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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Bored Hanssen And 'M&M' Spies

NEW YORK -- They seemed like a big catch. Valery Martynov and Sergei Motorin were a pair of KGB spies working out of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Recruited by the FBI in 1983, "M&M," as they were called by the agents, were expected to tell all about Soviet spying in the United States.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to tell. Though Moscow sent the KGB's Washington station a long wish list of secrets to steal, the Russian spies didn't try very hard. They were afraid that if they got caught, they would get kicked out of Washington.

The KGB men loved the city, with its comfortable, consumer-friendly lifestyle. So they mostly went through the motions. One of the turncoats told his American handlers that "if they could send something to Moscow Center 24 hours before it appeared in The Washington Post, they were heroes."

David Wise reports the complacent cynicism of the Russian spies, but only in passing, as an amusing footnote to a tale of treachery in his new book "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America." Hanssen, the FBI agent who sold out M&M and dozens of others, was a monster all right. Over two decades of spying for the Russians, Wise writes, Hanssen "betrayed an astonishing 50 human sources or recruitment targets." (Martynov and Motorin were summoned back to Moscow and shot.) At "dead drops" in suburban Virginia parks, Hanssen, a career counterespionage officer in the FBI, left double-wrapped black plastic bags stuffed with secret documents, including a CIA assessment of Soviet nuclear war fighting capabilities.

An amateur hacker, Hanssen seemed to have no problem breaking into government computers to steal secrets, which he bartered to the Russians for diamonds and cash. Espionage aficionados are still debating whether the FBI's Hanssen or the CIA's Aldrich Ames was the worst mole ever.

A relentless reporter and true expert on the world of spying, Wise recounts Hanssen's story and the hunt to catch him in precise, if sometimes overwhelming detail. One of several books published about the Hanssen case, "Spy" is the most authoritative. By marshaling the evidence with prosecutorial thoroughness, Wise seeks to shock with the enormity of Hanssen's betrayal. "Spy" is meant to be read as tragedy, but at times it reads more like farce. Lives were lost, the pressures and the risks were enormous. And yet the game, as played by the plodding careerists on both sides, seems oddly trivial, more like faculty politics in its pettiness than a superpower struggle.

All the intelligence services portrayed by Wise -- the FBI and CIA and their Russian rivals, the GRU (military intelligence) and KGB (later renamed the Foreign Intelligence Service) -- come across as exhausted and bumbling. The FBI had long believed that its best GRU source, code-named Top Hat, had been betrayed to the KGB by Aldrich Ames in the mid-1980s. Only after Hanssen was arrested in 2001 did the bureau learn that Hanssen had actually fingered Top Hat to the GRU six years earlier. But the GRU never moved against its own turncoat. Top Hat wasn't arrested and executed until the KGB learned of his perfidy from Ames. Apparently, the GRU never told the KGB that one of its generals had been turned. Wise is not sure why, but he suggests that fear of professional embarrassment was at least a factor. "The KGB and the GRU were bitter competitors who barely spoke to each other," Wise writes. "The KGB looked down on the GRU as 'the boots' or sapogi, a term of derision. ... The expression implied that the boot-wearing military men lacked subtlety."

It took more than two decades for the FBI to uncover the traitor in its midst, even though Hanssen left plenty of clues. He was guilty of poor tradecraft, refusing, for example, to vary his dead drop sites. (Nonetheless, the hapless Russians never discovered the real identity of Hanssen, who identified himself only as "Ramon.") Hanssen's brother-in-law, an FBI agent, suspected that Hanssen was working for the Russians and told one of his superiors. The warning was ignored.

The FBI knew that there was a mole somewhere in the American intelligence community -- agents were being burned right and left -- yet pigheadedly assumed that the mole must work for the CIA. Indeed, for almost two years the counterspies targeted the wrong man, a CIA case officer named Brian Kelley. His career and life nearly ruined by the investigation, Kelley received only grudging apologies when the gumshoes finally stumbled onto the real culprit. The bureau refused to recognize that it had been sold out by one of its own until the mole hunters heard a tape recording of Hanssen talking to his KGB handlers. The tape was provided by a disaffected former KGB man who had quit the Russian intelligence service at the end of the Cold War. The Russian walked out of KGB headquarters with "insurance against a rainy day" -- the KGB's file on its secret mole inside the FBI. The Russian sold the file to the Americans for $7 million.

Wise is generally described as the best-sourced, most knowledgeable author of books on espionage.

Among Wise's fans was Hanssen. Sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, Hanssen allowed Wise to interview his court-appointed psychiatrist, David Charney. Hanssen's decision to grant Wise such exceptional access was motivated partly by anger at an earlier psychiatrist, who prattled to the press about the FBI mole's "sexual demons," but also out of a professional spy's respect for an author's expertise.

Charney suggested that Hanssen was scarred and twisted by his father. During prison interviews with Charney, Wise writes, Hanssen "talked at length about the punishments and humiliations his father had imposed, such as wrapping him in a mattress so that his arms were pinned, or making him sit with his legs spread."

It's hard to imagine that Hanssen betrayed his comrades, his family, his faith and his country because he was bored. But that seems to be the truth. At the bureau's New York field office, where Hanssen was stationed when he first began selling secrets to the Russians, the end of the Cold War produced a kind of moral weariness. It was apparently this numbed sense of pointlessness that turned Hanssen into a traitor and a spy.

Evan Thomas is an editor at Newsweek and the author of "Robert Kennedy: His Life."