At the same time he was selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, former FBI special agent Robert Philip Hanssen was a key supervisor in a 1980s domestic-spying program questioning the loyalty of American citizens and monitoring their activities, newly obtained FBI documents show.
Under this program, federal agents filed reports on teachers, clerics and political activists who primarily were affiliated with liberal causes. FBI domestic spy operations under the Reagan and Bush administrations first came to light a decade ago, prompting congressional rebukes. But the role--and historical irony--of confessed traitor Hanssen has not been reported before. The documents also offer some of the richest information to date about FBI domestic surveillance during the 1980s.
It's astonishing that the very guy who was going after dissenters was in fact working for the Soviets.
Hanssen's initials appear on numerous files among 2,815 pages of formerly classified documents recently obtained under a federal Freedom of Information Act request submitted nearly 15 years ago. Former co-workers confirmed his handwriting.
"It's astonishing that the very guy who was going after dissenters was in fact working for the Soviets," said Michael Ratner, vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a left-leaning political group that has been monitored by the FBI in the past.
The program, which lasted for more than a decade, monitored peace and antinuclear activists and other groups that the White House worried could be manipulated by Soviet propaganda. Its stated goal was to uncover Soviet attempts at altering U.S. policy by influencing targeted groups.
As a result, the FBI invested thousands of hours collecting political intelligence, even as insider Hanssen was delivering the FBI's most closely held secrets to the KGB.
For example, agents noted the movements of a woman who eventually became a high-ranking official in the State Department with the Clinton administration. In another instance, it warned that Philadelphia was ripe for Soviet infiltration. And an FBI memo signed by Hanssen raised the possibility that Russian agents were seeking the help of U.S. physicians and astronauts for subversive activities in the United States.
The FBI now is dealing with a series of embarrassments, including the loss of hundreds of its weapons and laptop computers, the late disclosure of thousands of pages of material in the Oklahoma City bombing case that delayed the execution of convicted bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, and missteps in the investigation of nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee, who at one point was accused of spying for China.
President Bush's choice to run the FBI, Robert Mueller, is expected to be given the task of overhauling the agency's cumbersome and, critics say, unaccountable bureaucracy.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a leading Reagan critic whose correspondence found its way into the FBI files, called the surveillance effort a "Cold War hangover" and "a waste of time."
But former FBI Director William H. Webster, who guided the bureau during the '80s, said the surveillance was warranted to thwart Soviet spy activity.
"We kept very close tabs on the intelligence activities of the Soviet Union in the United States," he said. "We monitored the embassies, the consulates and other places to see if contacts were being made that were out of the norm. We wanted to make it hard for them to function in this country."
Hanssen's former boss, David Major--now retired from the FBI and working as a counterintelligence consultant--confirmed that Hanssen was "one of a handful of experts" on Soviet political influence operations inside the U.S.
According to an FBI affidavit filed in connection with Hanssen's arrest, the secrets he disclosed to the Soviets in return for more than $1 million included the identity of three KGB double agents, two of whom subsequently were executed. He also allegedly revealed how the United States was intercepting Soviet satellite transmissions and the means by which the U.S. would retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack. In a plea deal that spares him from possible execution, Hanssen faces life in prison in exchange for providing full details of his spying to investigators.
"He was beautifully placed to pass along this trade-craft to the Soviets," said Webster, who is heading a team examining how to shore up security breaches in the FBI. "He was able to say, 'Here's what they know about you and here's what they're doing to keep track of you.' "
Hanssen declined to be interviewed and the FBI declined to comment further about the confessed spy's activity within the bureau.
Hanssen's assignment to the bureau's Soviet counterintelligence unit has been reported previously, but the newly disclosed documents show that he also was a key supervisor in the political intelligence operation. The Freedom of Information request sought FBI files concerning Soviet attempts to influence the U.S. peace movement. After Hanssen's arrest in February, an examination of the files revealed his initials on a number of documents.
The files repeatedly cite the role of the Soviet Analytical Unit, which had responsibility in the bureau for not only evaluating information collected about Soviet spies in the United States, but also to digest raw intelligence reports regarding alleged subversion. The unit would analyze the data, then provide conclusions to the intelligence community, the White House, Congress, and occasionally, the public.
Major said Hanssen, who was deputy chief of the unit from 1987 to 1990, "played a fundamental role in producing the final product. He was significantly involved in the process."
Major also said that, although Hanssen was not the head of the unit, he often was left in charge when its chief was supervising other matters. Indeed, in two instances the documents reveal Hanssen signing off for his boss.
Paul Moore, a former FBI analyst who knew Hanssen for 20 years, shared a carpool with him and considered him a friend. Moore said Hanssen went undetected for so many years because he played the role of the consummate counterintelligence man: "Bob was on the leeward side with all the guns pointing outward to sea. It was set up to catch other people. It takes a Bob Hanssen to catch a Bob Hanssen."
The heavily censored files, with many portions deleted "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy," were first requested in the mid-1980s. The FBI did not deliver them until April of this year, citing the large amount of material that had to be examined and censored. While much of the material is serious in nature, some entries appear quirky, or even trivial.
The files contain information on domestic peace groups from the era, ranging from SANE/Freeze antinuclear organizers to seniors' rights advocates the Gray Panthers. Among the intelligence transmitted to FBI headquarters:
* Agents in Philadelphia were concerned that it was "a fertile region" for Soviet influence operations. Among the causes: "the decaying industrial base, high blue-collar unemployment, homeless[ness], racial tensions, influential religious community, and concentrated liberal academic environment of the region."
* Nebraska agents collected information on an ex-priest in Omaha who was "opposed to military training for the young" and had criticized the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program there.
* The New York field office observed that a condom package sold in New York City replicated "the shape of and markings of a Stealth bomber."
Those examples aside, the files indicate that the FBI had some success in exposing Soviet disinformation operations, which included spreading fake U.S. government documents. For example, when racist letters apparently distributed by the Ku Klux Klan appeared before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the FBI established that they really were Soviet forgeries concocted to stimulate anti-U.S. sentiment.
In another instance, the FBI uncovered a plot designed to convince Central Americans that couples in the United States were adopting children from Guatemala and Honduras to harvest their vital organs.
There is no doubt that the Soviets made many other attempts--some obvious, others less so--to manipulate public opinion through spokesmen and various front groups. Such political influence operations were routinely detailed in a series of official U.S. government reports made public throughout the 1980s.
But the newly released files reveal a tendency by the FBI during this period to include in its net almost anyone involved in political activism opposing administration defense or foreign policy and having contact with the Soviets during the Reagan-Bush era.
For instance, one document included is the entire list of U.S. delegates to the 1987 World Congress of Women convention in Moscow. They ranged from the likes of former Texas legislator and human rights activist Frances "Sissy" Farenthold to the Rev. Nan Brown, a Baptist minister from Palmyra, Va. Brown said she went to Moscow simply because she wanted to look at the Soviet education system.
"I'm astounded, really," she said when informed that her name was in the files. "I only went because I wanted to go to the conference."
Another of those named in the documents is Erwin Salk, a prominent Chicago businessman and civil rights activist. Salk, who died last year, was somewhat disparagingly described by an informant as someone who "attempts to be in the forefront among the individuals dealing with various Soviet delegations visiting Chicago in order to satisfy his personal need for attention. Although Salk appears to be genuine in his efforts to develop U.S.-USSR relationships, he is easily manipulated due to naivete."
To which his widow, Evelyn, retorted: "I wonder who that person is who said that. That is so grossly wrong. He was a very strong person with a very strong will. Nobody manipulated him."
Then there is John Black, a retired Pennsylvania union organizer whose name was dropped into the files because he wrote an opinion piece for his local newspaper calling on the U.S. to accept a Soviet proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Black, now 80, took a certain pride at his inclusion.
"I've been a member of political organizations they don't like since I was 10 years old," he said in a recent interview. "I'm a Marxist and a union man."
Melvin Beckman, the former priest living in Omaha, was somewhat perplexed at being in the files. He has worked for years advocating nonviolent tactics to further peace causes. His wife works for Catholic Charities.
"It seems like they went overboard," he said. "I sure don't think they had anything to worry about from our group."
Other examples abound. There are four letters marked "Secret," and signed by then-labor organizer Ignacio de la Fuente, who was urging that the U.S. government lift a ban on union meetings with Eastern Bloc labor groups. These days, de la Fuente is president of the Oakland City Council.
Another document identifies a woman named Tobi Trister Gati as a guide for Soviet dignitaries visiting the U.S. in the mid-1980s. She now is an advisor on international affairs for a Washington law firm and was assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research in the Clinton administration.
"It's pretty surprising to have something like this come back from your past," she said recently.
Then-President Reagan repeatedly claimed that his political opponents were guilty of being manipulated by the Soviets. After 750,000 antinuclear activists thronged New York in 1982--the largest peace rally of the decade--Reagan suggested that the KGB had helped foster the movement.
While in office, Reagan made the battle against Soviet subversion a priority. Soon after he was elected, administration officials loosened post-Watergate restrictions on the FBI, pardoned former bureau officials convicted of authorizing illegal break-ins, and launched a new initiative aimed at identifying disinformation, forgeries, front groups, and other political influence operations by the Soviets inside the U.S. and abroad. The Soviets termed such efforts "active measures."
In the late 1980s, Congress criticized the FBI for several of its domestic spying operations, including the investigation of a group opposed to Reagan's policy toward El Salvador, as well as another that monitored public libraries in the search for Soviet agents.
Over time, the FBI reports on Soviet influence within U.S. borders grew more dire. One 1988 FBI report from the recently declassified files--bearing Hanssen's telltale initials of approval--warned that Moscow specifically had targeted U.S. doctors, astronauts and congressmen, among others, and suggested that Moscow even might play a role in the upcoming presidential campaign.
"It is possible that the Soviet Union will institute a new series of active-measures operations designed to discredit those candidates who have platforms that are not as acceptable to the Soviet government as those of other candidates," the report says.
Two years later, another FBI report ominously stated: "The Soviets conduct campaigns in cities throughout the United States. The rewards from active-measures campaigns are tremendous: the ability to alter U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Classical espionage operations remain a threat to national security; however, they do not have the ability to alter the course of a nation."
At that time, about 1990, Hanssen still was moving forward with his own espionage operation on behalf of the KGB.
What has happened to the FBI's political spy program in the intervening years? Major said that, after the 1991 abortive coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, "we walked away from active-measures investigations" as part of a wholesale de-emphasis on counterintelligence. But three years after the coup attempt, the telltale initials "RPH" reappear, indicating that Hanssen apparently authorized an FBI letter to the U.S. Information Agency requesting that it continue to participate in the bureau's effort to combat political subversion.
If the FBI's program for rooting out subversives continues today, it is almost impossible to determine. One reason: Like the newly released FBI files, many of the bureau's guidelines concerning counterintelligence remain secret.
Asked for details of the operations described in the files, bureau spokesman Steven Berry characterized the active measures as being from the "Cold War era."
"The FBI conducted lawful investigations . . . into Soviet government and KGB efforts to . . . undermine U.S. political, military, economic and social interests" through disinformation, front groups and other tactics, he said.
Dann is a reporter with the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting; Kennedy is a Times staff writer.
Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times