WASHINGTON -- Three and half-years ago, I reported that a veteran FBI agent resigned and retired after refusing a demand by Attorney General Janet Reno to give the Justice Department the names of top secret sources in China. My primary source was FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
Disclosing confidential sources is unthinkable for a reporter seeking to probe behind the scenes in official Washington, but the circumstances here are obviously extraordinary. The same traitor who delivered American spies into the Kremlin's hands was expressing concern about the fate of intelligence assets in China.
When my source was revealed as a spy, my first fear was that I had been the victim of disinformation by a truly evil man. I wrote my column of Nov. 24, 1997 only after other officials confirmed Hanssen's account. Nevertheless, I now wanted to make doubly sure and rechecked my report's validity. I did so, and several sources -- including one FBI agent who would not speak to me in 1997 -- totally confirmed what I had written. I am absolutely convinced that Hanssen told me the truth.
Then, why break a reporter's responsibility to keep his sources secret? I wrestled with this question for months and finally decided that my experience with Hanssen contributes to the portrait of this most contradictory of all spies. Furthermore, to be honest to my readers, I must reveal it.
In mid-November 1997, critics were accusing the Justice Department of covering up 1996 campaign scandals. I was informed by Hanssen that Ray Wickman, head of the FBI's intelligence unit monitoring Chinese operations, was ordered in Reno's name to turn over secret sources in his Chinese account. Wickman refused to surrender this information, resigned from the FBI and retired from the government in September 1997. Wickman declined to discuss this with me then and more recently, when I again approached him.
I never met Hanssen but talked to him three times over the telephone, the first at length and twice more briefly to check out information I received from other officials. He seemed to be well organized and deeply concerned about the possible compromise of secret assets in a Communist-ruled country.
Hanssen told me Wickman's sources were of the highest caliber and among the FBI's most sensitive. All unattributed quotes in my column came from Hanssen.
"It was an insult," I quoted Hanssen in describing the demand made of Wickman. He added: "The purpose of the FBI is to safeguard sources. The whole idea is to keep sources secret from the Justice Department. If Justice is going to have full access to our files, we have no purpose." I now have rechecked these quotes with another FBI source familiar with the Wickman situation. He agreed completely with these sentiments and attested to their accuracy.
My encounter with Hanssen came during what the government alleges was his sabbatical from spying for over eight years from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 until 1999, when KGB alumnus Vladimir Putin became Russia's prime minister en route to the presidency.
Unanswerable questions are pondered. During the lengthy interim when he was not betraying his country, could Hanssen have felt some genuine concern about the security of U.S. assets in China if they fell into the hands of the attorney general? Could he have experienced a sudden change of heart after disclosing the identity of U.S. assets in Russia?
Or, was he merely using me to undermine Reno -- and his boss, FBI Director Louis Freeh, as well? When I informed Hanssen that Freeh had told a member of Congress that he had heard nothing about Wickman's resignation, he replied disdainfully: "Of course, he heard about it." The accuracy of that assertion also has been newly verified to me by an additional source.
Robert Hanssen is an enigma and will remain so at least until he reveals himself. The speculation that he is purely the embodiment of evil tends to be undermined by the validity of his report about Ray Wickman. He really may have been living a double-life, one as a patriotic, religious American and the other as spy of the century. That sounds fanciful, but any other explanation fails.