FBI Agent Accused of Russia Spying

Tuesday, February 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — An FBI agent reportedly assigned to spy on Russian government outposts in the United States was arrested and accused of conducting espionage for Moscow, the FBI said Tuesday. The White House said the allegations were disturbing.

Robert Philip Hanssen, 56, the father of six, is only the third FBI agent ever accused of spying. He was arrested at his home in Vienna, Va., Sunday night and was to be arraigned Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

FBI Director Louis Freeh, Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George Tenet scheduled an early afternoon news conference to discuss the arrest. Underscoring the gravity of the case, former FBI Director William Webster will lead a blue-ribbon panel that will assess the impact of the alleged espionage, according to an FBI source.

As President Bush flew from Washington to Columbus, Ohio, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters: ``The president is troubled by the allegations. They are disturbing.'' He said Bush had been told of the case before Hanssen was arrested.

Hanssen was assigned to FBI headquarters in Washington, and had been an FBI agent for about 27 years. He spent most of his career in counterintelligence, spying on Russian government outposts in the United States, said the source, speaking only on condition of anonymity. He has been assigned to the State Department.

Hanssen was arrested shortly after FBI agents saw him deposit a package of classified information at a ``dead drop'' in a Virginia park, said another source, also speaking on condition on anonymity. He had been under surveillance for about four months.

Among secrets disclosed by Hanssen included U.S. methods for conducting electronic surveillance. He also may have confirmed for the Russians information originally supplied to them by convicted CIA spy Aldrich Ames.

FBI officials are still assessing the damage of Hanssen disclosures, but one source said the information he released has caused extreme damage to U.S. security.

Nancy Cullen, a neighbor, described Hanssen's neighborhood as being in shock with news of the arrest. ``They go to church every Sunday — if that means anything — loading all six kids into the van.'' She said the Hanssens were regulars at the Memorial Day block party and called Hanssen ``very attractive ... not overly gregarious.''

Cullen said Hanssen's wife teaches religion classes part-time at a Catholic high school.

The Hanssens' $300,000 middle-class split-level home of brown brick and cedar was encircled by yellow police tape Tuesday. A dozen FBI agents wandered in and out, carrying in electronic equipment. Neighbors briefly filled the cul-de-sac to watch the activity.

Neighbors called each other after hearing the news on morning TV shows. ``It was a universal reaction around here: 'No way,''' Cullen said.

Another neighbor, Jennifer Jones, described the family as ``very devout Catholics. They seem to be outspoken on religious issues.''

Hanssen's wife teachers religion classes part-time at a local Catholic high school.

Hanssen is only the third FBI agent ever accused of spying.

In 1997, Earl Pitts, who was stationed at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., was sentenced to 27 years in prison after admitting he spied for Moscow during and after the Cold War. The only other FBI agent ever caught spying was Richard W. Miller, a Los Angeles agent who was arrested in 1984 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Last year a former Army officer was accused of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia for 25 years. Prosecutors said retired Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff, who was a civilian intelligence employee, was captured on one tape putting his hand to his heart and telling an undercover agent posing as a Russian agent: ``I'm not American in here.''

A State Department official, asking not to be identified, said Hanssen appears on a current list of department employees, assigned to the Office of Foreign Missions, which regulates activities of foreign missions in the United States to protect American foreign policy interests.

The mission, among other activities, ensures that if American diplomats at an overseas post suffer harassment, reciprocal steps will be taken against that country's U.S.-based diplomats.

The State Department has had a number of security lapses in recent years. A year ago, a computer laptop containing highly classified information disappeared from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Earlier, a Russian spy, aided by a tiny transmitter installed in a seventh floor conference room, was caught eavesdropping on meetings that took place in that location.