Espionage: What's the big deal?

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 1, 2001 -- The recent arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who spent 15 years selling secret information to the Russians, has the intelligence community all in a tizzy. How could this happen, they ask. This guy was right under the nose of the government's top investigative braintrust, yet he was able to conduct espionage operations with impunity for years without being detected.


Should we expect a spy to go around chanting, "Long Live Russia" and attending anti-American protest rallies?


At the same time, they say, his offenses constituted "exceptionally grave" security breaches, which are "extremely serious and deeply disturbing." The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was quoted on CNN.com as saying, "Mr. Hanssen's alleged activities are of such scope that I don't believe that we will know the true extent of the damage for years to come."

If a spy spies in the forest and no one sees him, is he still a spy?

But if we don't "know the true extent of the damage," how much damage could the guy have done? If Hanssen's treasonous operations compromised national security so severely, then how is it that nobody noticed anything? Last time I checked, the country was still functioning. The Russians (who aren't even our enemies anymore, you may recall) hadn't taken over, foreign agents hadn't infiltrated every layer of American society, and basically, the sun still came up every morning. If Hanssen's spying had really been that damaging, we'd be speaking Russian now.

This is the paradox of espionage: Spies and spy agencies create their own secret world, which is completely separate from the real world. When our spies spy on another country, and the other country's spies spy on us, all of this activity has nothing to do with the society we live in. These guys go around thinking they're James Bond, and that their work is of such vital importance to the future of our country that it must be conducted in complete secrecy -- yet still consuming, of course, billions of dollars of our money every year. And they've snookered us into thinking that the world of espionage has something to do with the real world -- so we keep paying them.


Hanssen's "grave" act of treason was nothing more than divulging trade secrets about our own spy industry.


I can't help chuckling at the shock and outrage expressed by government officials and political commentators. For example, Time magazine's Richard Stengel denounces Hanssen as a "hypocrite," because of his outwardly patriotic, right-wing stance, which he projected while at the same time spying for Russia. He states, "What's so infuriating about Hanssen apart, of course, from the simple fact that he was a traitor is the fact that he was so sanctimonious about his patriotism, his faith and his family."

Um, hello, Mr. Stengel? Should we expect a spy to go around chanting "Long Live Russia" and attending anti-American protest rallies?

Let's go look for an enemy

Since the Iron Curtain fell, the intelligence industry (let's call it what it is) has undoubtedly felt that it needs to come up with ways to justify its continued existence. Now that we don't have much in the way of enemies out there, what's to spy on?

Other spies, primarily. According to an FBI press release (it's available on their Web site), Hanssen is supposed to have "compromised numerous human sources of the U.S. Intelligence Community, dozens of classified U.S. Government documents, including `Top Secret' and `codeword' documents, and technical operations of extraordinary importance and value... Hanssen compromised FBI counterintelligence investigative techniques, sources, methods and operations, and disclosed to the KGB the FBI's secret investigation of Felix Bloch, a foreign service officer, for espionage." The Washington Post reports that, "Hanssen was on assignment from the FBI to the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions, which monitors foreign diplomats. That position gave him access to information about suspected intelligence agents posted in this country."

In other words, the information Hanssen gave the KGB was largely related to our own spying activity -- not to stuff that actually had anything to do with real life. This is the inbred spy-world mentality we're dealing with. Hanssen's "grave" act of treason was nothing more than divulging trade secrets about our own spy industry.


With "damage" like this, who needs "security?"


I'm not saying there's no need for a certain amount of intelligence-gathering. In the post-Cold War world, there are certainly plenty of people out there who like to blow things up, shoot things down, and commit other acts of "terrorism" (which they generally consider not terrorism, but resistance against a military power that likes to impose its will upon the rest of the world -- and frankly, if I were an Arab, a Chilean, or a Chinese, I might agree with that viewpoint).

But the Russians are supposed to be our friends these days -- just like Germany, Japan, Italy, and those other countries we were at war with a few decades ago. So why is it so awful that one of our own agents was selling them information -- and information that was only about our spying methods?

Nose? What nose?

I think it's mostly that the FBI is embarrassed that this was going on right under its nose for 15 years -- not that the actual security breaches were any big deal. FBI officials have some egg on their face, and by calling Hanssen every name in the book to portray him as a conniving scoundrel, they're trying to distract people's attention from the fact that they're the ones who screwed up, by letting him spy on them undetected for so long.

I say, what's all the fuss about? If this guy was causing such severe damage to the country over the past 15 years, then why has that period been such a great and prosperous time for the United States of America? Since 1986, we've seen the fall of the Iron Curtain (obviously, Hanssen's spy work was of no help to the Russians there), an economic boom the likes of which we haven't seen since the '50s, and an overall decrease in threats to our country from any quarter. With "damage" like this, who needs "security?"

Copyright © 2001 John J. Kafalas


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