When he was found dead in his bed on Monday in a Washington suburb, former CIA counterintelligence agent Brian Kelley was scheduled to give a lecture on the intelligence business to retirees. He was a volunteer with a program for the elderly called the Road Scholars.
That was Brian: a giver, not a taker. But he had taken a lot, in the ironic sense of the word, from the FBI, whose gumshoes mistakenly suspected him of being a Russian mole instead of the real one, Robert Hanssen, one of their own. For years they turned the lives of him and his family into a living nightmare.
The ordeal of Brian and his family never made it into “Breach,” the espionage thriller “based on” the FBI’s hunt for Hanssen, who was finally caught and prosecuted in 2001. It would’ve gotten in the way of the plot.
As I wrote in Washington Life magazine a few years back:
“Indeed, Kelley's story presented the producers with an inconvenient truth: His career - and nearly his life - was ruined by FBI agents who were certain he was the Russian mole, not Hanssen. For 21 months beginning in 1999, a top FBI counterintelligence official pursued Kelley like a modern-day Inspector Javert. Agents followed him around, bugged his house and threatened his family. Then finally one day a Russian defector showed up with internal KGB documents pointing toward Hanssen.”
When I was invited to an advance screening of the film, I took along the always-rumpled Brian, a slight smile on his Irish mug.
When the lights came up, I made a beeline to the writer-director with Brian in tow.
“Billy Ray," I said, "meet Brian Kelley."
Ray's face blossomed. "Oh, man, Brian," he said. By the rosy look of his cheeks, he seemed both happy and embarrassed. They engaged like separated twins, and I slipped away. Later, Brian said, "He told me that he was thrilled to meet me. Of course, he wanted to know how I liked the movie. I told him -- honestly -- that it was terrific."
That, too, was Brian, generous to a fault.
All he ever wanted from his ordeal was an official apology from the FBI.
It never came.
His (second) wife Trish, whom Brian bragged about at every opportunity, told me she had gotten a flurry of condolence calls from Brian’s friends at the CIA, where he continued to teach counterintelligence on contract, as word of his death spread.
But nothing yet officially from the spy agency to which he had devoted his life and passion.
Evidently, Brian, 68, died in his sleep, Trish said. "He didn't know what hit him."
Maybe. She says the stress of the mistaken mole hunt probably took years off his life.
Besides a wife, seven children and step-children, Kelley leaves behind an almost-finished manuscript about his career and ordeal.