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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hanssen Helped Search for Subversive Americans

WASHINGTON — At the same time he was selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, former FBI special agent Robert Hanssen was a key supervisor in a 1980s domestic-spying program questioning the loyalty of U.S. citizens and monitoring their activities, newly obtained Federal Bureau of Investigation documents show.

In this program, federal agents filed reports on teachers, clerics and political activists who primarily were affiliated with liberal causes. FBI domestic spy operations under Ronald Reagan and the first Bush administration 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.

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 anti-nuclear activists and other groups 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.

Representative Barney Frank, a leading critic of Reagan 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 Webster, who guided the bureau during the 1980s, said the surveillance was warranted to thwart Soviet spy activity.

Hanssen's former boss, David Major — 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 United States.

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 United States 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.

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 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 not only for 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. 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."

What has happened to the FBI's political spy program in the years since Hanssen was working both sides of the fence? That is impossible to determine.