PORTLAND, ORE. — How did Robert Hanssen get away with it for so long? Mr. Hanssen is the FBI agent accused of selling classified information to the Russians. I realize he hasn't been convicted of anything yet, but there's a part of his story that's too compelling for me to ignore.
News reports said Hanssen was arrested as he was getting ready to transport garbage bags full of secret papers to a pre-arranged drop spot. He allegedly used this method of delivery for about 15 years.
I know this territory, and I'm stunned. I can assure you from extensive firsthand experience that slinking around surreptitiously in the dark with bulky, bulging plastic bags is no simple task. It is a procedure I am sometimes forced to engage in when my production of rubbish exceeds the 33-gallon capacity of my garbage can. Nothing is more frustrating than losing control of the household waste stream. One small dinner party can do it. Suddenly it's disposal night, the can is stuffed to the limit, and I'm staring at extra bags that won't fit. Looking up the street, the solution is obvious.
Yes, I admit it: I have expropriated the extra space in other people's garbage cans for my own benefit. Judy across the street will be surprised to hear this. Her container is my first choice because it usually has plenty of room. I always wait for a quiet moment around midnight to dash to her curb, but invariably a car will come around the corner and illuminate me in its headlights.
Judy's cat, Molly, also likes to appear out of nowhere just as I'm completing the drop. Once she snuggled right between my ankles so that when I turned to run home, I tripped and almost fell face-first onto the pavement.
My difficulty in negotiating this brief gauntlet (which covers a distance of 40 feet at the most) is why I'm so amazed that Hanssen could maneuver garbage bags all over suburban Virginia for so many years without arousing suspicion.
I must also point out how inelegant his technique seems when compared with the spy culture I grew up with in the 1960s. Napoleon Solo and James Bond used tiny cameras, microfilm, and other sophisticated equipment during covert operations. I can't envision them shopping for espionage supplies in the kitchen aisle at K-Mart.
I have a college degree in environmental science. Hanssen was a highly trained federal agent. We are both seemingly intelligent, sensible people, certainly not the type you would expect to catch in your driveway holding the bag, literally. I have no satisfactory explanation for our behavior. Some questions can't be answered. You might as well toss them in the trash with yesterday's chicken dinner.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor