Archive for Saturday, July 7, 2001

Court papers begin to paint portrait of a spy

July 7, 2001

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— Beginning more than two decades ago, Robert P. Hanssen and his Russian contacts exchanged packages throughout the Washington, D.C., area, from underneath a footbridge at Rock Creek Park code-named "Grace" to a quiet intersection in McLean, Va., they called "Flo," according to court papers released Friday.

Those documents provide the most detailed portrait to date of a man obsessed with covering his tracks. To avoid detection, the FBI counterintelligence expert resorted to phony newspaper ads and more than half a dozen drop sites for his top-secret information. Not once did he meet face to face with any of his KGB contacts.

The green trash bags that Hanssen left over the years contained computer disks and thousands of pages of documents, ranging from the names of Russians working for the United States to eavesdropping efforts by the National Security Agency. Always, he left a note, signed with his alias: "Ramon."

And the Russians left diamonds one of them valued at $24,740 and cash of up to $50,000, or written notification that tens of thousands of dollars had been deposited for Hanssen in a Moscow bank, according to the court documents.

The Justice Department outlined his espionage career in 69 pages, reproducing letters and phone calls between Hanssen and his Russian handlers.

The Russians were so pleased with the prized information that they worried about acting on some of it, according to the documents, fearing it would identify Hanssen, who, as a top FBI official, had access to some of the government's most guarded secrets.

"If our natural wish to capitalize on Your information confronts in any way Your security interests we definitely cut down our thirst for profit and choose Your security," one 1991 letter to Hanssen from his Russian contacts said. "That's why we say Your security goes first."

Still, the Russians pressed for more information. They wanted the names of Russians secretly working for the United States and details about U.S. missile defense plans and submarines.

From the beginning, Hanssen was consumed by fears that he would be detected.

Besides the different drop sites, he came up with fake return addresses and codes to shield computer messages or change a date for a meeting. In August 1986, he instructed the Russians to place an ad for a 1971 Dodge Diplomat in The Washington Times, complete with phone number and scripted reply to his question about the car. He would then provide a phone number where they could reach him.

Two years ago, Hanssen became increasingly agitated that the FBI would discover his secret life. He scoured the bureau's computer system to try to determine whether federal agents were placing the drop zones under surveillance. He talked with the Russians about opening a Swiss bank account but determined it could be traced.

Hanssen's final letter to the Russians was sent Feb. 18 of this year, just before he was arrested. He tells of being promoted to a new position, without access to the counterintelligence program.

"It is if I am being isolated," he wrote. "Something has aroused the sleeping tiger. Perhaps you know better than I. Life is full of its ups and downs."

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