How spies hit back at their bosses

There is a mailbox in my neighbourhood still known in my household as "the Aldrich Ames postbox". There, at 37th and R, the Waspy man whose father was a CIA agent before him, and who had himself worked for the agency for 31 years, used to leave chalk marks every time he wanted to make a "drop" for his Russian "handlers". Now Ames is sitting out the rest of his life at Allenwood Penitentiary in Pennsylvania: in return for telling his CIA and FBI interrogators all he had handed over to Moscow, his life was spared and his wife, Maria del Rosario, given only a nominal sentence. (She has now been released, enabling her to return to her native Colombia to begin life anew with their young son.)

Washington is now abuzz with the unearthing of the latest spy in our midst: Robert Hanssen, a 56-year-old FBI man who, like Ames, was a counter-intelligence specialist in Soviet and, more recently, Russian espionage. But there, the parallels end. Where Ames was a drunk, Hanssen was punctiliously sober. Where Ames was personally slothful and disorganised, Hanssen was so religious that he drove eight miles every Sunday to attend a Catholic church where mass was said in Latin (and which has close ties with the worldwide Opus Dei organisation). While Ames was sloppy in his spying, Hanssen was so careful that not even the Russians knew his correct name and identity. And where Ames carelessly splashed around the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was picking up from Moscow, Hanssen continued to live the life of an impecunious civil servant with six children to support.

The arrests of both men - Ames in 1993 and Hanssen last month - confirm a new trend in spying. No longer is it ideologically motivated, as it was with the likes of Philby, Maclean, Burgess and Blunt. Nor - despite Ames's doomed attempts at high living and Hanssen's request to his Russian masters that he be paid "as security to my children" - is the reason primarily financial. We have moved into the era of the psychologically motivated spy, disgruntled with his lot and seeking the narcissistic excitement of putting one over on his bosses: men who do important but poorly paid, boring work and who do not rise in the ranks.

What must especially have galled Hanssen is that the upwardly mobile director of the FBI, Louis J Freeh - you can't help bumping into him at parties - attended the same St Catherine of Sienna Catholic church in Great Falls, Virginia. Freeh's son went to the same private Catholic boys' school as Hanssen's. And all the time, Hanssen was a pen-pushing and computer-button-pressing bureaucrat, analysing things such as the expense accounts of US businessmen visiting Moscow, while more socially adroit people like Freeh rose in the hierarchy.

Intelligence agencies often go for religious people as recruits, because they are thought likely to be loyal to an institution and to a set of beliefs. In Hanssen's case, however, his attachment to Opus Dei was misleading: you can spot a pattern in his life whereby he always combined resentment with a narcissistic desire to be that crucial step ahead of his fellows.

He was born in 1944, the only son of a Chicago cop; he variously studied to be a dentist, an accountant and a Russian linguist before following his father into the Chicago police force.

But, even then, he was no beat-plodding patrolman: he joined the C5 department, one loathed by other cops because its task was to root out bad apples. His ambition was to work for the National Security Agency as a code-breaker. But he joined the FBI instead in 1976, working his way up to work on the surveillance of Soviet diplomats in the New York area. Based in Manhattan a decade later, and earning a salary of around $46,000 a year - at that time, FBI men were leaving the New York office at the rate of one a day because they could not make ends meet - Hanssen made his irrevocable move, offering material to Colonel Viktor Cherkashin at the Soviet embassy in DC.

A 102-page FBI affidavit says that Hanssen handed over 6,000 pages of US documents and 26 computer disks. Ames gave Soviet intelligence the names of ten US agents, at least some of whom were executed; Hanssen confirmed that three of the Russians, Boris Yuzhin, Sergei Motorin and Valery Martinov, were spies. Motorin and Martinov were subsequently executed, making Hanssen now at least technically liable himself to be sentenced to death. He was a socially clumsy man, most at home with computers - which gives the FBI and CIA the heebie-jeebies, as it means that much computerised US intelligence may have become available to the SVR, the successor to the KGB.

His work earned him $600,000 in cash and diamonds from Russia, plus the doubtful promise of $800,000 in a Moscow bank account. "I would appreciate an escape plan," Hanssen wrote to his "handlers", adding prophetically that "nothing lasts for ever". He told the Russians he had been set on life as a spy since he read Kim Philby's autobiography when he was 14 - a blatant lie, as My Silent War was not published until many years later. By the time he was surrounded by fellow FBI agents in February and read his rights, Hanssen was just a few months away from retirement.

Four years ago, two Brigham Young University researchers, after studying 139 cases of treason by Americans, found that whereas ideology propelled most spies in the Fifties and Sixties, now the motivation is primarily money, disappointment over lack of promotion, and ego. With the arrest of Hanssen, a new chapter in spying has opened: one primarily characterised by a narcissism and disgruntlement rarely found in previous generations of traitors.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you