Monday, June 8, 2015

"The Spy Next Door" by Shannon & Blackman: A Review

Even if the Russians themselves never again threatened world peace as they had during the Cold War, Gordon said, the secrets Hanssen sold could still do terrible damage to U. S. forces and interests in the Third World. "The Russians are in a position to sell, use, or trade that information to help others neutralize U. S. intelligence," he said. "It's hard to change the way you do things. the Russians know that, and they have taught or traded their knowledge of us to other countries or to non-state actors, to terrorists groups, to revolutionary groups."

It had been almost twenty-two years since Bob Hanssen began selling secrets. But even as the FBI congratulated itself on finally nailing him, there was no denying the presence of an undercurrent of worry, shame, and anger. He had been there. He had been there all along. (224)

Perhaps no crime is more universally hated than betrayal. Trust is everything in any relationship and to discover that citizens with access with our nation's most sensitive secrets and intelligence would then sell them to our enemies is appalling. Such an act has almost always been a capital offense.

In 2001 news broke that the worse traitor in our history was finally captured after serving as a spy for the Soviet Union for twenty-two years. Though not made public, Robert Hanssen, a seemingly everyday man with peculiarities about him, was one of the most wanted men in America - if only the FBI could discover who it was selling all of its secrets.

I remember the story, but the significance of his capture was overshadowed that year by 9/11. Robert Hanssen handed over some of the most sensitive material ever in American history and he is now serving a life sentence without parole.

The narrative has always interested me but I never really looked into it. Recently I read Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman's book The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Damaging Agent in U. S. History. The book itself is straightforward. It chronicles, from beginning to end, the rise and fall of Hanssen the spy. The authors do not chase many rabbits. In my experience, books like this spend an inordinate amount of time psychologizing its subject. The authors do not do that here. Though they explore why Hanssen betrayed his country, they go no farther.

Certainly money could not have been the primary motivation. Over a twenty-two year career of espionage, the annual "income" of his work was minimal. Certainly he had his bills to pay, but this could not have been the deciding factor. Likely it was ego and an "I'll show them" sort of attitude. Hanssen was not cool and he resented it. He acted superior to his colleagues (which is why he wasn't cool). The authors portray him as someone that only his family loved.

Ultimately, what we ought to learn from this story is that looks can be deceiving. The best spies, and certainly Hanssen ought to be numbered among them, not only cover their tracks but are experts at living a lie. Hanssen was a very religious Catholic who was also obsessively anticommunist. How ironic.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It is a fascinating story and the authors tell it well. I appreciate their approach of just telling the facts. If you are interested in true crime stories, I recommend this one. It is truly historic.

In closing, I am reminded of the following quote from CS Lewis:
We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” -Abolition of Man
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