Should the national
media ever manage to transcend the current
preoccupation with the personal affairs of a certain Congressman,
perhaps the time will come when attention turns again to an equally
intriguing topic: the twisted politics of confessed F.B.I. traitor Robert P.Hanssen.
unnoticed in recent weeks were three strange but significant
stories about the Hanssen case. What they suggest—along with other information
unearthed previously about the longtime Soviet spy—is that he may have simultaneously
functioned as a right-wing operative at the highest level of American law enforcement.
If that sounds outlandish, consider the evidence.
of Mr. Hanssen’s political affiliations first arose
following his arrest, when it became clear that his treason had been motivated by
money rather than ideology. He was no leftist but instead, as Newsweek reported in
early March, a devout member of the secret, controversial and ultraconservative
Catholic lay order known as Opus Dei. Liberal Catholics have frequently accused
Opus Dei, which answers directly to the Vatican, of pursuing secular political
influence and quashing modern reforms in the Church.
Now it appears
that Mr. Hanssen once held a key bureaucratic position from which
he may have promoted these objectives. On July 29, the Los Angeles Times
published a lengthy investigation of his role as a top F.B.I. overseer of domestic
counterintelligence operations. From documents obtained through the Freedom of
Information Act, many of which bear his handwritten initials, the Times discovered
that Mr. Hanssen spent several years directing the bureau’s notorious Reagan-era
probes of American liberal and peace organizations. Such groups were deemed
inimical to the objectives of the conservatives then in power, who tended to regard
dissent over the nuclear-arms race and war in Central America as Soviet-influenced
the paper, those redacted files refer repeatedly to the bureau’s Soviet
Analytical Unit, where Mr. Hanssen served as deputy chief. Among the unit’s responsibilities
was “to digest raw intelligence reports regarding alleged subversion.” Its analysis would then
be provided to “the White House, Congress, and occasionally, the public.”
As later Congressional
investigations would show, what this often meant in practice
was the harassment and sometimes the smearing of Americans engaged in lawful
political activity. Among the many groups under surveillance by the F.B.I. in those
days were the Gray Panthers, nuclear-freeze advocates associated with SANE—and
the left-leaning Catholic adversaries of Opus Dei who opposed the American-backed
repression in Central America.
What the L.A.
Times story doesn’t explore is how the raw intelligence data reviewed
by Mr. Hanssen may have been misused—and whether he was ever in direct
contact with anyone at the White House, in Congress or in the news media
regarding alleged liberal subversion.
seems possible in light of another revelation, under the venerable
byline of Robert Novak. The conservative columnist admitted on July 12 that Mr.
Hanssen had served as his main source for a 1997 column attacking Janet Reno,
then the U.S. Attorney General, for supposedly covering up 1996 campaign-finance
scandals. Although Mr. Novak still believes that the information offered by Mr.
Hanssen was valid, even he cannot help wondering whether Mr. Hanssen was
“merely using me to undermine Reno.” (Adding another dimension to this curious
confession is Mr. Novak’s reportedly close relationship with a prominent
Washington cleric who works in Opus Dei’s offices near the White House.)
Hanssen would have been eager to use Mr. Novak against the
Clinton administration, if a June 16 cover story published by Insight magazine is to
be believed. The author, Paul Rodriguez, obtained numerous e-mails allegedly
written by the spy in recent years, some of which include venomous invective
against President Clinton and his appointees. The messages are full of speculation
about subjects ranging from Mr. Clinton’s personal behavior to the Elián González
and China fund-raising affairs. One of the Hanssen e-mails concludes sardonically,
“I guess from this you can determine that I am not a big fan of Clinton.” The article
omits the names of the recipients of those messages. Perhaps the magazine was
protecting the privacy of innocent persons—or its own sources. It ought to be
noted, however, that Insight is a conservative publication, put out by the same
outfit that publishes the Washington Times.
All these stories,
taken together, are merely pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle
that may or may not ever be completed in public view. There is considerable irony,
of course, in the news that a confessed Soviet agent was responsible for spying on
innocent American citizens in the name of patriotic vigilance. But Mr. Hanssen, who
avoided the death penalty by agreeing to reveal everything he knows and did, may
have some truly troubling stories to tell about the American side of his double life.