Robert Hanssen: The Spy Who Went to Knox College

By Neil Richter


Breach, the new spy thriller starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, tells the story of Robert Hanssen. He was single-handedly responsible for the worst intelligence leak in U.S. history. For almost thirty years Hanssen sold U.S. intelligence secrets to the Soviets. His acts of treason had many far ranging effects; not least of which were the subsequent deaths of many of the agents he compromised. He was also a Knox grad. It’s hard to believe, but true. Hanssen graduated from Knox College in 1966 with a degree in Chemistry.


Back in ’66, Knox was a far different place. It was a time of protest. Like at many other colleges, Knox students demonstrated for Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam. Most students stayed close to the campus since cars weren’t allowed, at least until you were a senior. There was a 10 o’clock curfew during the week, 11 o’clock on weekends. A strict dress code remained in place, with women required to wear skirts every day. In short, it was a far more staunchly regimented place. As was the case throughout the 60’s, independent-minded students did their best to fight against the more stifling measures of their surroundings. The dress code proves an ideal example of this. It proved intolerable to women at Knox, and thanks to a flurry of dissent, frustrated students managed to overturn it.


Still, with all the curfews and dress codes in place, students still found time to have social lives. At least, most of them did. According to ’66 alumni and fellow Chemistry major Julie Klugman, Hanssen was a quiet young man who rarely went out. On weekends he was never seen partying with the rest of the upperclassmen at the Broadview Hotel (the BV as it was called in those days). He wasn’t a regular at the indomitable campus snack bar The Gizmo, which remains just as much of a fixture now as it did over 40 years ago.  As she describes him, he was almost something of a ghost. Hanssen became a bit of a joke at reunions. Nobody could remember him at all. Who was this man?


That’s the question on the lips of a lot more people than fellow Knox grads. While in the CIA, his nickname was The Mortician as a result of his absolutely flat, unremarkable demeanor. Apparently it started much earlier. Hanssen kept a low profile both inside and outside of class. According to Julie his only real defining characteristic was an all-encompassing arrogance. It colored every conversation she had with him.


Hanssen seemed to delight in making others feel inferior. It was never overt, just a low-level sense that he seemed to have about him. Many feel that it was this overall sense of superiority that led Hanssen to become a spy for the Soviets. What could have turned such garden-variety arrogance into something so much darker? No one except Hanssen knows the answer to this. What’s known for sure is that it put him off to many of his fellow students. Perhaps that explains his overall lack of friends…and girlfriends. He never dated and hung around with other single men, leading many, Julie among them, to speculate that he was gay. One might imagine that his overall chasteness with the opposite sex was due to his strict Catholic upbringing, but later evidence suggests this was not true. Hanssen’s capture finally aired all of his deepest secrets. They painted a picture of deep contradiction. On one hand, Hanssen remained a deeply committed Catholic as well as a member of Opus Dei, the shadowy church organization most recently seen in the film The DaVinci Code.


On the other, he was something of an Internet porn aficionado who enjoyed secretly taping sexual encounters with his wife and posting them online. This was a man who spent his whole life hiding his more aberrant desires under an inconspicuous and bland surface.

By all accounts, Hanssen’s fellow students had much the same reaction to Hanssen that his colleagues in the FBI did. He was a quiet, arrogant guy. Nothing stood out about him. However, noone at Knox could foresee that this quiet and unassuming young man would be responsible for crimes so great.


Joining a long list of distinguished Knox College alumni are a convicted mass murderer (Simon Peter Nelson), a world-famous transvestite performance artist (the late Ethyl Eichelberger) and, now, the FBI agent who is accused of collecting more than $1.4 million by spying for the Russians.


Robert Philip Hanssen graduated from Taft High School in Chicago in 1962 and attended Knox College. He majored in Chemistry but also took classes in Russian. Knox was one of the few colleges at that time to offer Russian as a foreign language. Momcilo Rosic, who headed up the Knox College Russian Department at that time, says he has no remembrances of Hanssen at all. ''I read in the paper that he went to Knox but I can't remember him at all. He wasn't a Russian major; he was a chemistry major, and I've been retired 15 years.


After graduating with a degree from Knox College, Hanssen pursued Dentistry at Northwestern University in Evanston but switched career paths and ended up earning an MBA in Accounting and Information Systems from there in 1971. He passed the CPA exam in 1973.


He went to work for the Chicago Police Department as an investigator in the Financial Section of the Inspection Services Department and joined the FBI in 1976, being assigned to field offices in Indianapolis and Gary, Ind., New York City, and ultimately Washington, D.C.


In a 1991 diskette containing information provided the Russians, Hanssen reportedly suggested they thoroughly study that period of history when Chicago was governed by Mayor Richard J. Daley. He had firsthand knowledge of that.