Was Hanssen a Spy for the Right Wing, Too?

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. Was Hanssen a Spy for the Right Wing, Too?