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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Settlement reached on spy charges

July 4, 2001

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— Trying to close the books on an espionage debacle that rocked the FBI, the government struck a deal with ex-agent Robert Hanssen that would spare his life in exchange for a full confession detailing secrets he sold the Russians, people familiar with the case said Tuesday.

Hanssen's FBI pension will go to his wife, Bonnie, and six children as part of the agreement in which he will plead guilty to multiple counts of espionage Friday and ultimately be sentenced to life in prison, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Fourteen of the 21 charges against Hanssen could have been punishable by death. The deal averts an Oct. 29 jury trial.

"We believe this is an appropriate resolution of this matter that is beneficial to the government and to Mr. Hanssen and his family," said Hanssen lawyer Preston Burton, who confirmed that a plea hearing is scheduled Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. He declined to confirm any aspect of the agreement.

The Russians paid Hanssen more than $600,000 in cash and diamonds and set up an escrow account for him in a Moscow bank worth at least $800,000, the government has alleged in court documents.

Hanssen is expected to provide details of damage he did the United States when he undergoes questioning by government investigators. They allege he passed 6,000 pages of documents starting in 1985. Already in possession of a great deal of information about Hanssen's activities, prosecutors could go to court seeking to undo the deal if Hanssen, in the government's view, doesn't come clean.

According to prosecutors, Hanssen revealed identities of double agents, disclosed how the United States was intercepting Soviet satellite transmissions, told the Soviets the means by which the United States would retaliate against a nuclear attack and tipped off the KGB to the FBI's secret investigation of Felix Bloch, a foreign service agent suspected of spying for Moscow in 1989. Bloch was never arrested.

FBI shortcomings

The Hanssen case is one in a succession of damaging episodes that have undermined the FBI's credibility, from the botched investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee to the FBI's failure to turn over 4,000 documents in the Oklahoma City bombing. The document problem delayed the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

With the FBI in the hands of an acting director after the resignation of Louis Freeh, there are calls on Capitol Hill for tougher outside scrutiny of the bureau.

The House Judiciary Committee recently approved legislation to create a new position of deputy Justice Department inspector general with the sole task of keeping watch over the FBI.

Reacting to the Hanssen deal, Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, faulted the FBI for "looking in the wrong place" for a Russian spy who turned out to be one of the FBI's own agents.

The bureau had information long ago about a spy inside the government intelligence apparatus but didn't focus on Hanssen until last year. He was arrested Feb. 18.

Of the plea bargain, Shelby said, "I wouldn't say he's getting off light, but if he could have gotten the death penalty, it probably wouldn't have been too much."

Unanswered questions

Last month, other people familiar with the case said Hanssen's spying for the Soviets began before 1985.

Those sources said Hanssen told his wife and a Catholic priest more than 20 years ago he had given information to the Soviets in exchange for money.

Mrs. Hanssen said her husband told her he was tricking the Russians, not giving them anything important, the sources said. She told the FBI she was stunned when her husband was arrested in February and charged with espionage.

What Hanssen did with the money he got hasn't been spelled out, although following his arrest, a former stripper said the FBI agent gave her almost $80,000 in gifts, including a trip to Hong Kong and a Mercedes. She said he made no sexual advances and spurned hers during their yearlong friendship that began in 1990.

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