Counterespionage successes after World War II enhanced the FBI’s image. The bureau was seen as America’s protector, ferreting out the likes of A-bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and elusive Soviet operative Rudolf Abel. Using a combination of modern surveillance and old-fashioned detective work to pursue spies through the Cold War years, FBI agents recruited double agents, posed as KGB agents, intercepted and decoded secret writing and documents, set up stings, planted listening devices, peered through telephoto lenses and sifted through garbage to get their man — or woman.
The bureau’s spy-smashing success peaked in 1985 — dubbed “the year of the spy” — with 12 high-profile arrests, including the four-member John Walker ring. In contrast to Cold War–era spies, many of these operatives weren’t driven by ideology but by greed. In 2001, the bureau suffered embarrassment when it arrested one of its own, agent Robert Hanssen. For roughly 10 years he actively sold secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia.