BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Americas
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 14:16 GMT
Profile: Unassuming double agent
FBI agents outside Robert Philip Hanssen's house
Little sign of wealth in Hanssen's suburban house
By BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg

Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI agent who has admitted spying for Moscow, was just a few years off retirement at the time of his arrest.

He may have felt reasonably confident that he had successfully fooled the intelligence organ of the most powerful country in the world.

I never saw him flaunt anything, any kind of wealth

Neighbour Nancy Powell
According to the FBI, over the years he received more than $1.4m in cash, diamonds, and money paid into Russian accounts - enough for him and his family to live in the lap of luxury for the rest of his days.

But after many years of working as a double agent, there were few signs of this cloak-and-dagger existence.

Robert Philip Hanssen
Mr Hanssen was a regular church-goes and father of six
He lived in a modest four-bedroom house in a suburb of Virginia with his wife and six children.

The family attended Sunday mass every week, driving to church in a 10-year-old van.

Friends and neighbours were shocked by his arrest, describing him as quiet and unassuming.

"I never saw them flaunt anything, any kind of wealth," one neighbour, Nancy Powell, told the Washington Post.


Officials investigating the case wanted to know what motivated a highly intelligent and successful agent to risk his life.

Was it the allure of money and diamonds? Was it ideological conviction?

I decided on this course when I was 14 years old

Hanssen letter
Or was there something in his personality that was attracted to subterfuge and the life of the double agent?

Letters and documents contained in an FBI affidavit suggest that Hanssen was not overly interested in financial gain.

"As far as the funds are concerned, I have little need for more than the $100,000," said a letter apparently written by Hanssen to the Russians.

"It merely provides a difficulty since I cannot spend it, store it or invest it easily without tripping 'drug money' warning bells.

"Perhaps some diamonds as security to my children and some goodwill would be better," it concluded.

Secret life

In another letter, Hanssen apparently reveals that he had been attracted to a life of espionage since he was a teenager, and was inspired by the British spy, Kim Philby.

Kim Philby
British double agent Kim Philby's book fascinated Hanssen
"I decided on this course when I was 14 years old," he wrote to his Russian handlers, according to the affidavit.

Hanssen grew up in Chicago, and went on to study chemistry, maths and Russian at Knox College in Illinois.

His acquaintances described him as aloof, but otherwise a "regular guy".

He was said to be a strict father, who limited his children's television watching.

He was also said to be a member of the Opus Dei, a secretive and conservative Roman Catholic order.

'Intelligent but arrogant'

Hanssen joined the FBI in 1976, rapidly moving up the ranks until he became a supervisory special agent in the Soviet Analytical Unit at the agency's Washington headquarters in 1987.

One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I'd answer neither. I'd say, insanely loyal

Hanssen letter
His colleagues at the FBI described him as extremely intelligent, but with a tendency towards arrogance.

"He was bright and he knew he was bright," said Richard Alu, a fellow FBI agent who is now a security consultant. "He was kind of arrogant about it."

But he always took great care not to reveal his identity - and, according to court documents, never met his Russian handlers - showing he did not take risks lightly.

US officials said it was that kind of caution and inside knowledge that allowed Hanssen to operate as a mole.

But the FBI said that by last March, a Hanssen letter to the Russians showed a man in despair.

"I have come about as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you and I get silence," Mr Hanssen allegedly wrote, after the Russians failed to respond to one of his signals.

"I hate silence. ... Conclusion: One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I'd answer neither. I'd say, insanely loyal."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

20 Feb 01 | Americas
Catching a spy
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Fifty years of spies
20 Feb 01 | Americas
Who's being spied on?
12 Feb 01 | Americas
US spies 'losing technology race'
11 Feb 01 | Americas
The world's spy capital
13 Sep 99 | Britain betrayed
The Cambridge spy ring
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories