Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Philip Hanssen: The Spy who Stayed out in the Cold

Crime and Punishment?

Many agents in the FBI privately grumbled about the pension payments to Hanssen's wife, pointing out that at the very least Bonnie Hanssen was guilty of obstructing justice. After all, they said, she did not report her husband to authorities when she first noticed he was selling secrets to the Soviets in 1979. In a defense, Bonnie told the New York Times in an interview that she had passed a polygraph test that proved she had no additional knowledge of her husband's activities.

Others in the Bureau lamented the timing of his capture. "If Hanssen had been arrested after September 11, 2001, there would have been no question of a deal or pension and he would be on death row now," one official said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller
FBI Director Robert Mueller

The agreement reached by Cacheris and the prosecution appeared orchestrated. The understanding was announced on the day before the American Independence celebrationJuly 4th, 2001. Then, 24 hours later, President Bush announced a new head of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III.  (In talks before his appointment, Mueller had argued for the death penalty.) Next, Bob Hanssen appeared in a hushed Alexandria, Virginia courtroom on July 6th and admitted he was guilty of 15 of the charges against him.

After entering the chambers that Friday, he scanned the room looking for friends or family. There were none, but many in the first two rows were FBI employees and some were his former colleagues. They got a smirky sort of grin as he recognized them. They grimaced back as if smelling a foul odor. Plato Cacheris tried to explain why the Hanssen family was absent.

"They visit him each week," he said, "but they value their privacy."

In the months that followed, Bob Hanssen was interviewed for 200 hours over 75 different days and polygraphed twice. In spite of the exhaustive interrogations, the government was largely unsatisfied with his answers.

"I have a poor memory," he shrugged as way of explanation. When a polygraph examiner told him he was being evasive, a physical altercation ensued between the two men. The interrogation team became angry.

"His claim of a poor memory was an excuse for not engaging fully in the debriefing or was a means to hide facets of his activity," a government assessment concluded. "Hanssen's answers were often contradictory, inconsistent, or illogical. His cooperation concerning his finances, the significance of his espionage and his motives were problematic."

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