Some people during the pandemic learned to bake a killer sourdough or binged on TV shows, but Major Garrett had a few other things in mind.
“One of the things that I had to do during lockdown was to find myself ways to be useful in the information space when a global pandemic did not require the daily exertions of the chief Washington correspondent/oracle/analyst of CBS News,” Garrett said in an interview with ITK.
In addition to “a daily podcast on the Trump White House coronavirus briefings” and a weekly one on multiple subjects, Garrett said he “decided to do a longer-term project.”
That’s how “Agent of Betrayal: The Double Life of Robert Hanssen,” came to be. The CBS News podcast is poised to premiere Thursday on Apple Podcasts and Amazon Music.
The eight-episode series explores the story and impact of Hanssen, the most damaging spy in FBI history.
Garrett called him an “unbelievable person who did this unbelievable damage who was as contradictory a human being as I’ve ever come across in 35 years of journalism.”
The podcast uncovers different dimensions to the spy tale, including how a CIA agent named Brian Kelley was initially investigated prior to Hanssen’s arrest in 2001.
“That ‘wrong man story’ is as instructive as the ‘right man story,’” said Garrett.
“We have every single voice that was involved, every single voice — and their memories are precise,” the longtime journalist said.
Hanssen, who spied for Russia and the former Soviet Union, was found dead in his prison cell at 79 in June. He had pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage in 2001 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
After working on the podcast project for two years and interviewing more than 50 people, did Garrett find himself always having spies on the brain, and watching his back while bringing in the newspaper or taking out the trash?
“I would say no, in this sense, because I came to this whole project with a tremendous amount of innocence and naiveté. I’ve lived in Washington since 1990, but my lane, as most people know, is Congress, the White House and campaigns. It’s never been counter-intelligence, intelligence, spy craft, any of that,” CBS’s “The Takeout” podcast host said.
“That innocence kind of protected me from the deeper realities of this work. And we talked to several people who are expert at it, and the key thing they kept telling us is the hardest part of counterintelligence — which is different than intelligence — is the paranoia aspect,” he said.
“You can get paranoid if you can believe there’s something wrong with everybody, you can find reasons to be suspicious of everything and everyone. And if you get to that place, then you your effectiveness disappears.”
Asked whether, along the same lines, “Agent of Betrayal” had him questioning his friends and their motives, 61-year-old Garrett recalled his career covering the White House and Capitol Hill.
“I’m not unaccustomed to those who shade the truth and give their own version of events — that’s day-to-day business for me. But in this world, where the stakes are so much higher, and the idea of what is secrecy and what isn’t, and the value of those secrets — that’s a new realm for me,” he said.
“That’s why spy novels sell,” Garrett said, “Because it’s a higher level.”
“Most things about it, one way or the other, are life and death. And Robert Hanssen’s story is very much a story of life and death.”