July 6, 2001 -- Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty today to spying for Moscow, after striking a plea deal that will spare him a possible death sentence and prevent national security secrets from being spilled in court.
Under the deal, Hanssen will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail without the possibility of parole or a reduced sentence for any reason. He must tell the government all about his spying and how he managed to remain undetected for so long.
He pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, committing 13 separate acts of espionage and one act of attempted espionage.
"He very much wanted to make amends. That's a big reason for this disposition today," Hanssen's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said after the former FBI agent pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage. "And he wanted to tell his former agency what he had done and how he had done it, matters of interest to them."
Avoiding the Death Penalty
If convicted in a trial, Hanssen could have been sentenced to death because prosecutors alleged his spying led to the death of two double agents. Cacheris asked the judge to set sentencing for Jan. 11, giving the FBI, CIA and other government agencies six months to pick Hanssen's brain.
"Given the gravity of Hanssen's betrayal and the strength of the government's case, the decision to forego the death penalty in this case was a difficult one," Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said.
"In reaching this decision, we determined that the interest of the United States would be best served by pursuing a course that would enable our government to fully assess the magnitude and scope of Hanssen's espionage activity, an objective we could not achieve if we sought and obtained the death penalty against him."
The government has already learned something it didn't know before — that Hanssen began spying for Moscow in 1979, not 1985 as the FBI thought, according to Cacheris.
The deal, which acting Attorney General of the Eastern District of Virginia Ken Melson said was only reached after two five-hour proffer sessions with Hanssen, can be rescinded if the government does not believe Hanssen is forthcoming in the interviews.
As part of the deal, Hanssen's wife would be eligible to receive the "survivor's benefit" portion of his pension, as long as she continues to cooperate with authorities, Melson said.
Premonition of Arrest
Hanssen admitted to passing U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia intermittently for more than 20 years in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. Cacheris said there is $800,000 in a bank account in Moscow that Hanssen is forfeiting.
Cacheris said Hanssen spied from 1979 to 1981, then quit until 1985. Hanssen cut off his dealings with the Russians in 1992 "for reasons that are personal to him," Cacheris said, and then began again in 1999.
He had a feeling he should quit again on Feb. 18 this year, the day federal agents grabbed him at a drop site in a Virginia park, according to the lawyer.
"He's told us from the beginning … that when he went on Feb. 18 to that last drop site at the time he was arrested, he felt he was going to be arrested, and he went anyway," Cacheris said.
The Justice Department is hoping to learn exactly what the nature of his spying was, how long did he do it and exactly what secrets he gave away.
The government was also anxious to avoid having national security secrets aired during testimony in open court.
Hanssen was able to remain undetected for so many years because he did not divulge his identity to Moscow, and set the terms of their relationship himself, Cacheris said.
"He was in control. He never met any Russians," the lawyer said. "I mean, he was in control of when he got in contact with them and when he didn't. They didn't know him. So to that extent, he was controlling the operation.
"I think that's striking because in all other espionage cases that I've been involved in — we've beeninvolved in — there's usually a handler," Cacheris added. "There was not one in this case. To me, that as an espionage technique, I thought was striking."
Keeping Sensitive Information Under Wraps
The former FBI agent was indicted by a federal grand jury on May 16 on 21 counts of espionage. He pleaded not guilty May 31, and plans were set for an Oct. 29 trial.
Attorneys for Hanssen negotiated for weeks before agreeing to the deal that allowed him to reveal secrets he sold to Moscow, in exchange for the Justice Department agreeing to a life term.
Hanssen has been detained at an undisclosed location since he was arrested.His lawyer asked today that he be imprisoned in the federal maximum security unit in Allenwood, Pa., because it is near enough to his home for his family to come visit him.
The FBI said it obtained original Russian documents that detailed Hanssen's alleged activities, including letters he allegedly wrote to Russian operatives and secret codes he allegedly used to signal when and where he would drop documents. The FBI has not disclosed the source of the documents.
Going to trial would have raised the prospect of prosecutors having to reveal in open court sensitive information about U.S. counterintelligence activities. For instance, Hanssen allegedly disclosed how the United States was intercepting Soviet satellite transmissions and the means by which the United States would retaliate against a nuclear attack.