Working for the worst spy in history

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By Carol A. Clark

ALBUQUERQUE — If money is the measure, convicted American spy Robert Hanssen didn’t make much during his 22-year spree trading secrets for cash – especially compared to the devastation he caused the government he was supposed to serve.

The disgraced agent received less than $1 million in cash and diamonds for supplying national defense and classified intelligence information to Russia for all but three of the 25 years he worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet, his betrayal compromised at least 50 human resources and caused the deaths of three Russian intelligence officers, according to court documents.

During an interview in his Albuquerque office, Special Agent in Charge Thomas C. McClenaghan shared his experience working for Hanssen.

It was early 1992. McClenaghan was the supervisory special agent at FBI Headquarters in Division 5, which is the Foreign Counterintelligence Division in Washington, D.C.

“My boss ... had retired, so I was waiting for my new boss to show up,” he said. “At the time, I was the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program manager, which means I oversaw all of the FBI’s WMD cases in the nation. Hanssen had been the first WMD program manager in the bureau and he became my boss.”

McClenaghan recalled the moment Hanssen walked into the office for the first time. He wore a dark suit, which McClenaghan said proved to be a habit and over time earned him the nickname “The Undertaker.”

“You can tell when you meet someone almost immediately whether they are socially awkward and he was,” he said. “Most FBI agents are fairly good actors. You have to have the gift of gab. You do a lot of interviewing – whether with the distraught parents of a kidnapped child or to develop an informant in a street gang or a high up in an investment bank. You have to be able to interact with all those people.”

Hanssen did not seem the type that could run an informant, McClenaghan said.

He was from the foreign intelligence side and not what McClenaghan would call a “classic street agent” capable of investigating crimes. He was eventually put in charge of investigating crimes of a clandestine nature.

“I recall very little that Bob Hanssen ever said,” McClenaghan said. “He was nondescript, and because of that he wasn’t a very good manager. I couldn’t understand how he got as high up as he did.”

McClenaghan recalled working some highly sensitive WMD cases at the time and said because of the uneasiness he felt, he would go over Hanssen’s head to the section chief.

“He knew it and didn’t make an issue out of it – and that was odd,” McClenaghan said.

During this time, from from 1992-1993, the Soviet Union was falling apart and Hanssen was in his dormant stage.

When McClenaghan was promoted to squad supervisor in the Houston bureau, he left Washington, D.C.; “I haven’t seen or spoken with (Hanssen) since I walked out the door,” he said.

McClenaghan described Hanssen as incompetent in his role as an FBI manager but brilliant with computers, recalling how he would hack people’s computers just to show he could.

“Hanssen thought he was smarter than everybody else,” McClenaghan said. “He thought he would never get caught because he worked counterintelligence, so he knew how not to get caught. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone lasting that long, passing that much information.”

McClenaghan had been promoted to special agent in charge in the Anchorage bureau when the news about Hanssen hit the media.

“I came into work between 6:30-7 a.m. that day and there was a teletype on my secretary’s desk from my director,” he said. “It said agent Robert Hanssen had been arrested for espionage. At first I didn’t make the connection – but if anybody in the FBI would have done it, it would have been him.”

Coincidently, one of McClenaghan’s colleagues who also worked for Hanssen ended up in charge of the investigation that ultimately brought down their former boss.

“All of the information we could get from defectors was periphery, so by process of elimination, he was arrested shortly after delivering a dead drop,” McClenaghan said, adding that he knows a lot of FBI agents were disappointed that Hanssen wasn’t executed.

“We’re often harder on ourselves and hold each other to a higher standard,” said McClenaghan, who while working foreign counterintelligence matters in New York, led a team of agents in a sensitive operation that ultimately earned him a Director of Central Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation.

“I know a lot of agents who would have volunteered for Hanssen’s firing squad,” McClenaghan said, “but they understood why he wasn’t executed.”

America hasn’t executed a spy since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, McClenaghan said, because they need to do a damage assessment when this kind of event occurs.

“If Hanssen was facing execution, he would have no incentive to tell us anything,” he said.

Hanssen’s traitorous activities were confirmed because he left fingerprints on plastic garbage bags he used to house stolen documents. He was 57 years old at the time of his Feb. 18, 2001, capture, which followed his final dead drop at Foxstone Park near his Vienna, Va., home.

He was just five weeks from retirement.

Since his conviction, Hanssen spends 23 of every 24 hours in solitary confinement at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo. He will remain locked up until the day he dies.