Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Spy (2003), as the title suggests, is a non-fiction work about espionage, a topic that has held perennial interest for me over the years.  Specifically, it chronicles the career of Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for both the Soviet Union and Russia over a 22 year period (1979-2001).  He is arguably considered the most damaging mole in the history of American intelligence, and was responsible for betraying at least three Soviets working for America who were later executed in the USSR for treason.  In addition to betraying American operatives, Hanssen sold highly sensitive information about US nuclear strategy and electronic intelligence gathering methods.     

Rather than go into great detail about Hanssen's career, I would urge you to read the book.  Suffice it to say that it is an interesting read for someone not overly familiar with the daily workings of the intelligence world.

One question nagged at me throughout the book and was never really explained to my satisfaction.  In 1979, Robert Hanssen had been an FBI special agent for a mere three years and recently transferred to the counter-intelligence section.  How is it that he was immediately given access to such highly sensitive information as the identity of Dmitri Polyakov (codename TOPHAT), one of the most productive CIA spies in history?  I was not clear if this sort of access would be customary or, more likely, was given to Hanssen as part of his new duties.  Either way, this seems like a gross error on the part of the FBI.  Of course, as the author notes several times over the course of Spy, hindsight is 20-20.

For me, the strong point of the book is in the final chapters, where Wise analyzes Hanssen's motivation for his espionage activities.  These chapters are largely based upon interviews with a psychologist who spent several weeks debriefing Hanssen in the immediate aftermath of his arrest.  In fact, Hanssen gave permission for the psychologist to break patient-doctor privilege so that this information might be presented.  It is clear that unlike some other notable spies, financial considerations were never in the forefront of Hanssen's mind (unlike the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole who received over 2.7 million dollars for betraying upwards of ten agents working for the US and UK).  Nor was Hanssen ideologically motivated.  Instead, he seemed to harbor a serious inferiority complex that, over time, developed into a deep-seeded hatred of the FBI.

Wise's account stumbles in a few places (particularly unclear was the account of the Felix Bloch incident), though it is a fairly well written account and moves along at a good pace.  I give it four hamsters based mostly on my interest in the subject matter.

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