The Washington Post
July 3, 2001
Revelations and Recriminations in Spy Case;
By Dan Eggen
Until a few weeks ago, Alen J. Salerian was a highly successful psychiatrist, with a full-time job as medical director of the Washington Psychiatric Center and a client list including senators and kings.
But Salerian now is in the midst of an ethical storm. He is accused of betraying the confidence of alleged FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen by telling news reporters that Hanssen’s “emotional wounds” and “the demons in his own mind” led him to betray his country.
Salerian said he had permission from Hanssen to talk about the case. But Hanssen’s lead attorney, Plato Cacheris, called the disclosures “absolutely improper” and said Salerian had been fired from the defense team prior to the press reports because “we lost total confidence in him.” Hanssen’s family has retained counsel to consider action against the psychiatrist.
In addition to producing an ethical and legal controversy, Salerian’s remarks have offered a tantalizing window into the behavior of Hanssen, whose case is at a critical juncture. By the end of this week, sources said, he could reach a plea agreement with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty — and perhaps ensure that his wife will receive his federal pension — in return for telling the government exactly what secrets have been lost.
Salerian, 53, worked for years as a consultant to the FBI and helped debrief agents involved in the Waco tragedy. He said in interviews with The Washington Post last week that he was disappointed and surprised by the reaction to his comments, both from Hanssen’s attorneys and from professional colleagues.
He said the controversy prompted emergency meetings with colleagues at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, where his clinic is housed, and at the George Washington University School of Medicine, where he is on the voluntary faculty list.
Salerian said he has proof that Hanssen authorized him to speak to the press with the aim of providing a fuller picture of the accused spy, although Salerian would not identify the nature of the evidence. He also said his firing from the defense team stemmed from a disagreement with Cacheris over a medical opinion that he discussed with Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, without Cacheris’s approval.
Salerian said patient confidentiality does not allow him to reveal the topic, which he calls “Factor X.” But other sources have said the subject was an alleged obsession with pornography and sex.
“I had his full authority, full and 100 percent authority and right to be his ambassador and tell everything about ‘Factor X’ to his wife, and this I did,” Salerian said, adding that this also applies to his public comments.
“I have 100 percent moral and psychological authority to say what I said,” he said. “I am being declared guilty by some of my colleagues who do not know the details. . . . I am proud of what I did.”
Hanssen’s defense team reacted angrily to Salerian’s latest comments. Attorney Preston Burton said Salerian has been ordered in writing and orally not to talk about the case.
“Dr. Salerian’s characterizations of the reasons for his termination, which are themselves a breach of his duties to this firm and to Mr. Hanssen, are false and are an attempt to justify unprofessional behavior in the wake of his termination from this case,” Burton said.
Hanssen, 57, is charged with 21 counts of espionage for allegedly spying for the Soviet and, later, Russian intelligence services in exchange for at least $ 1.4 million in cash, diamonds and deposits in foreign bank accounts.
Salerian’s involvement with Hanssen’s defense began in April, when the psychiatrist was retained by Cacheris to do a psychological profile of the accused spy. Cacheris had worked with Salerian before, and the District of Columbia Board of Medicine has no complaints on record against him, officials said.
The psychiatrist said he spent about 30 hours talking with Hanssen at an undisclosed federal facility in Northern Virginia. He also talked at length with Bonnie Hanssen and other relatives, he said.
Salerian told The Post Hanssen is tormented by emotional problems stemming from a troubled childhood, which Salerian believes are the basis for his alleged espionage. He is also critical of the way Catholic Church officials dealt with Hanssen, who attended Mass daily and went to confession at least once a week.
“He was troubled, psychologically troubled, and he had demons,” Salerian said. “There were tremendous missed opportunities, and there were numerous attempts to cover up the missed opportunities.”
The psychiatrist added that Hanssen was deeply despondent in jail.
“He felt horrible about his past and his errors. He felt he had let people down,” Salerian said. “He was ready to accept any punishment that the system would give, and that the country felt he deserved, including death. He was not afraid.”
In previous on-camera interviews with television reporters, Salerian said, he was careful to speak only vaguely about Hanssen’s emotional troubles. But some broadcast and print reports attributed to him cite specific details that Salerian said came from off-the-record conversations that were betrayed.
CBS News, during a June 15 broadcast, quoted Salerian as saying that Hanssen confessed his spying to Catholic priests affiliated with the Opus Dei organization throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Salerian also was quoted as saying that Hanssen did not tell his wife he had resumed spying after 1979, when he first admitted to her that he had briefly engaged in espionage.
Salerian said the information came from an off-the-record conversation, but that CBS officials called him back and said they were using it on the air because it was newsworthy.
CBS News spokesman Kevin Tedesco disputed that version of events. “CBS News stands behind its reporting,” he said. “All conversations with Dr. Salerian were on the record, and Dr. Salerian was aware of that.”
Salerian said he agreed to talk to the BBC along the same lines for a June 17 documentary on the case, “The Near-Perfect Spy.”
But in a companion article published that day in The Times of London, a BBC reporter attributed numerous details about Hanssen to Salerian, including a statement that Hanssen’s late father bullied his son to be a “real man” and that Hanssen’s first foray into spying netted him $ 13,000 from the Soviets in 1979. The article also suggested that Salerian said Hanssen had an “obsessive compulsion with pornography.”
Salerian said he never mentioned pornography, either on or off the record, and that he did not volunteer any of the other information. “I did confirm certain things, but number one, it was absolutely, 100 percent off the record, and number two, I was not the source on any of it,” he said. “I learned something. Next time, I’ll be more cautious.”
The BBC’s press office said it was unable to contact those involved in the production for comment.
M. Gregg Bloche, a psychiatrist and law professor at Georgetown University, said there is a general presumption of confidentiality in relationships between a psychiatrist and his client, with few exceptions, such as a serious threat to the life of another person. But the Hanssen case is complicated, Bloche said, because Salerian’s forensic evaluation was intended not as therapy but rather as part of a legal process that could be made public in court.
“You have to distinguish between what’s unseemly and what’s unethical,” Bloche said. “If you hire a person to do a psychological profile of you and to eventually make the findings public, then it’s probably not unethical for the doctor to talk about those findings, although it may be unseemly. . . . If the purpose of the disclosure is to spin the case in the press, however, then we’re in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ territory. That is not at all normal.”
Salerian said he clearly told Hanssen from the beginning that he was doing a forensic psychological evaluation at the request of Cacheris. He said Hanssen later agreed to let Salerian talk about the case with the press “in a way that would protect his confidentiality while revealing his goodness.”
Carl Gray, a Rockville psychiatrist who refers patients to Salerian when he is unavailable, said Salerian is charismatic and outspoken but thoroughly trusted by colleagues. Ethical complaints are out of character for him, Gray said.
“As far as this idea of a breach of confidence, I’ve never known that from him,” said Gray, who worked in the same practice as Salerian for many years. “I would not trust him to handle my patients if I thought he was that loose a cannon. But I can see how he can strike some people that way. He’s not an overly cautious person.”
Salerian, an Armenian Turk who arrived in this country three decades ago with $ 200 and a medical degree from the University of Istanbul, said that his disclosures were intended only to help the public understand a complex man who has been vilified.
“Bob Hanssen is a very kind, thoughtful, intelligent person with some tremendous problems who did some terrible things,” Salerian said. “People are not either good or bad, evil or benign. Most of us, like Bob Hanssen, are mixtures.”[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]