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Chicago Tribune
July 4, 2001

Accused FBI spy Hanssen cuts deal

Guilty plea would mean life term, money for family

By Naftali Bendavid

WASHINGTON -- Robert Hanssen, the longtime FBI agent accused of passing secrets to Moscow over 15 years, has reached a plea deal enabling him to avoid the death penalty in exchange for cooperating with investigators.

The deal to plead guilty will be made final Friday in federal court, prosecutors said. Under the agreement, Hanssen would receive life in prison, and his wife and six children would receive benefits from his government pension, sources said.

Some Bush administration officials had wanted to pursue the death penalty for Hanssen, 57, and that apparently stalled talks between prosecutors and Hanssen's lawyers. The government accuses Hanssen not only of providing more than 6,000 pages of documents to the Soviet Union and Russia but also of causing the deaths of two U.S. double agents.

As in most sensitive espionage cases, prosecutors and intelligence operatives ultimately concluded that the national interest was best served by having Hanssen provide detailed accounts to the FBI, CIA and other agencies of his clandestine activities.

That would enable intelligence experts to determine what the Russians learned from Hanssen and to assess which American intelligence systems and technologies are vulnerable. The debriefings also could help U.S. officials learn whether information they obtained from Russia over the years was actually planted by the Russians as decoys.

At the same time, a plea deal enables prosecutors to avoid a potentially embarrassing trial that could reveal the agencies' shortcomings and result in the public release of sensitive information.

Sources said Hanssen's lawyers, who initially offered the deal, and prosecutors have been trying to decide whether they could trust him to be forthcoming.

Details due Friday

Neither prosecutors nor Hanssen's lawyers would disclose the details of the plea deal. The agreement will be outlined at a hearing Friday before a federal judge in Alexandria, Va.

Hanssen's arrest was one of the biggest embarrassments for the intelligence community, and the FBI in particular, in recent years.

Hanssen was a counterintelligence agent assigned to ferret out spies, and had access to much sensitive information.

A former Chicago police officer, Hanssen was arrested Feb. 18 after allegedly leaving a package of classified documents for his Russian handlers under a foot bridge in a park outside Washington.

According to a government affidavit, Hanssen volunteered to become a paid spy for the KGB during the Cold War and over the years received at least $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

The government's case outlined the ways Hanssen allegedly communicated with his Soviet and later Russian employers, including by signaling with tape on public signs.

Avoided large payments

Hanssen was intimately familiar with the FBI's techniques for catching spies and allegedly became adept at outwitting them. He never revealed his identity to his Russian masters, according to prosecutors, and was careful not to accept large payments that could alert the FBI.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh has said Hanssen did "grave damage" to U.S. national security and that this behavior "represents the most traitorous actions imaginable."

Hanssen, who pleaded not guilty May 31, is only the third FBI agent in history to be charged with espionage.

The case has prompted soul searching within the FBI and criticism outside it. William Webster, a former FBI director and Central Intelligence Agency chief, is heading up a study to determine how the FBI can do a better job of catching moles.

With his plea bargain, Hanssen would join a long line of accused spies who avoided the death penalty and helped provide for their families by agreeing to help investigators.

In the last spy case of this magnitude, CIA operative Aldrich Ames pleaded guilty in 1994 to spying for Moscow and agreed to cooperate with intelligence agencies. In exchange, Ames' wife, Rosario, received a relatively lenient 63-month sentence despite accusations that she had helped her husband spy.

Hanssen's wife was not charged.

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said the government's primary interest in such cases is minimizing the damage caused to the nation by the defendant. The only way to do that, Aftergood added, is often to secure the alleged spy's full cooperation.

"Aside from punishing the crime and deterring others, they want to get a clearer idea of what Hanssen compromised," Aftergood said.

"That is how the government knows which of its technologies are vulnerable, which need to be updated or replaced and which might be in the hands of an actual or potential adversary."

Incentive for settling

Meanwhile, the plea will enable the government to avoid the pitfall of an open trial at which Hanssen could seek to use classified information as part of his defense.

That provides an enormous incentive for the government to settle espionage cases.

But Aftergood said Hanssen is not getting off easy.

"It's important for the rule of law and for the organizational culture of the FBI to say that this is a terrible offense that must be punished," Aftergood said. "But I don't think that necessarily means the guy must be executed. He is going to spend the rest of his life in prison. His life has been ruined, and for the most part the life of his family has been ruined. So I don't think the government has given up any leverage here or sent a signal of weakness."

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune




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