Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Philip Hanssen: The Spy who Stayed out in the Cold

The Opus Dei Connection

Louis J. Freeh, FBI Director
Louis J. Freeh, FBI Director

If there were one place that Hanssen did belong, it was Opus Dei. The group, founded in 1928, had just 84,000 members worldwide3,000 in the U.S.but its new $55 million, 17-story building in midtown Manhattan reflected a power far beyond its numbers. At least one member of the U.S. Supreme Court was said to be a member and the head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, was also rumored to belong.  Still, even Catholics conceded that the group was controversial. Many members practiced self-flagellation, beating themselves while praying. Others wore the cilice, a spiked bracelet worn two hours a day around the thighs. Though the pain was supposed to replicate the agony of Christ at his crucifixion, most had difficulty understanding why such practices were necessary in a modern world. And since the group was private if not secret, rumors abounded. What was its goal? One of them, critics said, was to elect Opus Dei members as heads of countries and establish new governments where church and state are one.

Bonnie Hanssen's brother is an Opus Dei priest in Rome whose office is mere steps away from the pope. One of Bob and Bonnie's daughters is an Opus Dei numerary, a woman who has taken a vow of celibacy while remaining a layperson.

Bob Hanssen befriended best-selling espionage author James Bamford, and after pumping him for information about interviews he had had with Soviet leaders, would invite him to join him at Opus Dei meetings. "He was a little obsessed about it. Bob would rant about the evil in organizations like Planned Parenthood and how abortion was immoral," Bamford recalled. Bamford, himself a Catholic, wrote this about his preoccupation with Opus Dei in the New York Times:

"Hanssen squeezed religion into most conversations and hung a silver crucifix above his desk. Occasionally he would leave work to take part in antiabortion rallies. He was forever trying to get me to go with him to meetings of Opus Dei.

After weeks of urging, I finally agreed. At the meeting, Hanssen was in his element. He reveled in that closed society of true believers like a fraternity brother exchanging a secret handshake. His faith seemed too sincere to be a ruse."

One of Bob's bosses at FBI headquarters agreed. "He was a religious person who put the Soviets into a religious context. He would say that the Soviet Union is bound to fail because it is run by communists and communists don't have God in their life. He said to me, 'Without religion, man is lost.'"

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

Did Hanssen believe that giving our most vital secrets to the Soviet Union was a moot issue because they were about to collapse? If so, he was a true seer. Mikhail Gorbachev would declare communism dead in 1991. "Ramon Garcia" went to ground a few months later.

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