WASHINGTON — Fired FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen pleaded guilty Friday to charges that he sold national security secrets to the Russians, sending him to prison for life, as he revealed fresh details about one of the most damaging spy cases in U.S. history.
Hanssen's plea sets the stage for six months of intensive debriefings at which U.S. interrogators will try to determine exactly what secrets Hanssen gave away, how he avoided detection for more than two decades and what other "moles" may still be at work.
Even before debriefers begin interrogations in earnest, the defendant and his lawyers offered new details about his espionage, revealing that Hanssen:
* First began selling secrets to the Soviets as far back as 1979--six years earlier than government investigators had realized--and broke off his activities for two long stretches over the next two decades.
* Had a "premonition" that he was going to be arrested one day in February of this year as he drove to a "dead drop" site to leave a cache of materials for the Russians in exchange for $50,000. But he went ahead with the drop anyway, and the FBI apprehended him.
* Managed to avoid detection in large part because, unlike past U.S. spies, he insisted on never having any personal contact with the Russian agents to whom he was selling national secrets, according to defense attorney Plato Cacheris, a prominent Washington attorney who also represented notorious CIA spy Aldrich H. Ames seven years ago.
"He never met any Russians. . . . He was controlling the operation," Cacheris said. "I think he was pretty good, to be honest."
No Possibility of Parole
The decision to drop the death penalty against Hanssen was a difficult one, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry D. Thompson. But only by securing Hanssen's cooperation and brokering a deal with him could U.S. authorities put themselves in a position "to fully assess the magnitude and scope of Hanssen's espionage activities," Thompson said.
The 57-year-old Hanssen, looking relaxed and even confident as he appeared in federal court in green prison garb, pleaded guilty to 15 espionage-related counts in a deal that will send him to federal prison for the rest of his life with no possibility of parole.
His plea, which also ensures that his wife will receive a pension estimated at $39,000 a year, "brings to a close one of the most disturbing and appalling stories of a turncoat imaginable," said U.S. Atty. Kenneth E. Melson.
Cacheris said the plea deal was "a win" for both sides because the government will get to find out the extent of the national security damage, while Hanssen avoids the death penalty.
But Justice Department officials took issue with that characterization.
Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who became a counterintelligence supervisor, "is not a winner, and he will never be a winner. He disgraced himself, and he disgraced his badge," Melson said at a news conference after the guilty plea.
Melson also rejected suggestions that Hanssen was driven partly by the thrill of the spy game and a desire to outfox his colleagues at the FBI. Hanssen, he said, "betrayed his country . . . for no other reason than greed."
Under the terms of the plea, Hanssen is barred from profiting from any of the film or book projects about his story that are already underway.
And he agreed to give back about $1.4 million in proceeds that the Russians paid him for his secrets in cash, diamonds and Rolex watches. While Justice Department officials indicated that they want to try to recover $800,000 that the Russians allegedly deposited for Hanssen in a Moscow bank, Cacheris said he doubts U.S. authorities will ever recover any of the $1.4 million.
Hanssen's family is allowed to keep their house in suburban Washington and their three vehicles. And most important for Hanssen, his wife, Bonnie, will collect a "survivor's pension" because authorities say she has cooperated fully in their investigation.
FBI officials said the pension should amount to about $39,000 a year, given Hanssen's high pay grade and 25 years of government service.
The Hanssens have six children, from high school age to young adults. Cacheris said family members have been visiting Hanssen weekly in prison and that "his family very much stands with him."
Bonnie Hanssen reportedly suspected her husband of spying around 1980, and he promised to stop.
Cacheris told U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton that Hanssen began selling secrets to the Russians around 1979--a period Cacheris said the government knows little about--and continued until 1981. He resumed his espionage in 1985 until about 1991 or 1992, Cacheris said.
It was during this latter period that Hanssen appeared to have been most active, exchanging secrets for cash and gifts numerous times in accordance with instructions that were delivered through letters, phone calls and newspaper advertisements in Washington.