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Spy's Wife Apologizes, Finds His Life Sentence 'Appropriate'

Security: Through her lawyer, she breaks her silence on Hanssen case. 'It's better than seeing him put to death,' she says of ex-FBI agent.

July 13, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Breaking her five-month silence, the wife of FBI spy Robert Philip Hanssen said Thursday that she deeply regrets the damage her husband has caused the United States and believes it is "appropriate" that he spend the rest of his life in prison.

As a devout Catholic, Bonnie Hanssen "feels that he needs time [in prison] to pray for forgiveness and be redeemed in some way," the wife's attorney, Janine Brookner, said in an interview. "It's difficult, but it's better than seeing him put to death."

Bonnie Hanssen's first public statements on the case reveal both her anxiety over her husband's actions and her sense of relief over the fact that she and her six children will retain an estimated $39,000 a year from his government pension.

Hanssen, a former counterintelligence supervisor for the FBI, pleaded guilty last week to 15 espionage-related charges and admitted that he had sold the Russians thousands of pages of national security secrets in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

The plea bargain spared Hanssen the death penalty. Instead, the 57-year-old defendant will be sentenced to life in prison without parole if he honors his pledge to tell the government all the secrets behind his two-decade career as a Russian spy.

Intelligence officials began debriefing Hanssen this week, defense attorney Preston Burton said Thursday.

In the face of worldwide publicity about one of the most damaging espionage breaches in U.S. history, Bonnie Hanssen, 54, has maintained a steadfast silence since her husband of nearly 30 years was arrested in February near their home in suburban Washington.

But Thursday, Bonnie Hanssen issued a statement through her attorney revealing the torment that the case has caused.

"Please be aware how deeply Mrs. Hanssen regrets the damage that her husband, Robert Hanssen, has caused to our country and to their family," the statement said. "She supports the plea agreement and agrees that the sentence of life in prison without parole, rather than the death penalty, is appropriate in these circumstances."

Authorities said they are convinced that Bonnie Hanssen--unlike the wives of several other notorious U.S. spies who helped their husbands--was not involved in Hanssen's spying.

Brookner said that the only time Bonnie Hanssen harbored any suspicions about her husband's activities came around 1979 or 1980, when they lived in Scarsdale, N.Y.

"She walked in on him and he covered up some papers, so she got suspicious," Brookner said. After Bonnie Hanssen confronted her husband, he told her that he had been in contact with his Soviet intelligence counterparts only as a "ploy" to trick them with disinformation, the attorney said.

Troubled by the incident, Bonnie Hanssen made her husband speak with a Catholic priest, who directed him to contribute money to Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who ran a Calcutta charitable organization, as a form of penance, Brookner said. The attorney estimated that Hanssen contributed $10,000 to $20,000 to Mother Teresa in small installments over the years, although the FBI has not been able to verify the payments. The Hanssens are active members of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group.

Authorities say Hanssen was driven by greed, but Brookner rejected that assertion.

"It wasn't money, that's for sure," she said, noting that the family lived in a modest home with three mortgages and drove older-model cars as they scrimped to send their children to private Catholic schools. "They never lived the high life; they never even went out to dinner," she said.

Hanssen reportedly lavished cash and gifts on a Washington stripper whom he befriended. But Brookner said Hanssen's family "was never the beneficiary" of any spy money and that Bonnie Hanssen has no idea what happened to the proceeds from his spying, including $800,000 that authorities say the Russians deposited for him in a Moscow bank.

Under the plea agreement, Hanssen is obligated to return the $1.4 million in spying proceeds to the government, but Brookner said she doubts that will ever happen.

"We don't know at this point what happened to that money," she said.

The plea bargain allows Bonnie Hanssen to receive about 55% of Hanssen's pension, which will total an estimated $39,000 per year. In her statement, Bonnie Hanssen thanked government officials for allowing her to retain the pension and for recognizing that "she and the children clearly are innocent victims."

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