Should the national media ever manage to transcend the current
preoccupation with the personal affairs of a certain Congressman, perhaps the
time will come when attention turns again to an equally intriguing topic: the
twisted politics of confessed F.B.I. traitor Robert P. Hanssen.
Emerging almost unnoticed in recent weeks were three strange
but significant stories about the Hanssen case. What they suggest-along with
other information unearthed previously about the longtime Soviet spy-is that he
may have simultaneously functioned as a right-wing operative at the highest
level of American law enforcement. If that sounds outlandish, consider the
The question of Mr. Hanssen’s political affiliations first
arose following his arrest, when it became clear that his treason had been
motivated by money rather than ideology. He was no leftist but instead, as Newsweek reported in early March, a
devout member of the secret, controversial and ultraconservative Catholic lay
order known as Opus Dei. Liberal Catholics have frequently accused Opus Dei,
which answers directly to the Vatican, of pursuing secular political influence
and quashing modern reforms in the Church.
Now it appears that Mr. Hanssen once held a key bureaucratic
position from which he may have promoted these objectives. On July 29, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy
investigation of his role as a top F.B.I. overseer of domestic
counterintelligence operations. From documents obtained through the Freedom of
Information Act, many of which bear his handwritten initials, the Times discovered that Mr. Hanssen spent
several years directing the bureau’s notorious Reagan-era probes of American
liberal and peace organizations. Such groups were deemed inimical to the
objectives of the conservatives then in power, who tended to regard dissent
over the nuclear-arms race and war in Central America as Soviet-influenced and
According to the paper, those redacted files refer
repeatedly to the bureau’s Soviet Analytical Unit, where Mr. Hanssen served as
deputy chief. Among the unit’s responsibilities was “to digest raw intelligence
reports regarding alleged subversion.” Its analysis would then be provided to
“the White House, Congress, and occasionally, the public.”
As later Congressional investigations would show, what this
often meant in practice was the harassment and sometimes the smearing of
Americans engaged in lawful political activity. Among the many groups under
surveillance by the F.B.I. in those days were the Gray Panthers, nuclear-freeze
advocates associated with SANE-and the left-leaning Catholic adversaries of
Opus Dei who opposed the American-backed repression in Central America.
What the L.A. Times
story doesn’t explore is how the raw intelligence data reviewed by Mr. Hanssen
may have been misused-and whether he was ever in direct contact with anyone at
the White House, in Congress or in the news media regarding alleged liberal
That certainly seems possible in light of another
revelation, under the venerable byline of Robert Novak. The conservative
columnist admitted on July 12 that Mr. Hanssen had served as his main source
for a 1997 column attacking Janet Reno, then the U.S. Attorney General, for
supposedly covering up 1996 campaign-finance scandals. Although Mr. Novak still
believes that the information offered by Mr. Hanssen was valid, even he cannot
help wondering whether Mr. Hanssen was “merely using me to undermine Reno.”
(Adding another dimension to this curious confession is Mr. Novak’s reportedly
close relationship with a prominent Washington cleric who works in Opus Dei’s offices
near the White House.)
Apparently Mr. Hanssen would have been eager to use Mr.
Novak against the Clinton administration, if a June 16 cover story published by
Insight magazine is to be believed.
The author, Paul Rodriguez, obtained numerous e-mails allegedly written by the
spy in recent years, some of which include venomous invective against President
Clinton and his appointees. The messages are full of speculation about subjects
ranging from Mr. Clinton’s personal behavior to the Elián González and China
fund-raising affairs. One of the Hanssen e-mails concludes sardonically, “I
guess from this you can determine that I am not a big fan of Clinton.” The
article omits the names of the recipients of those messages. Perhaps the
magazine was protecting the privacy of innocent persons-or its own sources. It
ought to be noted, however, that Insight
is a conservative publication, put out by the same outfit that publishes the Washington Times .
All these stories, taken together, are merely pieces of a
much larger jigsaw puzzle that may or may not ever be completed in public view.
There is considerable irony, of course, in the news that a confessed Soviet
agent was responsible for spying on innocent American citizens in the name of
patriotic vigilance. But Mr. Hanssen, who avoided the death penalty by agreeing
to reveal everything he knows and did, may have some truly troubling stories to
tell about the American side of his double life.
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