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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Robert Hanssen Arrested, February 18, 2007

Today in 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested at a park near his home in Vienna, Virginia. He would later be charged with selling secrets to the Soviet and Russian governments for more than 15 years. Much of what Hanssen revealed to his handlers is still classified, but he without a doubt did more damage to the United States' security and intelligence establishment than any spy in the nation's history.

Hanssen was born in Chicago in April, 1944. He later claimed that his father was both physically and mentally abusive towards him when he was a child. After college, where Hanssen earned a reputation for having an incredible memory for details, he joined the Chicago police in the Internal Affairs department. His direct supervisor, John Clarke, later stated that Hanssen seemed, even then, to be a sort of double agent. Clarke always believed that Hanssen had been placed in the department to spy on them.

By 1975, Hanssen was tired of Chicago Internal Affairs. He applied to FBI, but was not accepted the first time. He persisted and was accepted in early 1976 at the age of 32. By 1979, he was working in the FBI field office in New York City, where he first made contact with Soviet agents. Hanssen told the KGB that a GRU general had been selling secrets to the US for some time, information for which he was paid $20,000. The door had been opened.

Hanssen did not make another move towards selling secrets to the Soviets until 1985; by this time, Hanssen had spent time working in the FBI's Soviet Analytical Unit and had a security clearance above Top Secret. He acted aggressively, sending a letter to Victor I. Cherkashin, the Soviet embassy employee who headed that country's espionage operations in Washington. In the letter, Hanssen named three KGB officers who were working for the US. He also promised to send a box of original classified documents to Cherkashin as proof of his abilities. In the next three years, two of the KGB officers Hanssen named were executed and the third was given a hard labor sentence. This was only the first of many people who would die because of the information Hanssen sold.

Between 1985 and the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Hanssen sent his Soviet handlers more than 6,000 documents and assorted computer data. He was incredibly thorough in the precautions he took, so much so that the Soviets never learned his true identity. He was one of the United States' premier counter-intelligence experts and he used that knowledge to evade detection by both his handlers and the FBI. The money he was given for handing over secrets, a little more than $1.4 million in cash and jewelry, was used in part to send his children to very expensive private schools. A devout Catholic, Hanssen believed that a holy war was in America's future and that his children needed to be prepared for it. Whether or not this was a motivation for his betrayal is unknown.

Many of those who knew and worked with Hanssen considered him eccentric; others suspected the truth about him. His brother-in-law, who himself worked for the FBI, began to notice that Hanssen kept thousands of dollars in cash at his house. In 1990, he reported to his superiors what he knew about Hanssen and recommended that he be placed under surveillance.

The exact reason the FBI began to suspect Hanssen of being a double agent remains clouded in secrecy. It could be the opening of the KGB archives in the 1990's or the confessions of other spies. Regardless, the bureau moved Hanssen to a new, fictitious position in 2000 and assigned him an aide, Eric O'Neill. In reality, O'Neill's assignment was to spy on Hanssen and keep detailed records of his behavior. He learned that Hanssen kept his most confidential information on a PDA that rarely left his sight. O'Neill was eventually able to get ahold of the device long enough to copy the data on it. Once decrypted, the data revealed what the FBI feared most: one of their own had gone over to the other side.

Robert Hanssen now spends his days at a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. He will spend the rest of his life there. The FBI originally pushed for him to receive the death penalty for his crimes, but a deal was struck wherein Hanssen agreed to talk in exchange for a life sentence with no parole and a half pension paid to his wife.

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