March 21, 2001 -- Federal officials have ordered six Russian diplomats who they believe were directly involved with the activities of accused former FBI agent-turned-spy Robert Hanssen to leave the United States. Another 44 others diplomats are being asked to leave, ABCNEWS has learned.
Senior U.S. sources said the six diplomats linked to Hanssen have been labeled "Persona non Grata" — banned from American soil — by the United States. Officials said those six were either Hanssen's "handlers" or picked up documents allegedly left by the FBI agent at secret dropoff points.
Several of the banned diplomats will be leaving Friday, sources said. The other 44 diplomats have up to two months to follow through on their "invitation" to leave, sources said.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, ranking Democrat on the SenateIntelligence Committee, confirmed the decision to oust the diplomats and told The Associated Press: "There have been a series of messages of disappointmentdirected at the Russian government for its role in the Hanssenaffair."
The order for the Russians to leave the United States was delivered today to Russia's Washington Ambassador Yuri Ushakov by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The State Department is expected to announce the expulsions Thursday morning.
The 50 diplomats' expulsion will be the largest by the United States since the Reagan administration ordered 55 Soviets to leave in 1986. That was done partly in retaliation for the then-Soviet Union's previous expulsion of five U.S. diplomats.
More Spies Than Cold War?
While the action comes partly in retaliation for the discovery of Hanssen's alleged activities, sources noted the expulsions were prompted by a potential espionage trend that concerned the Bush administration.
Intelligence gathered by the United States indicates there are now more Russian spies infiltrating the country than at any time since the Cold War, officials said.
Senior Bush administration officials said the decision to expel such a large number of Russian diplomats was based on reliable evidence.
Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI, was arrested in a Virginia park on Feb. 18 after allegedly trying to make a "dead drop" to his Russian handlers. He is accused of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia since 1985.
Officials have called the damage he is alleged to have to done to U.S. intelligence "exceptionally grave," and believe he may have helped compromise the identities of U.S. agents.
Officials also suspect he may have alerted Moscow to a secret tunnel underneath Russia's U.S. embassy in Washington D.C., which the FBI reportedly used for eavesdropping.
Hanssen is being held without bail.
ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.