"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.


Secret History


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Five years ago today in Suck.

More than two months after his arrest, accused FBI double agent Robert Hanssen continues to establish himself as the most fascinatingly Beckettesque figure in the history of espionage. With each new twist in his story, the man from Talisman Drive emerges more clearly as a figure of dashing, world-shaking dullness .

The latest sock to drop in the case is an interview by Priscilla Sue Galey, a former exotic dancer with whom Hanssen had a brief relationship. Sometime in 1990, the alleged double agent and the presumed double-D met cute when Hanssen sent Galey a note in her dressing room, pledging that he'd "never dreamed he would find such grace and beauty in a strip join."

"To be honest, I was a little scared of him," Galey tells the Washington Post. Nevertheless, showing the street smarts that may have helped her end up, in the paper's words, "destitute ... missing all her upper teeth ... and selling her body on the streets to support an addiction to crack and cocaine," she followed Hanssen out to the street and gave him her phone number. The two struck up a friendship that eventually cost Hanssen, or the cash-strapped Commonwealth of Independent States, almost $100,000 in jewelry, an unknown amount of cash, and the price of a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a trip to Hong Kong. Through the course of their friendship, Hanssen tried to coach Galey on improving herself and leaving the strip business behind. "He was just the nicest person on Earth," Galey told the Post. "I thought he was my personal angel." Galey also notes that Hanssen "never once wanted sex and tried repeatedly to bring her closer to God."

This supremely generous, platonic relationship seems to require some explanation, and Galey, showing little gratitude toward her angel, now contends that Hanssen must have been trying to groom her into a sort of souped up Miss Moneypenny, a comely sidekick for the master field agent. Hanssen watchers have so far offered no other explanations for the mysterious relationship. But here's a counter-theory, based on the glaring fact that Hanssen talked mostly about "how he wanted her to go to church," brought her repeatedly to his house of worship, and generally filled her head with more God talk than spy talk: He was acting as a good member of Opus Dei, and his real interest lay in trying to save her soul (even if he did ignore a long tradition of leaving fallen women in the hands of nuns).

Hanssen's membership in Opus Dei, the secretive organization known for its high-pressure recruiting techniques and proud traditions of masochism, is a red herring that has swum in and out of the spy story. Only Suck and some French site have argued the obvious point that if a man is a member of a secret society, that fact will almost definitely explain any and all odd behavior in his personal history. It certainly explains his relationship with Galey. In Under the Heel of Mary, a comprehensive (and hard to find) 1988 study of right-wing Mariology, Nicholas Perry and Loreto Echeverria trace Opus Dei's historical emphasis on both anti-progressive Marianism and its constant counterpart, strict vows of celibacy. As a "supernumerary" Opus Dei member (a rank he shares with FBI director Louis Freeh and Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia), Hanssen is not subject to the celibacy requirements, but initiates of the other two, higher, classes — the oblati and numerari — are. Thus, Hanssen's relationship with Galey is an almost laughably transparent attempt to affect a higher calling, to be a Platonic sugar daddy, to put himself into a sort of Father Phil role, cheating on his wife without actually cheating, and wrapping the whole matter in a dim fog of missionary gusto and saintly self-denial.

Lest you underestimate the degree to which Hanssen bound his Opus Dei proselytizing up with his sense of naughtiness, consider the story related to MSNBC about Hanssen's friendship with best-selling author James Bamford. In between pumping Bamford for information on Russian officials (including one official who may have been Hanssen's own KGB handler) and forcing him to read dated anti-Communist tracts, Hanssen ("almost obsessed" with his own piety) prattled on about his faith and dragged his buddy to an Opus Dei meeting. In a line that could serve as Hanssen's epitaph, Bamford "found the event unremarkable and boring."

All of this is not to heap more scorn on Hanssen, but to demonstrate what crabbed and tawdry ideas can form in the mind of a man for whom secret societies have begun to seem real. If there's one secret closely guarded by all secret societies, it's that there's always less there than meets the eye. Now that the intrepid Ron Rosenbaum has retrieved the Holy Grail of all covert ritual — videotape of the Skull & Bones initiation ceremony — we can only yawn, or at least admit that we're not as shocked as Ron that the ceremony features profanity, racist slurs and a sassy homoerotic frisson. What, really, were we expecting? Whatever else a club is about, it's mostly about itself, about maintaining the fiction that all the juvenile rituals and no-girls-allowed secrecy are just the masks of some darker and more terrible truths.

The exposure of this fiction, even more than sheer boredom or the snooterati's irrational antipathy toward Tom Cruise, may have been behind the cool box office reception of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, a film whose centerpiece was a crypto-religious sexual ritual that in the end featured nothing spicier than some run-of-the-mill penetration. Where was the mortification of the flesh? The casual snuff? The interspecies coupling? Were we really supposed to believe that a bunch of Bohemian Grove gazillionaires would go to all this trouble for an orgy not much more perverse than something the Knights of Columbus might pull off on a spouse-free weekend?

The more disturbing possibility is that Kubrick was accurate, that this about as outrageous as it gets in the world of shadowy brotherhoods. Being limited only by your imagination often means being pretty limited indeed. Any reader of Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis has already been hipped to the shocking truth: There's a vacuum at the heart of hooded fraternities. Masons, Anti-Masons, Illuminati, Maltese brotherhoods, Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo: In the end, it's all a great sitting around, all foreplay and precious little in-out. The inefficacy of hermetic brotherhoods is nowhere better demonstrated than in anti-trade-conference street theater. It's the anti-capitalist rabble who demonstrate, again and again and again, their superior organizing capabilities, and the outfoxed masters of the smoke-filled rooms who are left to whine about the breakdown in civility.

In his report on the Skulls, Rosenbaum continually hammers home the point that the participants in these juvenile hazing rituals routinely go on to important jobs involving national security. It's a game effort to establish the newsworthiness of spying on a bunch of spoiled Yale pricks, but again, where is the surprise that these Old Boys would want to get into the global intrigue business? Other than international gamesmanship, what field can compare to fraternity bonding for sheer meaningless pomp and lack of real-world application? The Soviets routinely beat the West at intelligence gathering, and look where it got them. The World War II Germans were able to spring many nasty surprises on the Allies long after their super-double-secret code had been broken. All the way back to Cassandra, intelligence gathering has been a questionable resource in international power struggles. This is why Hanssen makes such a perfectly pathetic model for the intelligence business. In the end, says MSNBC, "Hanssen's obsessions with religion and communism" even drove away his friend Bamford.

The obsessed, friendless, possibly sexually dysfunctional loser drifting through the world of espionage: This is John LeCarre territory; and appropriately enough a new LeCarre-derived movie, currently playing to empty movie houses, puts a telling new spin on the pomp and no-circumstance of the spy business. John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama updates the plot of Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana, about an ordinary man who spins made-up intelligence information for his MI6 handler. The crucial difference is that in Tailor the MI6 man, like everybody else in the intelligence community, knows the stories are fake, but pretends they're true, secure in the knowledge that in the end the actual results of espionage don't matter to anybody except some obscure Central Americans and the occasional Chinese pilot. LeCarre is generally held to be in decline these days, recycling old material and concocting credibility-straining fantasias on things he doesn't know about. In fact, his bilious view of espionage is even more relevant now than it was at the height of the Cold War — the lack of even a pretense of superpower confrontation having underscored the essential pointlessness, the basic non-seriousness, of the entire exercise.

That pointlessness is something that appears to have escaped Bob Hanssen, with his weird cultism, his moral severity, and the weirdly romanticized vision of espionage that comes through in the affidavit against him. Between flirting with his Russian handlers and making hokey comments about his adulation of Kim Philby, there's a lot of strange stuff in Bob Hanssen's personality. But perhaps the strangest and most tragic thing of all is that in the end, unlike everybody around him, he thought the game he was playing was for real.

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courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy


pictures Terry Colon

BarTel d'Arcy

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