SPY suspect pleads innocent

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen pleaded innocent Thursday to federal charges of spying for Moscow.

Hanssen, at his arraignment at U.S. District Court in this Virginia suburb, said nothing in his brief appearance.

His ``not guilty'' plea was entered on his behalf, and plans were set for an October trial.

``We will be filing motions in federal court attacking this indictment,'' his lawyer, Plato Cacheris, told reporters on the courthouse steps.

The proceeding lasted only a couple minutes. Hanssen, clad in a green jumpsuit with the word ``prisoner'' on the back, was escorted in amid heavy security.

The arraignment came after lawyers for Hanssen and the government reportedly failed to negotiate a plea. One critical issue was the prosecution's insistence that the death penalty could be imposed for several of the 21 counts against the veteran FBI agent.

Asked about this Thursday, Cacheris said he wasn't sure the death penalty would be constitutional in this case.

``Probably not,'' he told reporters, who thronged to the courthouse to cover Hanssen's appearance.

Hanssen has been detained at an undisclosed location since his February arrest at a Virginia park as he allegedly delivered a package for pickup by his Russian handlers.

In a federal indictment, Hanssen is accused of passing U.S. secrets to Moscow for 15 years in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

The father of six could face the death penalty on charges that he identified Soviet agents secretly working for the United States who were subsequently executed. He is also accused of passing secrets about satellites, early warning systems, retaliation plans against large-scale attacks and communications intelligence. Those charges also carry potential death sentences.

In the past, the government has avoided taking espionage cases to court because they could air national security secrets. Instead, they have entered plea bargains in which people accused of spying agreed to tell authorities details of their activities in exchange for lighter sentences.

According to Hanssen's lawyers, discussions aimed at entering a plea and avoiding a trial stalled because the government would not agree to waive the death penalty in exchange for Hanssen's cooperation.

Congress resurrected the death penalty for spies in 1994 in response to the Aldrich Ames case. Ames, a veteran CIA officer accused of spying for more than eight years for the former Soviet Union, pleaded guilty that year and was sentenced to life in prison.

The government has not sought the death penalty against a spy since the law changed. The last spies executed were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.