Washington, 6 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A former agent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow during a 22-year period.
Robert Hanssen entered the plea today to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy as part of an agreement with the prosecution that will allow him to avoid the death penalty and permit his wife and children to receive his government pension.
Prosecutors say Moscow paid Hanssen $1.4 million in cash and diamonds for the information he provided between 1979 and last February, when he was arrested in a park near Washington, D.C., where he had dropped off a package for his handlers.
According to the U.S. government, Hanssen passed 6,000 pages of documents revealing the identities of double agents, disclosing how the U.S. was intercepting Soviet satellite transmissions and telling Moscow how the United States planned to retaliate against nuclear attack.
After the hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, prosecutors said that in accordance with the agreement under which Hanssen pleaded guilty, the FBI will closely question him over the next six months about what information he gave to the Soviet Union and to Russia, how he operated, and to whom he transmitted the data.
Ken Melson, the supervising federal prosecutor in the jurisdiction handling Hanssen's case, said he expects Hanssen will be candid during these interviews, known as "debriefings." But if his questioners believe that Hanssen is holding anything back, the plea agreement could be terminated and he could be brought to trial. If he were to be convicted at that trial, he could again face the death penalty.
Melson expressed relief as well as satisfaction with the resolution of the investigation. And he gave this characterization of the former FBI agent:
"Today Hanssen has admitted the shocking truth, that in fact he swore false allegiance, that he betrayed his country, he betrayed his fellow Americans, for no reason other than greed, and that he caused irreparable damage to the national security of the United States. His plea of guilty today brings to a close one of the most disturbing and appalling stories of a turncoat imaginable."
Hanssen has often been compared with Aldrich Ames, a former officer of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who also spied for Moscow. Ames was sentenced to life in prison in 1994. At the time, Ames was described as an American who damaged his country's national security more than any other person before him.
A year after Ames was sentenced, John Deutsch, then director of the CIA, said the spy caused "severe, wide-ranging and continuing damage" to his country.
The government says the damage Hanssen did was similarly significant. Prosecutors say he betrayed nine double agents, including two who were later executed, and provided details about several top-secret communications programs, U.S. nuclear war preparations, and a listening tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
Reuben Garcia, the acting deputy director of the FBI, and Randy Bellows, the lead prosecutor in the Hanssen case, said it is too early to say whether Ames or Hanssen did more damage. Garcia said both did enormous harm to U.S. national security, and Bellows added:
"The gravity of Hanssen's conduct is absolutely unquestionable. This is certainly as serious an espionage case as our country has faced."
Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson said the Hanssen case demonstrates that America must be mindful of threats from both overseas and within its borders, despite the fall of Soviet communism and the emergence of the U.S. as the sole military superpower.
"This case reminds us that the United States remains a target of efforts at home and abroad to undermine our national security, and that our vigilance in defense of our national security must be uncompromising."
Hanssen's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said that his client had a premonition that he would be arrested on 18 February -- the day he was, in fact, arrested near Washington as he dropped off information for his Russian handlers.
Cacheris declined to say why Hanssen ignored the premonition and went to the "drop site" anyway. But he said that his client wants to express his remorse for his actions. He added that an appropriate time for that would be when he is sentenced.