Campus / Featured / International / National / News / September 20, 2012

Robert Hanssen: From stealing Bronze Turkey to stealing state secrets

Robert Hanssen ’66 (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois)

Knox graduate Robert Hanssen ’66 lives with 433 of the country’s most dangerous criminals — from Al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui to Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.

At the U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, Colo., widely known as “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” Hanssen spends 23 hours a day alone in his 7-by-12 foot cell with a three-channel black-and-white television.

In 1962, the former FBI agent and convicted spy lived in Raub Hall.

Taking the Turkey

Rick Smith ’68 will never forget the prank.

Hanssen, the ever-smiling, tattered-jean-wearing chemistry major, who rode his 10-speed bike everywhere, was a reporter for The Knox Student.

It was the week leading up to the Knox-Monmouth football game and the Prairie Fire were having an especially poor season.

“It was the assumption — which I think still persists today — that Knox would never see the Bronze Turkey [trophy] on our side unless we stole it,” Smith, now Vice President of Physician Resources at Blessing Corporate Services in Quincy, Ill., said.

Hanssen, who later sold state secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than two decades, had a plan.

He rode his bike 16 miles to Monmouth to take the trophy, under the ruse that he was writing an article for the student newspaper, according to Smith.

Hanssen convinced a Monmouth employee to open the trophy display case, waited until he turned his back and allegedly snatched the Bronze Turkey and returned to Galesburg.

“I was one of the people who helped him hide it in the inner-sanctums of one of the frat houses,” said Smith, who was a member of the now-defunct Phi Delta Theta fraternity, according to the Knox yearbook.

Ralph Whiteman, 84, then-director of the Monmouth Student Senate, was the man who got duped. He said Hanssen actually identified himself as a reporter from the Monmouth student newspaper.

“He said it was dark and asked if he could take the trophy outside with him. I got called back into the hallway for a second and of course when I got back, he and the turkey were gone,” Whiteman, who played quarterback at Monmouth in the early 1950s, said. “Needless to say, it was a pretty rough week at Monmouth after that.”

Whiteman did not make the connection until a friend who worked at Knox told him about the story — and that Hanssen was now in federal prison.

Whiteman decided to write him a letter.

“In the note, I said, ‘In another time and another place I’d be happy to buy you a beverage of your choice because you carried that out really well,’” he said.

Hanssen the mole

To many Knox alumni, Hanssen is a hazy memory. In magazine and newspaper articles following his 2001 arrest and subsequent conviction, former classmates described him as “non-descript” and “unassuming.”

Duke University chemistry professor Al Crumbliss ’64 said those portrayals seem accurate. Crumbliss has given interviews to Newsweek and Time Magazine in the decade since Hanssen was sentenced and could not recall his former classmate.

“All I could tell anybody was that I’d never heard of the guy and that I have no recollection of seeing him,” he said.

The catch: Crumbliss and Hanssen grew up a half-mile from one another, went to the same high school, belonged to the same department at Knox and both attended graduate school at Northwestern University.

“He was definitely a mole when he went to Knox,” Crumbliss said.

Former Monmouth College employee Ralph Whiteman with the Bronze Turkey on Tuesday, Sept. 18 outside Poling Hall, where the trophy is currently held. (Kate Hovda/TKS)

Treason and sentencing

The drop-off spot was in a park near his suburban Washington D.C. home.

Hanssen attached trash bags full of U.S. intelligence materials to the bottom of a secluded bridge and would post a piece of white tape on a park sign to notify the Russians. His cohorts would then discreetly leave behind a bag full of cash.

After committing treason for 22 years, Hanssen was convicted on 13 counts of espionage.

Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty, but reached a plea agreement: the turncoat would debrief investigators on what he told the enemy — more than 200 hours’ worth of interview sessions — in exchange for a life sentence.

“They have him on a pretty tight hold,” said Hanssen’s attorney Plato Cacheris, who speaks with his client once every two to three months. “He can’t call out and I don’t believe he’s allowed to give interviews*. He’s not allowed any contact with the outside world, besides me and his family.”

Cacheris added that Hanssen wants to eventually be transferred to an east coast prison closer to his family, but conceded it’s likely a losing battle.

“It’s a shame, because under the circumstances, the burden is on his family. They’re not financially well off,” he said.

Federal investigators estimate that Hanssen gained more than $1.4 million in cash and precious gems over the course of his espionage career — but not without a price.

He turned over thousands of classified document and computer disks and exposed dozens of Russian informants working for the U.S.

At least three KGB officers were executed because of information Hanssen provided.

“Their blood is on his hands,” former U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said at the 2002 sentencing hearing.

The reaction

“Shocking is the most appropriate word,” Julie Klugman ‘66, a teacher and former chemist at Kraft Foods, said.

Klugman shared classes with Hanssen and remembers him socializing mainly with math and chemistry majors. He wasn’t in a fraternity.

“In retrospect, I can see he’s the kind of guy that [treason] might have been appealing to — the intellectual getting away with something,” Klugman said.

Hanssen has remained the center of discussion at recent Knox homecomings.

“The last reunion, there was a sign-in sheet and a number of people in our class had written his name in,” she said.

Klugman’s husband, Craig, editor of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette even wrote an editorial about Hanssen’s ties to Knox.

“It was called ‘Where’s Bob?’ That was the question everybody was asking,” Klugman said.

Forever linked

For Smith, Hanssen’s theft of the Bronze Turkey paints a painful juxtaposition.

The most treasonous man in U.S. history performed the ultimate act of loyalty to his college. He brought home a piece of Knox lore, attaching himself — if only as a footnote — to the sixth-oldest rivalry in college football.

Smith believes it offers a chilling and even foreshadowing look into Hanssen’s use of deception. He became a double agent approximately 15 years later.

This September marks the 50th anniversary of Hanssen’s arrival at Knox, but much of his college identity remains a mystery.

“I’ve always had the feeling that the Knox community never wanted to talk about it. I think they just want him to go away,” Smith said.

The college boasts hundreds of notable alumni — CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners and successful politicians — but Hanssen’s notoriety remains forever linked to Knox.

Editor’s note: The Knox Student submitted a formal request to interview Hanssen by telephone last week. The prison will decide by Friday, Sept. 21 whether to grant that request, an ADX spokesman said.

Tags:  ADMAX Bronze Turkey espionage Espionage Act FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation Knox College Monmouth College Robert Hanssen Russia Soviet Union state secrets

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Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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  • Greg Wilson

    Your article states, “…the Prairie Fire were having an especially poor season…” I believe it would be more accurate to report that the Siwash were having an especially poor season.

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