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When the Spy Who Loved You Was Also Lying to You, Things Can Get Ugly

Wives of accused spies find their worlds torn apart, especially if they were unaware of the duplicity.

March 08, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested two weeks ago and charged with spying for Moscow, his FBI colleagues were astonished that the alleged espionage had gone undetected for 15 years.

They weren't the only ones.

By all accounts, Bonnie Hanssen--his wife of nearly 30 years--didn't find out until agents reported catching her husband climbing under a footbridge in a park near their home, secret documents in hand.

That morning, the 54-year-old Bonnie lived a quiet life as a deeply religious housewife and mother of six. By bedtime, she was the newest member of the sorrowful sorority of accused spies' wives.

"Everything you've ever known suddenly is not true," said Paula Hill, whose first husband, Richard W. Miller, was the first FBI agent ever accused of espionage. "My husband, my church, my government--everything was thrown up in the air, and I had to go put the puzzle pieces back together."

For Bonnie Hanssen, the pieces may now not seem to have ever fit together. According to correspondence released by federal law enforcement officials, the man who faithfully attended church by her side was at the same time pledging fidelity to the godless Soviet government half a world away.

Now she may lose not only her husband but also his paycheck and his future retirement income, which would be forfeited if he is convicted of espionage. She could even lose her home, cars and other assets if the government can show they were paid for by spy income.

That could leave Bonnie Hanssen, who works only part time at the Catholic girls' school that her youngest child attends, in dire straits.

Though the government alleges that Robert Hanssen, 56, received $1.4 million in cash and diamonds from Moscow for betraying U.S. secrets, neighbors say the Hanssens did not lead a lavish life. They drove older cars and lived in a split-level house where their children shared bedrooms. Summer vacations were usually road trips to Florida to see the paternal grandparents. Bonnie Hanssen, they say, was traditional to the point of standing out, a throwback to days when wives deferred to their husbands.

Other than an appearance at her husband's arraignment Feb. 20--during which the two did not speak--Bonnie Hanssen has remained in seclusion and has not spoken publicly. But her mother knows what she is going through.

"My daughter has suffered a crushing blow," Frances Wauck said. "We've known this man for 35 years. It's just absolutely awful. We are in shock."

As her husband's lawyers seek the best defense for the 25-year FBI veteran, Bonnie Hanssen has had to get legal counsel of her own. Even if she is cleared of any involvement--as her lawyer says she will be--the fallout for Bonnie and her six children, two of them still in high school, will last a lifetime.

No one, say the women who have lived through similar nightmares, will have a harder time than Bonnie Hanssen herself in struggling with this question: How, assuming her husband's guilt, could she not have known?

Psychologists say the side of himself that Hanssen appears to have kept from his wife may not have been difficult to conceal.

"This would be easier to keep secret than when one partner is having an affair," said Steve Brody, a psychologist in private practice in Northern California. "If there is already this assumption that you don't ask questions about his job, it wouldn't be hard for him to avoid at all. How is anybody supposed to know he is a double spy?"

Hanssen's job, said Carl Mumpower, a North Carolina-based clinical psychologist who has done extensive research on post-traumatic stress disorder, created "an aura of unique privilege."

"I'm sure he established the privilege early on--and the boundaries were probably always there," Mumpower said. "Your normal FBI agent has to live a double life to the extent to which they have to keep such a large part of what they do a secret."

If, as friends and family have said, Bonnie Hanssen had no idea that something was amiss with her husband, she would be rare among the wives of accused spies. Although Paula Hill was blindsided by charges that her first husband was involved in a sexual affair with a female Soviet agent, she was well aware of his struggles at work.

"I knew he was a terrible agent and I knew that he had moral failings," said Hill, who had eight children younger than 18 when her husband was arrested in 1984. "He was a stumblebum. But I never believed he did what they accused him of doing."

Miller was sentenced in 1986 to 20 years for trading secrets for sex and the promise of $65,000. The sentence was later reduced, and he spent only eight years in prison.

Mary Pitts, the wife of Earl Pitts, an FBI agent sentenced in 1997 to 27 years in prison for spying for Moscow, harbored horrible suspicions about her husband. Torn about her duties as a wife and as an American, she confided her fears to another FBI agent.

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