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Robert Hanssen, called the most destructive spy in U.S. history, dies at 79

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who led a double life as a Soviet spy, died in a prison cell this week. Hanssen may no longer be a household name, but he is still considered the most damaging spy in the bureau's history. For more on Hanssen, we turn to journalist Tim Weiner, an authority on intelligence-gathering agencies. He's the author of "Enemies: A History Of The FBI" and "Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA."

Good morning.

TIM WEINER: Good morning.

MARTIN: Could you just give us a brief portrait of Robert Hanssen and why it is said that his actions - why he's called the most damaging spy in the bureau's history?

WEINER: Hanssen was a third-generation Chicago cop. His father and grandfather before him were crooked cops, and he knew that. And as he told one of his debriefers after his arrest, the bar wasn't too high for me. He joined the FBI in '76. By '79, he was an active spy for the Kremlin. And off and on over the next 22 years, he kept spying. And when he was on, he was indeed the most devastating spy in the bureau's history. He was like a 500-year flood, this guy.

MARTIN: Because why? What exactly did he do, or what did he cause?

WEINER: All right. Among - we don't have an hour, but among the many things he gave up were the identities of all the Soviets and Russians spying for the United States, the fact that the FBI was tunneling under the new Soviet Embassy to tap into its communications, all the methodologies by which the United States tried to spy on the Soviets, the plans for World War III for the United States, who goes where, who does what.

MARTIN: Wow.

WEINER: The list is long.

MARTIN: How did he get away with it for so long?

WEINER: Because he was hiding in plain sight. His job was to analyze the FBI's spying operations against the Soviets. When two of the FBI's most-prized recruits inside the Soviet Embassy in Washington disappeared in 1985, the bureau couldn't figure out why. Who had done this? We're all looking for the guy who'd done - who's done this. They appointed a task force to look into how this had happened in 1988. Hanssen led the task force. He was looking for himself.

MARTIN: So lives were lost as a result of his behavior. Careers were ruined as a result of his behavior. How was he finally caught?

WEINER: Ah. For years after the arrest of the CIA's own mole, the FBI and the CIA realized that the CIA mole couldn't have done all the damage he thought he had done. There had to be another mole within the United States. The bureau went looking inside the CIA for the second mole and destroyed the life and career of at least one CIA officer. Finally, the CIA got in to the investigation, and a former KGB officer offered to defect and to bring with him a file on the mole that the Russians were running inside the FBI. The FBI paid $7 million. The CIA went to Russia and got the file.

And there was a tape in that file of Hanssen talking to his handlers. And on that tape was a particularly pithy phrase he had stolen from General Patton which we cannot say on the radio. It was a very distinctive and obscene phrase. And they played the tape. And one of the people listening to it said, oh, my God; that's Hanssen. I heard him use that same obscene and pithy phrase in the office many a time. He was nailed.

MARTIN: So one of the points that you have made in your reporting and that others who followed this case have made is that, you know, just like you just said, he was hiding in plain sight, that he wasn't suspected because he was perceived as one of them, one of the guys. He fit just the - sort of the profile, the straight arrow, deeply devout, a family man, you know, allegedly. So even though he had some other sort of interesting sort of personal quirks that we're not going to go into here, has anything changed as a result of the Hanssen scandal? Have either of these agencies looked at themselves and said, there's something in our own culture that allowed this to flourish?

WEINER: Well, two things. One is there was a mentality that persisted into the 21st century of the FBI and the CIA saying, well, we know there's a mole, but it can't be one of us. It would never be one of us. Well, it was. And the second one is that after great and terrible struggle, the FBI and the CIA have learned to work together. You know, they're totally different cultures. The FBI are cops. The CIA are robbers. They take great pains, great struggle over the decades to really screw each other rather than help each other. But now they have learned to help each other where it really counts. It took both the 9/11 disaster and these series of spy cases to get them to learn to live together and sing off the same sheet of music.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, forgive me for sort of asking you to speculate, but how possible is it that there - a new Robert Hanssen could be keeping a desk at the FBI or the CIA but working for U.S. adversaries? Have procedures been tightened up so that couldn't happen again?

WEINER: Michel, there is an actuarial certainty that as we speak there are moles inside the U.S. intelligence community and that they are working undetected.

MARTIN: That's Tim Weiner. He's the author of "Enemies: A History Of The FBI" and "Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA." And he's currently working on a book about the CIA in the 21st century.

Tim Weiner, thanks for joining us.

WEINER: Thank you.

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