David Vise and Ray Batvinis

Inside Media: Robert Hanssen, the Spy Within

October 05, 2008

Guests: David Vise and Ray Batvinis

One of the most damaging spies in American history was successful in part because of technological inertia at the FBI and in part because of the reluctance of some to even consider that an FBI agent would stoop to espionage.

The spy, Robert Hanssen, was motivated not by money or ideology, but by ego, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Vise and retired FBI agent Ray Batvinis.

Hanssen, serving a life term since his conviction in 2001, spied because he thought "the FBI didn't appreciate his brilliance, his ability and his skills — and that he didn't get the promotions he thought he deserved," said Vise, a former Washington Post reporter and author of "The Bureau and the Mole," an account of the Hanssen case.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were stroking Hanssen's ego and telling him how smart he was, Vise said. By spying, Hanssen "was showing that he was smarter than [the FBI]."

The bureau, for its part, unwittingly abetted Hanssen in two key respects. For one, said Batvinis, a counterintelligence expert, a fundamental weakness in the FBI at the time was its failure to use the polygraph (lie-detector) as a tool for personnel security matters.

"He spent his entire career at the FBI without ever taking a polygraph," Batvinis said, even though he had top security clearances and computer access to highly classified data.

Vise and Batvinis agreed that the bureau was too slow to adapt to new computer technology in the 1990s. They said Hanssen understood that and exploited the absence of needed security in the FBI's computers.

Batvinis said that while Hanssen was regarded as odd — fellow agents referred to him as "Dr. Death" because of his dark suits and aloof manner — "no one would have conceived that he would be an espionage agent."

When Hanssen was unmasked, Vise said, fellow agents "were stunned — stunned — to discover that someone in the FBI brotherhood had committed treason."

"Inside Media," produced by the Newseum, is open to the public. Seating is on a space-available basis.

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