Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty today to spying for Russia, striking a plea-bargain with the government that averts a trial in one of America’s most serious espionage cases.
Appearing in green coveralls and a shirt with ‘prisoner’ stamped on the back, Hanssen, 57, told U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton that he spied for Moscow.
When asked how he pleaded, Hanssen replied: “Guilty.” Asked whether he understood the charges against him in the agreement that he had entered into with the government, he replied, “Yes, I’ve gone over it in detail, sir.”
Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said it was difficult for the government to accept a plea deal. But he said officials decided such a deal was in the nation’s interests because it requires Hanssen to tell what he knows about his activities.
Hanssen’s lawyer, Plato Cacheris, told the judge that his client had spied intermittently since 1979, but took several breaks, including one from 1992 to 1999. Mr. Cacheris said Hanssen had not spied constantly for 20 years.
He said that Hanssen had resumed spy activities in 1999, but had a premonition that he was going to be arrested. He said Hanssen had been examined by a psychiatrist who advised against a mental defense, pleading insanity. It would have been an uphill battle to plead innocent, because of all of the charges.
The plea agreement calls for Hanssen to get life in prison, but he was not sentenced today. His lawyers asked Judge Hilton to consider Jan. 11, 2002, as the sentencing date.
Under terms of that agreement, Hanssen’s family gets to keep their home in Vienna, Va. and the family’s three vehicles. As long as his wife, Bonnie, cooperates with authorities, she will receive a survivor’s annuity equivalent to 55 percent of his government pension. No figures were supplied.
The annuity is contingent upon Hanssen keeping his part of the plea bargain. His wife is eligible for the benefit under existing federal law because the government did not have evidence that she was criminally culpable.
The agreement provides that Hanssen cannot author or help write any book, article, film or documentary, including giving interviews to writers or media organizations without receiving permission from the FBI first, to ensure that disclosures won’t endanger national security. Any profits would go to the U.S. government.
Mr. Cacheris told the court that the plea agreement was a victory for both his client and the government. “The death penalty has been removed,” he said. And Hanssen promised to report all factors involved in his spying activities, first for the Soviet Union and then for Russia.
He said the plea deal “will enable our government to assess fully the scope and consequences of Hanssen’s activities.”
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Melson said the government’s decision to accept a plea was based on two five-hour sessions that lawyers had with Hanssen and his attorneys.
“We expect him to be candid with us and truthful with us,” Mr. Melson said, adding that Hanssen will have to take polygraph tests.
Hanssen pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage and six counts were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
Mr. Cacheris revealed that, contrary to original belief, Hanssen had begun his spying activities in 1979. It was first thought that he had started in 1985.
Mr. Cacheris said Hanssen voluntarily ceased those activities in 1981, but picked them up again in 1985 and continued until approximately 1991-92.
During that time, he said, Hanssen transmitted sensitive classified information to his Russian handlers.
Talking to reporters outside the courthouse, Mr. Cacheris said that Hanssen has information the governments wants.
“How he did what he did is important for the government to know,” Mr. Cacheris said.
“They’re (the government) going to learn things they did not know,” he said.
Mr. Cacheris said he hoped that Hanssen would be sent to a federal prison at Allenwood, Pa., because it would be convenient for Hanssen’s family to visit him there.
“His family very much stands with him,” Mr. Cacheris said.
Mr. Cacheris described Hanssen as being in control of his activities and said he had no Russian handlers.
“He never met any Russians,” the lawyer said.
Mr. Cacheris said that Hanssen “very much wanted to make amends. That’s a big reason for this position today.”
“They want information they are now going to get,” he said, “and Mr. Hanssen’s life has been spared.” Mr. Cacheris acknowledged that if Hanssen “doesn’t cooperate truthfully and fully, then can abort the agreement.”
Mr. Cacheris said he didn’t know what Hanssen did with money he was paid for his activities. But he did say that his government benefits “are preserved for the wife,” although Cacheris said he didn’t know the exact amount.
Hanssen initially pleaded innocent, in May, after plea negotiations broke down.