Listen to True Spies podcast: Gray Suit & the Ghost
What motivated deadly traitor Robert Hanssen to spy for Moscow long after he needed the money? SPYSCAPE sat down for an exclusive interview with Hanssen’s psychiatrist, Dr. David Charney, a Washington, D.C. specialist on ‘insider spies’, to find out what made Hanssen tick.
FBI Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen pocketed $1.4m in cash, diamonds, and Russian bank deposits from Moscow before his arrest in 2001. “What took you so long?” Hanssen asked arrogantly as the FBI pounced during his final KGB dead drop in a Virginia Park.
He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy to avoid the death penalty and was serving multiple life sentences in a Colorado prison when Hanssen was found dead in his cell on June 5, 2023. He was 79 years old and it was the final chapter in one of the most notorious Cold War espionage cases in US history.
Hanssen began spying for the Soviet Union (and later Russia) in the late 70s, three years after joining the FBI when he was assigned to a New York counterintelligence unit. He marched into the New York offices of Amtorg, a front for the Soviet military intelligence agency, and volunteered his services. It was a betrayal that had severe consequences for US national security. Hanssen exposed three KGB agents working for the Americans who were deported and arrested. Two were executed.
The FBI-KGB spy also revealed the existence of a tunnel the Bureau and the National Security Agency constructed beneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. but the treachery didn’t end there. Hanssen shared details of US technical operations and gave the Soviets US plans about how America would react to a Soviet nuclear attack.
Much has been written about Hanssen but SPYSCAPE wanted to resolve one question in particular: Why did he betray his country?
'Going Postal': inside the mind of a traitor
Psychiatrist Dr. David Charney spent about 100 hours with Hanssen after his arrest - two hours a week over the course of a year - and believes Hanssen’s betrayal is rooted in his ego, his intolerable sense of personal failure, and the way Hanssen defined the ‘failures’ that began mounting up before Hanssen joined the FBI.
Hanssen’s father was a disparaging Chicago police officer who once humiliated his son by rolling Hanssen into a carpet as a punishment. “He felt belittled and damaged by his father," Dr. Charney said. When Hanssen dropped out of dental school after less than a year, Hanssen considered that a personal failure. When he joined the FBI, Hanssen tried to enact improvements at the Bureau, even introducing colleagues to US Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop - Observe, Orient, Decide, Act - but the FBI wasn’t interested.
Hanssen, confronting what he perceived as failure yet again, decided to fix his problems by ‘Going Postal’ - an unhappy term related to US postal workers who shoot and kill their colleagues. In psychological terms, it refers to the way people deal with negative feelings that might involve their personal as well as professional lives.
”When you want to unload that negative feeling, you go to the places you are familiar with. So hence, the person working at the Post Office will shoot up people at the Post Office," Dr. Charney said. "While somebody working in the Intelligence Community has a ready-made solution, which is, ‘Those bastards at work, I will show them. I will get them if I cross over the line and start working for the KGB. That’ll show them and I will undermine those swell-headed pigs. They think they are so smart? Well, I’m smarter'... It’s that kind of psychology.”
Hanssen thought of himself as James Bond. The FBI thought of him more as a librarian. Was that another trigger?
“Yes, I think so. Because I heard a lot from other people that he was not a guy that fit into the culture of the other Special Agents. He was stiff and morbid looking. Some people called him ‘The Undertaker’. He wore black suits.”
Gray Suit and The Ghost
It wasn't until the arrest of CIA-KGB double agent Aldrich Ames in the mid-'90s that the FBI and the CIA realized there may be another Soviet mole in US intelligence and the hunt began. Hanssen’s arrest came on the heels of an FBI undercover operation involving Eric O’Neill, at the time a 27-year-old agent who worked side-by-side with Hanssen to gather rock-solid evidence - a ‘smoking gun’ to ensure Hanssen would spend the rest of his life in a US federal supermax prison.
O’Neill walked a high wire every day on the ninth floor of the FBI’s D.C. headquarters. It was the line between suspicion and paranoia. He had his own FBI handler, but it was just O’Neill and Hanssen together all day, every day, sharing two rooms: the main pit where Eric sat with the computers, and Hanssen’s office.
“We could barely fit in there with Hanssen's ego,” O’Neill told the SPYSCAPE True Spies podcast.
The Hanssen case sparked significant introspection within the intelligence community. Hanssen didn’t fully explain why he carried on spying for Moscow when he no longer needed the money but O’Neill thought he knew the answer. “It was the thing that made him feel that he was the best at something in the world. No one was better,” O’Neill said. “And he knew that it was going to make him immortal. And it did.”
Dr. Charney believes the underlying psychological problems go much deeper.