WASHINGTON (AP) _ More than 20 years ago, ex-FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen told his wife and a Catholic priest he had given information to the Soviets in exchange for money, people familiar with the case said Saturday.
Hanssen confessed to a second priest on one occasion in the early 1990s after resuming his suspected espionage activities on the Soviets' behalf, the sources said. Hanssen's wife was unaware he had gone back to turning over secrets to the Russians.
Bonnie Hanssen told the FBI that her husband confessed to giving the Soviets nonvital information in 1979 after she caught him doing something suspicious, said the sources, and that Hanssen then went to a priest who urged him to turn himself in.
When the priest changed his mind and told Hanssen to donate the $20,000 he had received to charity, Hanssen gave the money in small amounts over time in cash to the cause of Mother Teresa and promised his wife that he would cut off further contact with Moscow, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The sources declined to describe the information they said Hanssen provided in his first round of spying, except to say it was ``something substantial.''
Mrs. Hanssen said her husband told her he was tricking the Russians, not giving them anything important in exchange for the money, the sources said.
Mrs. Hanssen has told investigators that the discussions with the first priest took place in about 1980, when the couple lived in Scarsdale, N.Y. At the time, Hanssen was working in counterintelligence in the FBI's New York office.
After a six-year gap, Hanssen resumed the alleged spying and at one point confessed about his activities to a different priest in the early 1990s, the sources said.
Mrs. Hanssen told the FBI she was stunned when her husband was arrested in February and charged with espionage activities spanning a 15-year period.
``She is absolutely noncomplicit'' in her husband's illegal activities, said one source.
Until now, the U.S. government has alleged publicly that Hanssen began spying for Moscow in 1985.
CBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post all reported on the earlier alleged spying by Hanssen.
Justice Department spokeswoman Casey Stavropoulos declined to comment, as did Hanssen's lawyer, Plato Cacheris.
Prosecutors allege Hanssen passed U.S. secrets to Moscow in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. The FBI said it obtained original Russian documents that detailed Hanssen's activities, including letters he allegedly wrote to his Russian handlers and secret codes used to signal when and where he would drop documents.
Hanssen pleaded innocent to all charges last month.
The new disclosures come as sources close to the case say prosecutors and attorneys for Hanssen are nearing a deal in which Hanssen will reveal his secrets and the Justice Department will not seek to put him to death. Fourteen of the charges against Hanssen are punishable by death.
Under the informal agreement, a term of life imprisonment for Hanssen would depend on the government being satisfied that he is cooperating with its inquiries, two people familiar with the negotiations said Friday.
The government and Hanssen's lawyers have agreed to an Oct. 29 date for a jury trial. A plea bargain would avert that.