The most damaging Soviet mole of the Cold War died in prison after a life sentence

Jun 23, 2023 7:31 AM PDT
3 minute read
cold war spy


Cold War spy, Robert Hanssen, died in his cell at ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado on June 5, 2023.

In the mid-1980s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had three high-placed moles inside the KGB, the Soviet Union’s state security and intelligence apparatus. When they were suddenly arrested and imprisoned, two of them ended up dead. The third survived, spending six years in a Russian gulag instead. 

The moles were outed by FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen, who first began providing secret information to the Soviet GRU (military intelligence) in 1976. For nearly 25 years, Hanssen passed along top secret military and intelligence information to the USSR until he was caught in 2001.

Hanssen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences without parole. On June 5, 2023, he finally finished one of those life sentences, dying in his cell at ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado. 

Just three years after the FBI hired him, Hanssen approached Soviet operatives in the United States to offer his services, using whatever information he could get. His motivations were purely financial. He was inactive for a few years after his wife confronted him about his activities. However, he couldn’t stay from the money for long and went back to spying in 1985. 

Photo of "Ellis" dead drop site in Foxstone Park used by Robert Hanssen.

Knowing the FBI’s counterintelligence techniques helped Hanssen evade capture. He used an alias, “Ramon Garcia,” and never personally met a Soviet or Russian handler. He always handed over documents and other material via codes and dead drops. He accepted payment in the form of foreign bank deposits, diamonds, and cash – to the tune of $1.4 million over his spying career. 

The FBI has long believed Hanssen’s motivation was more than financial, however. Investigators think he joined the FBI to become a spy but didn’t get the assignment he wanted. So he decided to accept a job as a spy hunter while living his dream of being a spy. The only problem was that he began spying for a different country. 

His FBI career gave him access to some of America’s most sensitive information, including the FBI’s own counterintelligence operatives and operations. It also allowed him to give the Soviet Union information about U.S. nuclear war plans, double agents inside the USSR, and secret recording missions against Soviet installations and officials.   

Robert Hanssen mugshot.

The FBI began to suspect Hanssen after KGB agent Alexandr Shcherbakov handed them an audio recording of “B,” one of the USSR’s highest-placed moles. FBI agents working the mole's case identified the voice as Hanssen’s and began looking into his activities. They promoted him to a job where he no longer had access to special information – which sounded alarm bells for the turncoat. 

Despite his suspicions that the FBI was finally onto him, Hanssen decided to make one more dead drop to his Russian handlers in February 2001. The FBI had been watching him during this drop and caught Hanssen in the act. 

He spent his prison sentence at ADX Florence, known as “The Alcatraz of the Rockies,” along with many other high-profile prisoners, in 23 hours of solitary confinement every day. On June 5, 2023, Hanssen was found unresponsive in his cell in Florence. Prison officials say every effort was made to revive him, but he was pronounced dead the same day. Hanssen was 79 years old.


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