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Deterrence Is Never Enough, as 2 Espionage Cases Illustrate

April 29, 2001|ADAM B. SCHIFF | Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) represents Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and surrounding communities

Dear Mr. Cherkashin:

Soon, I will send a box of documents to Mr. Degtyar. They are from certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmented projects of the U.S. Intelligence Community. All are originals to aid in verifying their authenticity. . . . As a collection they point to me. I trust that an officer of your experience will handle them appropriately.


With this October 1985 letter to the KGB foreign counterintelligence chief at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., FBI Agent Robert Hanssen is alleged to have begun a 15-year act of betrayal. He stands accused of passing more than 6,000 pages of classified information to the KGB and its successor agency, the SVR, at "dead drops" outside Washington.

According to the FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Virginia, Hanssen also tipped off the KGB to an FBI investigation of diplomat Felix Bloch, disclosed important FBI technical operations and alerted the KGB to two of its own agents who had been recruited by the United States--and who later were put to death.

At the very time that Hanssen is alleged to have been slogging around in the Virginia mud delivering his first packages of classified information to the Soviets, 3,000 miles away in California a case that had rocked the FBI was going to trial. Twenty-year veteran FBI agent Richard Miller was being tried in a Los Angeles courtroom for passing classified and national defense information to Svetlana Ogorodnikova, a known asset of the KGB, in exchange for sex, money and gifts.

As the assistant U.S. attorney who later became the lead prosecutor in the Miller case, I remember vividly what a shock it was when he became the first FBI agent in bureau history to be indicted for espionage. The public was stunned, but no one was more surprised, inflamed and outraged than the agents of the FBI itself.

And for good reason. The FBI had long prided itself on its professionalism, esprit and unalloyed integrity. Its hiring standards were among the most demanding of any law enforcement agency; its investigative work among the best.

And so Hanssen, as he allegedly began the worst treason to befall the bureau in its history, must have watched the case of Miller--and the FBI's reaction to it--with more than passing interest.

The Miller case was enormously difficult to prosecute. When the FBI learned that Miller was having secret meetings with Ogorodnikova, it did not know whether or what information he may have been passing to the Soviets. When it began to investigate Miller to build evidence for his prosecution, Miller--trained to know when he was being watched--had little trouble recognizing FBI surveillance. Thus alerted, he acted before the FBI could and established his defense by telling his supervisor that he was meeting with Ogorodnikova in an effort to fool the KGB into thinking he was a spy.

On the surface, the Hanssen and Miller cases appear similar. Both agents worked on the FBI's counterintelligence squads, where they not only had access to sensitive information, but also were aware of FBI internal processes to root out spies. Just as Miller had been trained to recognize his own surveillance, Hanssen would have known that the greatest threat of discovery would lay in the KGB itself. If the U.S. recruited a KGB agent aware of a traitor's identity, that traitor could be uncovered--just as Hanssen is alleged to have disclosed U.S. agents to the KGB. And so, despite working for the KGB for 15 years, Hanssen is alleged to have been careful never to disclose his identity to the KGB. Miller's knowledge of FBI processes made him difficult to prosecute; Hanssen's knowledge made him difficult to investigate.

But there the similarities end. Miller was targeted by the KGB. An overweight, slovenly agent with marital problems, he was an easy mark for the attractive Ogorodnikova. His espionage was clumsy and so it was also short-lived. Assuming that the FBI affidavit is correct, Hanssen was not recruited and his letter to Viktor Ivanovich Cherkashin was unsolicited, no doubt a wonderful surprise to the KGB chief. An accomplished agent of relative good standing with a stable family life and no outrageous expenditures, Hanssen did not meet the profile of a traitor. He was sophisticated, clever and, were it not for the extraordinary efforts of a CIA / FBI team, would probably still be undiscovered. The damage he is alleged to have done is incalculable.

But what is most striking to me as a former prosecutor is the temporal connection of the two cases. Just as Miller was being convicted and sentenced to two life terms plus 50 years, Hanssen is alleged to have been making the decision to betray his country. And although Miller's sentence was later reduced, Hanssen could not have known that this would be the case. Two life terms plus 50, the shock, hurt and outrage of agents at Miller's betrayal--none of this, if the chronology in the FBI affidavit is correct, was a deterrent to Hanssen.

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