The Bureau and the Mole, David A. Vise

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002, 272 pages, C$40.95 hc, ISBN 0-87113-834-4

The real story of Robert Hanssen is the type of material from which spy thrillers are built. For decades, Hanssen sold US state secrets to the Russians. He sold out American spy networks, betrayed critical contingency plans, passed reams of technical information to the other side and probably caused a number of agents to be arrested or executed. As a tech-savvy senior agent within the FBI, Hanssen had unparallelled access to a wealth of government material from a variety of sources, multiplying the damage of his actions.

And yet, Hanssen fit none of the popular expectations of how a spy should behave. Not only was he married and father of two children, he was an active member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei catholic sect. And yet there was another layer behind the austere and righteous facade: Hanssen had a relationship with a stripper, had a fixation on Catherine Zeta-Jones and posted amateur pornography on Usenet groups. Even today, trying to make sense of Hanssen remains a challenge.

And yet that’s what David A. Vise attempts to do in The Bureau and the Mole, one of several non-fiction books to document Hanssen’s covert career. Pushed by the release of the film BREACH, which also tackles the Hanssen affair (don’t miss the exceptional performance by Chris Cooper as Hanssen), I dug into my pile of books to read and came up with this one. Call it documentation selection by proximity.

I’m sorry, in a way, that I don’t have anything but a movie and the official story to compare to the book: Trying to evaluate non-fiction without other references is always risky.

But I can still tell you that The Bureau and the Mole is a bit of a mess, especially if all you were hoping to get was the story of Hanssen’s life. As the title suggests, Vise soon makes an attempt at opposing virtue to Hanssen’s perfidy: To this end, the narrative spends what seems to be an inordinate amount of time lionizing FBI director Louis Freeh in between the looks at Hanssen’s occult career. Interesting idea in small doses, but the extent to which the FBI’s general history comes to dominate the narrative eventually feels like padding more than context. Describing the FBI’s ironically thwarted efforts to find the traitor within their ranks is fine. But spending a chapter on the FBI’s anti-mafia efforts feels superfluous.

There is little doubt that the book is well-researched. Vise does have a Pulitzer prize under his belt and there’s a lot of good material here and there in The Bureau and the Mole, gathered from interviews with people in the know and other sources who can’t be acknowledged. One of the most embarrassing revelation in the book is the transcription of a pornographic story about his wife that Hanssen posted, apparently using his own name, to Usenet groups. (Just when the story couldn’t get any weirder… no wonder even the movie doesn’t dwell on the subject.)

Yet the book still feels padded with barely-relevant material. Worse yet are the usual sins of disappointing non-fiction: lack of an index, simple theories out of thin facts (a long chapter on Hanssen’s relationship with a stripper seems vaporous, unrelated and overly moralistic) and few discussions about deeper motivations.

For all of the facts and the context, one comes away from The Bureau and the Mole unsatisfied by the result. We understand that Hanssen saw spying as a way to prove his intellectual superiority over his less-capable colleagues. But Vise often seems too eager to wag his finger at Hanssen, momentarily distracted by shiny events in Louis Freeh’s life or the FBI’s history. The book intrigues more than it satisfies, giving the impression of a dynamite magazine article stretched over two hundred pages. Too bad, given the inherent interest of the Hanssen story. Looking at the inflated Canadian price tag of the book, I’m even more happy than usual that I’ve been able to get a cheap copy at a used book sale.

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