now it was one of their own, and the FBI was conducting this investigation. And they, of course, had to bring the CIA into it, which they did. And I think after that, post-Hanssen, that the relationship is better because they've learned that lesson that they do have to communicate - 9/11, of course, taught them as well. But they do have to communicate better. So I think if there's a silver lining in this, is that the FBI and the CIA are communicating in a better, friendlier way, and that there are more stopgaps. Now, when you are an FBI agent, you are supposed to go through mandatory rechecks, you know, and financial disclosures that have to be updated. Random polygraphs - that wasn't going on during Hanssen. Now it is. Even when I was a federal prosecutor, I knew when I walked in, for example, they could take a urinalysis test anytime they wanted. They could polygraph me anytime they wanted. Those are good things. You do lose some of your freedoms when you're in those positions. And you sign up for that, and if that had happened during the Hanssen era, maybe they would've caught him sooner.
Andrew Hammond: And let's close the net in on Hanssen. So tell our listeners - one of the things I love about our podcast is it ranges from the person that maybe worked this case through to the average person on the street that loves a good spy story. So help us just understand how the net closes in on Hanssen, how this all comes to a head in Foxstone Park.
Lis Wiehl: Right. So Mike Rochford, the guy that I mentioned before that's on that video, is head of this spying, trying to catch the mole. And they really think it's Brian Kelley. But then, Rochford develops another source. And this source says, I have a fingerprint, and I actually have a tape of the voice of this guy speaking with the Russians, and I've kept it for myself for my own protection because I may get, you know, slammed by the Russians any point. So Rochford makes a deal with this guy, brings him over to the U.S. Rochford confirms it with a $7 million payment - I mean, a lot of money, more money than Hanssen ever got. Brings him over, and they listen to this tape. And for a while, it takes him a little bit of time because they're not thinking that it could be Hanssen. Hanssen was never in the matrix of people they were looking at. But they listen to it, and they realize, that's Robert Hanssen. So now they know they've got the wrong guy, Kelley, and they've got the right guy, Hanssen, but they don't have enough, should they arrest him just right there, to go to court with that because - what would they do, put on this Russian spy who got paid $7 million? I mean, very shady character if that's your main witness. So they set up a sting operation for him. And it was very tense because Hanssen was facing mandatory retirement in four months, so they had to work quickly. They set up a fake office. They set up a fake position for him. They gave him fake information. And, finally, he delivers that information at Foxstone Park, per an agreement with the Russians, and the FBI, when he makes that delivery, are right there.
Andrew Hammond: And what was the reaction amongst the people that you interviewed about when it was found out who it was? Because we had - on our podcast, we had Frank Figliuzzi on last year - former assistant director for counterintelligence - and he was saying that when he found out it was Hanssen - he had worked for him once upon a time. He said that when he found out it was Hanssen, it was like a punch in the stomach.
Lis Wiehl: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew Hammond: But not because of the shock, but because it made sense.
Lis Wiehl: When - in retrospect, when you look at all those puffs of smoke, as Rochford calls them - the hacking; the fact that his brother-in-law tried - who's also in the FBI - tried to turn him in; the fact that he was talking to Bonnie about retiring in Poland, which made no sense - we were in the Cold War. All of those things - it was, of course, a punch in the stomach because how stupid could we be, basically? And it was one of theirs. But Rochford, to his credit, goes forward and - with the sting operation, doesn't tell Kelley because they don't want to let him know that they know and alert Hanssen that way, and sets up a beautiful sting operation. I mean, it went so smoothly. There were little kind of funny glitches in there that I mentioned in the book, but it went beautifully, and they caught him. So it ended well for the FBI.
Andrew Hammond: And what do we know about Hanssen's post-arrest life in a Florence supermax prison in Colorado? You know, what do we know? How many times has he spoken? Has he ever spoken to anybody? Did you try to reach him? I mean, I know the answers to some of these questions, but some of our listeners might not, so just fill them in.
Lis Wiehl: Sure. Per the plea agreement that he made with the government, he can't speak to anybody about it. I tried to reach Bonnie, but the same thing with Bonnie. Per her plea agreement with the government, they can never speak to anyone about this, especially a journalist who writing a book, so I don't know. I do know that he is in 23-hour solitary confinement, so he only has one hour out. And, again, he's in with people like El Chapo and the Unabomber, so I don't know if they cohort in the one hour they have a day. He doesn't have visitors other than Bonnie, and it must be a very sad life, but, OK, it's better, I guess, than - in his estimation, than getting executed.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm hmm. And his kids and wife - I mean, we don't need to go too much into this, but what's the - one of the things, whenever I look at these cases, is the - just the terrible damage that's wreaked on the people...
Lis Wiehl: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: ...That are in the immediate vicinity of them. So just tell us a little bit more about that.
Lis Wiehl: Well, the five children are all grown up, and I think they're actually doing fine. The one is an associate professor, and, you know, they seem to be doing fine. I'm sure they're happy to change their names. And they - again, they won't speak to anybody about this. And Bonnie Hanssen still works at the same school that she's always worked, didn't divorce him, and has carried on in her life. Jack Hoschouer still considers himself his best friend, and Brian Kelley is dead. So that's just some of the collateral damage that happened, and Hanssen didn't give a whiff about the people around him, really.
Andrew Hammond: The Hanssen case - what lessons were taken from that and then applied to the FBI to its own internal policies and others - the Webster Commission and those other things?
Lis Wiehl: Right.
Andrew Hammond: So just let our listeners know a little bit more about - well, OK, this happened, and what are the lessons that were learned from it?
Lis Wiehl: Well, the Webster Commission, as you pointed out, did a thorough search and sent U.S. attorneys in and all of that, and they came to the realization, as we've talked about, that the FBI didn't police itself, and that was a fatal flaw. And now they need to do that so that - hence, more polygraphs, more security checks and all that. But one of the fascinating things that I found in my interviews - and it really started as just a throwaway line - I asked everybody, FBI and CIA both, could there be another Hanssen today? And to a person, they said yes, and then, unprompted by me, many of them followed up with, and they're probably already is. And you think about that and our current situation with Russia and Ukraine and how desperately we need information about what's going on in Russia, that is - that's chilling to think that, with all those safeguards, these people - and it's not least - we aren't saying it. It's my sources telling me that there probably already is another spy in the FBI.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, it's almost like the exit point of the book, but I was just wondering - do you think that's just inevitable? Because if you take enough human beings and put them together in one institution, there's always going to be someone whose life falls apart or who's managed to get through the system. So I know that there were things that the FBI had done wrong, and I'm not trying to get anyone on the hook or off the hook - I'm just thinking about it, like, almost statistically. Even if you have got the best, most airtight systems and procedures and internal policing and so forth, other than surveilling them 24 hours a day, there's always going to be someone that is tempted by money or someone that's going through something in their life where they're at a vulnerable point that could...
Lis Wiehl: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...Be leveraged. So I was just wondering, to what extent do you think it's just - that's just the way it is, or were the people that you were speaking to saying that there's still much work that needs to be done, and this is making it more likely?
Lis Wiehl: Both. There's still more that could be done. But one agent - I think it was Jack Thompson - said to me, will there be another Hanssen? Of course. Will there be another bank robbery? Will there be another fraud case? Will there be another murder? I mean, crime happens, and espionage is a crime. When he put it like that, I thought, oh, yeah. That makes sense (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Lis Wiehl: There'll always be another mole. But that's the point really, is that you have to be thinking like that. There'll always be another mole, so don't trust everybody around you. Be looking, and report it when it happens. There should be a system for reporting it. Dr. Charney had one - he's a psychiatrist - had one interesting thought. He said, you know, once a spy does it once, they're sort of caught. They feel like they're caught. So how about an amnesty program? If you do it once, you can turn yourself in, and you won't - no damage. You won't be - you know, nothing will happen to you. And you'll be able to get out of it. People make mistakes. So you don't have to keep digging yourself in. It's an interesting thought. I doubt the FBI will ever adopt that, but it's an interesting thought.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. That's a good one.
Lis Wiehl: The one-bite rule.
Andrew Hammond: That could be a...
Lis Wiehl: The one-bite rule, you know, for (inaudible).
Andrew Hammond: Yeah (laughter).
Lis Wiehl: You get one free bite - one free spy. And then turn yourself in, and it will all be OK.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) That could be an interesting future podcast.
Lis Wiehl: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And I remember, like, one of my favorite books, which is part - it's meant to be purely nonfiction, but it kind of becomes fictional at points - is the book "Spycatcher" by the MI5 officer Peter Wright.
Lis Wiehl: Right.
Andrew Hammond: And in that book, he discusses the - just the toxic effect that this constant drip, drip, drip of spies that are working internally against their own team had on British intelligence during the Cold War. So that leads me onto the next question, which is just, what is the legacy of Hanssen for the FBI? Is it, we had this moment that was a learning moment; it was not something we're proud of, but we're moving forward? Or was it - is there an atmosphere of mistrust that anybody that could be compromised, or - yeah. Just give us a sense of how it's affected the culture or how it's affected the institutional memory of the FBI.
Lis Wiehl: Well, at the time, of course, it was devastating - I mean, devastating to everybody, CIA and as well FBI. CIA was happy it wasn't them, but FBI for sure. And I think that there almost needs to be somewhat of a level of mistrust, as I was saying. You know, you can't just blindly trust people because of Hanssen and other spies. And so I think that is there. And I'm not sure that that's a terrible thing.
Lis Wiehl: I mean, it's not that you're working with an FBI agent, and you're looking over your shoulder all the time. But be aware. Be an FBI agent. Be a detective. And be aware if things don't seem right. And I think Hanssen taught the FBI, and it was such a huge black mark. They never want that to happen again. So I think that's good, actually, that there is a heightened level of wariness about agents and just making sure that those security checks are done and done again so that you don't let someone pass through. And if somebody hacks into a computer or somebody else reports their brother-in-law - you know, you'd you pay attention to it. And I think that has changed.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's been really fascinating to speak to you.
Lis Wiehl: Thank you, Andrew. This was a lot of fun. And I really appreciate what you do. As I say, I relied a lot on interviews, but I also went to your archives and got great material.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter - @INTLspycast - and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter - @spyhistorian.
Andrew Hammond: This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.