Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

NYC to Washington and Back

Bob Hanssen's first assignment was investigating white-collar crime in Gary, Indiana. Gary, a decaying rust belt town, was just 40 miles from Chicago and the Hanssens didn't have to move.  But the FBI wasn't about to waste an agent who had an MBA from a topflight university and who also had Chicago Police Department experience in Indiana's second city. As soon as they thought he was seasoned, he was assigned to the bureau's field office in New York City, a plum assignment considered second only to headquarters in Washington.

FBI headquarters building in Washington
FBI headquarters building in Washington

The Hanssens purchased a three-bedroom house in Scarsdale, a suburb in Westchester County. By now the Hanssen family had grown to two girls and two boys. Money was tight, and with Bob barely making $40,000 a year, life revolved around church and family.

So it was surprising that when Bob and Bonnie went out to dinner with John and Loretta Donovan, the couple who had sold them the house, Bonnie revealed that they had a Swiss bank account. And when Bob later said this line, the Donovans thought he was talking about his job with the FBI: "I've wanted to be a spy ever since I was a child."

He may, however, have been talking about working for the other side. During their three-year stay in Scarsdale, Bob approached several Russian agents in New York and offered them secrets in exchange for money. Exchanges were made, but while he was counting out $20,000 in $100 bills in the basement of the Hanssen house, Bonnie walked in and Bob boasted about the deal, saying he had tricked them and given them worthless information. His wife was horrified but instead of asking him to turn himself in she asked that he stop playing the grown-up Spy vs. Spy game and confess the act to an Opus Dei priest and ask for guidance. The cleric, Robert Bucciarelli, told Bob to give his ill-gotten gains to the Mother Teresa charities.

That appeared to be the end of it. Back at the FBI's New York offices in the Jacob Javits building, Bob displayed a certain competence, even brilliance, but the kind that would take him only so far.

"He was different," his boss, Richard Alu remembered. "I thought he was an intelligent guy, but he was an introvert. Most agents, they're introverts. But the ideal agent is a used-car salesmanyou've got to be able to sell yourself. Hanssen simply didn't have any interpersonal skills. He was able to see problems, see solutions, and implement them. His solutions were not always easy for his peers to follow. He would have to explain them, and he did not suffer fools gladly.

"You can only go so far on brains alone," Alu concluded. "You still have to have personal skills to rise up in management."

By the time Robert Hanssen was assigned to Washington in 1981 he had begun to realize that any dreams he had of becoming part of the FBI's hierarchy were not going to be realized. Silent Bob was considered an odd duck among his fellow agents who had begun calling him "the mortician" and "Dr. Death" behind his back because of his dour demeanor and continued penchant for black suits.

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