Justice is supposed to be blind, but she's winking at us in the case of the leading, if not top, Benedict Arnold in U.S. history. Robert Hanssen, veteran FBI agent and a former agency supervisor of counterintelligence, is worse than Timothy McVeigh, in my book. Sure, McVeigh inflicted a higher onetime casualty count than the treasonous Hanssen, who can be directly linked to the deaths of at least two double agents in Russia. But the turncoat risked the lives of all his countrymen by selling national security secrets so sensitive that the government felt pressured to bargain with the most harmful traitor of our times.
It was absolutely the wrong thing to do. For more than two decades, as a top FBI official with easy access to some of the government's most closely guarded secrets, Robert Hanssen spied for the Soviets and then anonymous Russian agents. He was privy to all sorts of prized information, from missile defense plans to which Russians were covertly working for the United States and more. Much more.
He did it for money, for diamonds, for Rolex watches, for the thrill of getting away with it. His specialty, for crying out loud, was counterintelligence. He knew better than most how to ferret out the juiciest classified material - he pilfered thousands of pages of confidential documents - and sell it off in such a sophisticated manner as to completely avoid detection from as far back as 1979. The damage his 20-plus years of deceit did to the national security operation of the United States has been called “unimaginable” by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Mr. Freeh must be relieved to be out of the nation's premier law enforcement agency, which stumbled like the Keystone Cops through one embarrassing episode after another on his watch. Certainly a prolonged trial of former agent Hanssen's exploits in and around an inept agency would blow away the FBI's latest list of mortifications. Given the scope of Hanssen's unimaginable betrayal to his country, government prosecutors opted to keep a lid on the nightmare by forgoing a public trial for a down and dirty plea agreement. It would ensure Hanssen's cooperation with debriefers assessing the destructiveness of his long espionage career.
But in exchange for Hanssen's willingness to divulge all, government prosecutors lost their bearings and their brains. Not only did the master mole dicker successfully with the government to drop the most justifiable death penalty sought since McVeigh, but, more astounding than his life in prison without parole pact, he also exacted the promise to pay Hanssen's wife his roughly $39,000 a year government pension. Hello? Didn't the double agent earn that pension while betraying the government for $1.4 million in cash and various hard-to-trace commodities?
Was the U.S. government concerned about the welfare of the Rosenberg family when it executed Julius and Ethel for spying for the Soviets? What a sweet, outrageous deal Hanssen's attorneys have wrought for a treasonous American intelligence officer who managed to pull off the biggest deception in the annals of the FBI. Hey, I sympathize with the Hanssen family but it is patently nuts to reward them with the ill-gotten gains of a trusted government operative who sold out. We are supporting Hanssen's heirs despite his cataclysmic disservice to the country. The very thought of such an arrangement is a stinging affront to every law-abiding citizen whose national security was compromised.
Treatment of the double-crosser has to be the envy of every two-bit crack dealer rotting in a prison cell who lacked the standing and station of Robert Hanssen in negotiating similar taxpayer-provided support for family on the outside. Is justice different when a lawman becomes the criminal and his colleagues close ranks around him? Is justice for a white-collar crime eminently more devastating in degree than a blue-collar offense, different than that afforded a poor thug on the low end of the socio-economic ladder who is hauled into court to face the music?
You bet it is. And in Robert Hanssen's case, justice was not only modified to secure collaboration from a ready-to-confess, traitorous FBI agent, it was inexplicably missing altogether.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.