How the FBI Tracked Robert Hanssen

ByPeter Dizikes

Feb. 20, 2001 -- Accused spy Robert Hanssen was arrested under dramatic circumstances on Sunday, but the FBI's investigation of him involved months of less glamorous legwork.

Concluding a four-month inquiry, federal agents nabbed Hanssen conducting what they say was a clandestine "dead drop" in the woods of suburban Virginia on Sunday evening. Hanssen, a 56-year-old counterintelligence specialist, was in the process of giving information to his Russian contacts in exchange for $50,000 in cash, FBI Director Louis Freeh said today.

The arrest was the culmination of a period in which the FBI monitored Hanssen extensively, using some of the most powerful surveillance techniques it could muster in order to build a case against him.

Authorities say the FBI operation was made trickier by the fact that a number of Hanssen's colleagues were involved in the investigation — and that Hanssen had a habit of checking FBI records in an ongoing attempt to see if his activities and communications were being watched.

"He constantly checked FBI records for signs that he and the drop sites he was using were being investigated," Freeh said at an afternoon news conference.

Key Break Led to Inquiry

Intelligence experts say Hanssen was so careful, and positioned so well at the FBI, that the agency may not have caught on to his activities without outside help.

"He didn't make any slip-ups," says Vincent Cannistrano, the former CIA director of counter-terrorism who is now an intelligence consultant for ABCNEWS. "He was identified through tips from penetration of Russian intelligence."

Freeh alluded to this today, saying the Hanssen investigation "was conducted by the FBI in partnership with the CIA, the Department of the State and, of course, the Justice Department," and that "because of these coordinated efforts, the FBI was able to secure original Russian documentation of an American spy who appeared to be Hanssen."

Specifically, the FBI managed to get possession of letters written by Hanssen and sent to his Russian contacts, Freeh said. The FBI chief quoted from them during his news conference.

However, there was a twist: Hanssen was not identified by name in communications with his Russian contacts. Indeed, Freeh even claimed that Russian agents never knew exactly who Hanssen was, although the FBI director declined to explain how he could be sure of this.

Freeh added that Hanssen had employed "sophisticated means of communication, encryption and dead drops" to contact his Russian handlers.

Surveillance, Surveillance, Surveillance

But once the FBI had the crucial letters, agents began monitoring Hanssen intensively, to see if his activities matched the intelligence to which they had become privy.

Freeh said Hanssen was monitored through "computer forensic analysis, substantial covert surveillance, court-authorized searches and other sensitive techniques."

For the court-authorized searches, the FBI got legal clearance through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to begin the process of checking Hanssen's every move.

Although Freeh did not specify what the searches were used for, Cannistrano suggests the order could have been used for "wiretap authority" to monitor Hanssen's phone calls and possibly to intercept his cell phone conversations as well.

And while Freeh also declined to talk about the surveillance methods used, it seems likely that a large team was used in the operation.

According to Ronald Kessler, author of The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, the FBI uses techniques far removed from the standard pop-culture image of two agents in a car tailing a would-be spy.

"It could involve as many as a dozen different agents or people that are involved from the Special Operations unit," says Kessler. "It could entail airplanes that are very quiet that could watch him. Or bicycles, mail trucks, people parked a block away."

The bottom line, Kessler says, is that the FBI "would just be watching him all the time."

Additionally, as Freeh indicated, the FBI was checking Hanssen's computer use, something that helped nab former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who was revealed as a Russian spy in 1994.

The FBI may also have had to perform some code-breaking work to unravel Hanssen's messages.

The Russian agents, says Cannistrano, "may have given him a code system in which he wrote his report." Additionally, Hanssen "may have used electronic encryption."

More Complicated Than the Ames Case

For these reasons, the arrest of Hanssen appears to represent a more complicated challenge than the case of Ames.

Indeed, the Ames investigation took longer, but was greatly aided by clues Ames carelessly left lying around, such as torn-up notes in his trash, which he threw out in bags on the street, and a used typewriter ribbon.

And Ames ultimately drew attention to himself with his profligate spending, although the CIA was roundly criticized for not noticing his luxuriant habits sooner.

But Hanssen apparently did not leave the same money trail behind.

"This guy clearly was a real genius at covering his tracks, and he didn't spend a lot of money," says Kessler, adding, "I've never seen anything this crafty before."

Thus the FBI went to greater lengths to set Hanssen up. At the end of 2000, it transferred him from the State Department post he had held since 1995, moving him back to the FBI headquarters. In his new position, Hanssen was not authorized to have contact with Russian agents.

And unlike the case of Ames, who was arrested en route to his office, law enforcement officials decided to try to catch Hanssen in the act.

Freeh said today that "because of our investigation and surveillance of the subject, we knew that he had an appointment" at one of his "dead drop" sites on Sunday.

The FBI agents on the scene waited for Hanssen to drop off a packet containing intelligence, near a bridge in the woods, then quickly moved in to arrest him.

Freeh said Hanssen was surprised to see the agents on the scene — something he could not have expected, having apparently eluded them at their own game since 1985.

"I know far better than most what mine fields are laid and the risks," Hanssen wrote to his Russian handlers, according to Freeh.

Now Freeh and the FBI are hoping they can prove Hanssen didn't know the territory quite well enough.