It sounds like the stuff of cold war novels. An American - and not just an American but an FBI agent - is arrested and charged with spying for Russia. Robert Philip Hanssen, 56, a 25-year veteran of America's premier law enforcement agency, was allegedly paid $1.4 million in cash and diamonds for selling out his country.
FBI Director Louis Freeh called Hanssen's alleged actions "traitorous," a word we haven't heard at least since the Aldrich Ames and Harold James Nicholson spy cases nearly a decade ago. Ames spent 31 years working for the CIA and is now serving a life sentence. Nicholson, the highest ranking CIA official ever arrested for espionage, was convicted of spying for Russia and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Freeh said that Hanssen caused "grave damage" to the United States by allegedly providing highly classified information to the KGB and its successor agency, the SVR. Freeh charged that Hanssen used encrypted communication, dead drops and other clandestine techniques transmit secrets to his Russian contacts.
Aside from the obvious question of how an FBI agent, with the agency's traditions, could allegedly sell out his own country for money, the bigger questions include whether there are any more like him in strategic positions in our government and what this means for long-term U.S.-Russian relations.
The possibility of even more moles inside our government was raised during the Ames prosecution. The CIA's late counter-intelligence chief, James Angleton, always believed that the Soviets had placed spies in sensitive positions to steal American secrets. Some of Angleton's friends said he was hounded out of office for displaying a McCarthy-like paranoia about communism. Ames' exploits cost the lives of at least 10 American agents inside the Soviet government. The FBI said that Ames was responsible for all of their deaths.
Some might say that because each side spies on the other, what's the big deal? The difference is that one nation tried for seven decades to dominate the world by any means necessary, and it wasn't us. There may have been political equivalency here, but surely not moral equivalency, given the objectives of the two countries involved.
Second, should we return to those not-so-thrilling days of the recent past and rekindle the Cold War mentality? Not according to Leon Aron, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Aron testified before a Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs May 20, 1998. He said that while the Soviet Union, as we knew it, might be dead, there remains "a crushing burden of the Soviet legacy." He said its "harmful rays, like light from a long dead star, will continue to reach us for a very long time." Aron warned that "any American policy-maker who is not prepared to handle Soviet strands in the fabric of Russian behavior and who does not confront and counter them resolutely would fail in his or her duty."
What we are really dealing with is two Russias. The "good Russia" pulled out of Eastern Germany in 1994, as well as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. 800,000 troops, 400,000 civilian personnel and 500,000 family members were repatriated, even though most returned to the most difficult of circumstances, in most cases without jobs or housing.
The "bad Russia," with its fabric of Soviet communism still visible, sees itself as having been forced into a humiliating demilitarization, losing its honor along with its once-proud military might. There are some former communists and not a few nationalists who would like to see "mother Russia" restored to greatness. If that takes spying on the United States, they may reason, so be it.
What is difficult to judge is Russia's long-term objectives. Does she still wish to challenge U.S. interests in limited parts of the world? Is she playing spy games just to keep her hand in international affairs?
In his testimony before the Senate subcommittee, Aron said that even though there remain enormous and real problems in and with Russia, "never in the almost four-and-a-half centuries of the modern Russian state has there been a Russia less imperialist, less militarized, less threatening to its neighbors and the world, and more affected by the Western ideals and practices than the Russia we see today."
A reasonable person might wonder, if that is true, why are they still spying on us?