Dr. Eric D. Shaw, Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Ltd.


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Case 6: Robert Hanssen at the FBI

Another more familiar example of insider risk is the case of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who was arrested in February 2001 for spying for the Soviets.  According to the unclassified review of his case published by the Justice Department’s Inspector General in 2003 (DOJ, 2003), Hanssen’s espionage career spanned three time periods: 1979-1981, 1985-1991, and 1999-2001.  Several public reviews of Hanssen’s personal and professional life have referred to the emotional stressors that accompanied his spying during this period (for example, see Shannon and Blackman, 2002) and the Inspector General’s report also notes his increasing “recklessness” and “self-destructiveness during this period (DOJ 2003: p. 14).   As an additional test of the software, we utilized Hanssen’s published communications with his Soviet handlers (Shannon and Blackman, 2002) over the last two periods of his spying to see if the reported levels of anxiety, depression and general emotional vulnerability reported could be detected across this period in these communications.  This involved applying WarmTouch to eight notes written by Hanssen between October 1, 1985 and November 15, 2000[1]

The three figures  below display the WarmTouch results for several indicators of Hanssen’s emotional state.  The measures used for anger were his use of negatives (e.g. no, not, never, etc.) and the word “me.”    The measures for emotional vulnerability—use of feelings, “I,” direct references to others and adverbial intensifiers (terms that exaggerate adverbs such as “so” in the phrase “I miss you so much”) were designed to portray the direct, intense, communication of emotion to another person.  An individual’s use of terms that qualify or discount statements (e.g., I “think” I’ll go or I “sort of” want to go) and retract statements (like “but,” “although”) -- known as retractors and qualifiers—were used to measure anxiety (Weintraub, 1981, 1986, 1989).  As the three figures indicate, there were marked increases in all of these measures of emotional stress over the time period for which there was data available encompassing the last two periods of Hanssen’s espionage.

Changes in Detected Levels of Anger, Emotional Vulnerability and Anxiety, 1985-2000




As more and more employee communications move on-line, so must means to detect disgruntlement, psychological distress, and deception. As the case of Hanssen illustrated, initial background investigations are not useful to detect employees that become disgruntled while on the job. In addition, disgruntled employees have done considerable damage to organizations and national security before (and after) regular security (even polygraph) updates. The ability to detect changes in employee communications indicative of increased risk of violations, narrow a field of suspects, or locate individuals with specific characteristics or vulnerabilities from their on-line communications could be a valuable assessment tool.

[1] The specific dates of these written notes as published in  Shannon and Blackman (2002) were: 10-1-85, 10-10-85, 11-8-85, 6-13-85,  9-8-97, 6-8-2000, 3-14-2000, and 11-15-2000.


© Copyright 2009 by Eric D. Shaw, Ph.D.


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