Spies need a little nurturing, cash

Hanssen, Walker, Ames show motivation in letters

May 12, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGON - Robert Hanssen was getting desperate. The man who spent more than 20 years stealing government secrets for the Soviet Union and Russia needed a little stroking.

Defying orders from his Russian handlers not to include personal messages with his packages, in March 2000 Hanssen wrote, "I have come about as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you, and I get silence. I hate silence. ... Please, at least say goodbye."

Hanssen's letters have intrigued intelligence analysts since he was indicted as a spy last year. But more than the blatant treason they represent, his writings follow the impulsive and often bizarre ramblings of three other American spies that taken together are changing the way counterintelligence experts view double agents.

The letters, written over three decades, simultaneously display pomposity and insecurity while the responses of his Soviet and later Russian handlers seem practiced and shrewd. One former Soviet intelligence official said in an interview that KGB agents even had to take a class in how to answer letters from Americans who, unlike spies from other countries, needed to be soothed with schmaltz and sentiment.

The letters from American double agents selling secrets have recently become of interest to counterintelligence officials, said Peter Earnest, a former CIA operative who for more than two decades worked in the agency's clandestine service and studied the letters of recent American turncoats John Walker and Aldrich Ames.

"Some traitors are motivated only by financial concerns, they are very businesslike - where is the money, how much gold, that sort of thing," said Earnest, now the director of the International Spy Museum, which opens in Washington in July.

But in spies' letters, he said, "You surface other things, insight into their motivation and thinking, all sorts of information comes out."

Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who lived in the suburbs of Virginia, was sentenced Friday to life in prison after pleading guilty to spying for the Soviets and the Russians.

His life as a spy began in 1979 when he sent a letter to the home of a KGB officer working at the embassy here with the names of three Soviet agents the United States had recruited to spy. All were later executed.

'Bear with me'

Thus began a series of communications left in packages at "dead drop" sites in suburban Washington parks. His letters were often arrogant, as he tried to sell himself as a true insider who should be respected. At the same time, he seemed desperate, as if needing to be appreciated and liked. Addressing his handlers as "friends," he told them that their thank-you notes were "deeply appreciated," and begged them to "bear with me."

Once, after receiving a note that followed a long silence on the part of his handlers, he told them not to "patronize" him. He was careful, though, not to push too hard: "It offends me, but then you are easily forgiven. But perhaps I shouldn't tease you. It just gets me in trouble."

To many analysts, Hanssen's letters are classic examples of modern-day American spies who feel unappreciated at work and are motivated by two primary concerns: money and self-regard.

"These are people who think they are a lot smarter than they are given credit for," said Pete Earley, author of books on Ames and Walker. "It may start as money, but it becomes the satisfaction of being able to go to work, sit at their desk and say, `You may think I am a loser, but I'm not. I'm changing history.'"

Walker, a retired Naval warrant officer, was arrested in 1985, along with his brother, his son and a friend, for espionage after selling secrets to the Soviets for almost two decades. Walker took a key list, which decodes secret U.S. communications, and walked into the Soviet embassy in 1967.

Letters lack reality

Walker's letters are filled with self-congratulatory bombast about his work and his ability to recruit a mini-empire to spy for him after he retired.

In one letter, as relayed in Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, Walker, a marijuana smoker, wrote: "No member of the organization or prospective members has any of the classic problems that plague so many in this business. We have no drug problems, alcoholic problems, homosexuality. All are psychologically well adjusted and mature."

The reality, of course, was far from it, as his marriage ended in divorce and several of his children as teen-agers ran into trouble with the law. But like Hanssen, Ames and, most recently, accused spy Brian Regan, Walker couldn't help indulging in florid, self-promoting missives.

Ames, a CIA agent who spied for the Soviets and then the Russians from 1985 to 1994, was used to face-to-face meetings with his handlers during his assignments abroad. When he returned to Washington, he found dead drops distressingly impersonal.

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