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FBI Agent Arrested For Allegedly Spying for Russians

Aired February 20, 2001 - 8:33 a.m. ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: Robert Philip Hanssen has been arrested. He was arrested on Sunday. He is accused of having been a spy for Russia over a 15-year period. He's a 27-year veteran of the FBI, and most recently has been working in the State Department.

And CNN's Jeanne Meserve is in Washington right now with the very latest on this.

Hi, Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Colleen. We've been talking to Kelli Arena, also David Ensor, who have been working this story for us. This is the information they've come up with.

The officials got wise to Hanssen from some KGB documents which they obtained through surreptitious means. These documents told them that they had a mole in their midst. It pointed them to Hanssen. They had him under observation for more than four months before arresting him Sunday night in a northern Virginia location.

He had made a dead drop there. That means he was dropping classified information, they say, at a park there. That was a prearranged location where the Russians would later pick it up.

He was, we are told, a counterintelligence expert for the FBI. He had the highest security clearance. We do not know yet the exact nature of all of the charges against him. But as someone working in counterintelligence, here are some of the things they believe he could have done.

He was watching for the U.S. the people they believe the Russians had watching us. And so what that means is he could have alerted the Russians to the fact that the U.S. was getting wise to one of its agents working against the United States.

Also, he could have revealed methods of electronic surveillance that the U.S. was using against the Russians. And third, he could have confirmed to the Russians information they had received from Aldrich Ames.

Aldrich Ames, you may recall, was the CIA agent who was arrested back in the '90s. He had revealed to the Russians the names of U.S. agents who were spying against the Russians. As a result of the information Aldrich Ames gave, at least 10 individuals were executed. We do not know yet exactly what the connection was between Hanssen and these various events. We will learn more today at 11:00 when he is arraigned in federal district court in Alexandria.

For the last couple of years, Hanssen had been working at the State Department. There, we are told by Andrea Koppel, he was involved in keeping an eye on diplomats from other countries, including the Russians. He also may have had some connection with efforts to improve security at the State Department.

However, David Ensor tells us that apparently Hanssen had no connection with several recently publicized security breaches at the State Department, including the theft of laptop computers which contained classified information.

Also, on the case where a Russian agent was caught monitoring conversations in a supposedly secure conference room in the State Department, a surreptitious microphone was found in that location. Again, Hanssen supposedly had nothing to do with those two incidents.

There is going to be a press conference later today at 12:45 at the FBI. Louis Freeh, the head of the FBI, will participate, as will George Tenet, the head of the CIA; also Attorney General John Ashcroft. Also, we're told that William Webster, the former head of the FBI and the CIA, will be heading a blue ribbon commission to investigate exactly what damages was done by Robert Philip Hanssen.

That's the latest. We'll be covering this story all day from Washington and bring it right to you -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, thanks so much. CNN's Jeanne Meserve -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jeanne just touched on some of the issues coming out of Washington today. But right now we want to go to CNN's Justice Department producer Terry Frieden for more on what we can expect to hear at 12:45 Eastern right here live on CNN.

Terry, what do you know about the news conference today.

TERRY FRIEDEN, CNN JUSTICE DEPT. PRODUCER: I think this news conference will show just how important this case is. The fact that they are bringing in Attorney General Ashcroft, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, the U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia, Ellen Fahey, to join Louis Freeh, certainly indicates that this is a major case.

But even more than that, William Webster, former head of the FBI and CIA, is probably going to be there personally. In any case, even if he's not, they're going to announce that they're tapping him to head up a blue ribbon panel to look into the damage that was caused by this case.

They have an extraordinary load of information. The affidavit in this case runs 110 pages. The affidavit containing all of the details laying out the extensive history of spying by Mr. Hanssen, or alleged spying, will be released at this news conference. In addition, we're going to see photos of the -- including photos of the dead drop sites, including the one in Virginia in which he -- where he allegedly dropped documents, and when he was arrested this weekend.

So all of those things will be made available at the news conference.

LIN: Terry, are they going to be more specific about the kind of information that Hanssen had access to and what he likely delivered to the Russians if, in fact, he's guilty?

FRIEDEN: Well, there's a lot of information that they're not going to be able to release for national security reasons. But I think we're going to bet a very extensive amount of information about the activities that he was involved in, who his contacts were.

Normally, affidavits in cases like this involving spies lay out extensively any payments, any travel, any meetings that he had with contacts. Things like that. But as far as actual damage to the national security, we probably will not get much of that. And, indeed, this commission that will be headed up by William Webster will look into that.

LIN: Terry, for those skeptics out in the public and outside the Beltway who take a look at this blue ribbon commission and say, well, isn't that a typical solution for Washington when they don't know what else to do. How significant is it that they are forming this commission? and how likely are results going to come out of it? and how quickly?

FRIEDEN: Well, William Webster is highly respected. And he has certainly headed up commissions before. He headed up a commission a year ago which looked into ways to improve the federal law enforcement establishment in Washington. And it was taken seriously. Of course, these commissions generally take quite a long time. And we don't know who all is going to be on it or the resources they're going to have, but I think it's something that should be noted with some seriousness.

LIN: All right, Terry Frieden, CNN's Justice Department producer, thanks so much for that update -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, thanks, Carol.

Of course all of this being watched very closely in Russia. In Moscow we have our Steve Harrigan with the latest from there.

Hi, Steve.


Well, no real surprise here in Moscow. We've been working the phones talking to the FSB -- that's the old KGB -- as well as the Russian Intelligence Service. They are saying, no comment. That's no surprise because the Russian Intelligence Service never comments on cases of this nature where spying is involved. Even long-resolved or old cases such as Aldrich Ames, they will not comment on them.

So no comment now from the Russian FSB or from the Russian government on this case.

Just to put this in some kind of a context, however, what it does say about the start of American relations at the start of this new administration of George W. Bush, they certainly have gotten off to a frosty start. We've seen in the past few weeks comments from the head of the American CIA, the defense secretary, as well as the national security adviser, all pointing to Russia as a threat.

Now, this angry rhetoric has angered top officials here in Moscow. One top official told me this kind of talk is not correct; it's not proper or polite to be using such propaganda in public.

So the context of this plays into a really frosty start of the relations between the two countries, some angry words between the two sides and top officials.

One other event to keep in mind when putting this into context, we saw last week, on Friday, we saw Russia test three intercontinental ballistic missiles from the air, from the sea and from the land. Many observers here, experts saw this as a kind of saber rattling by Russia kind of reminding the world of its status as a nuclear power.

So no comment specifically on these charges from the Russian FSB, but it can be seen in context of some harsh dialogue between the two sides and some show of force from the Russians last week -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And some outstanding cases. You refer to the Aldrich Ames case. What is still outstanding about that? And what other cases are outstanding between the two countries on the issue of spying?

HARRIGAN: Well, from the Russian side, you won't get anything, from the FSB, which is the former KGB, or the Russian government. Their policy is the same as it was in the Soviet Union: no comment at all.

But really the startling thing here in Moscow, and the thing that many political observers have noted is a real change in tone between the two sides. Relations very cozy, personable, friendly between the Clinton administration and the Russians. Boris Yeltsin had Bill Clinton in particular had a sort of warm, friendly jovial relationship.

That tone has dramatically changed here from George W. Bush early on, even before the inauguration, talking about corruption within Russia. And then his three top advisers saying over the past few weeks, pointing to Russia as a threat, a threat to world security. Certainly an issue like this plays into their hands and plays into those who support their arguments -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, understand. CNN's Steve Harrigan in Moscow, thanks.

LIN: All right, more on this breaking story. Joining us right now by telephone is George Terwilliger. He is a former deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position in the Justice Department in the former Bush administration; and also a federal prosecutor for 10 years and a trial attorney. George Terwilliger on the telephone.

Mr. Terwilliger, can you tell us, as you hear about this 110- pages affidavit that's going to be presented in court today, the case that is building against Hanssen, this Mr. Hanssen, how serious a case is this?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, FORMER DEPUTY ATTY. GENERAL.: Well, it's obviously a very serious case, Carol. And I think it would be -- it's important to note the outset that this is a very tough and a sad day for all the dedicated men and women of the FBI who work so hard day in and day out to protect our national interests. And to have someone who has allegedly violated the trust of the nation, of the bureau and of colleagues is very difficult. No case like this would be brought unless it was very, very strong.

LIN: And how much spying would you say at this point in our history is done between the United States and Russia?

TERWILLIGER: Well, I think, Carol, this serves as an important reminder to Americans that we still live in a world where we have adversaries. The Russian are our adversaries on many issues. Doesn't mean we do not actively seek better and stronger and more productive relations with them, but we also have to be realistic and understand that, for both diplomatic and economic purposes, they will conduct espionage activities.

LIN: And what is it that we're trying to find from the Russians, and what are they trying to find out from us today?

TERWILLIGER: Well, in a nutshell, we are -- all nations always seek the advantage of information and insight about what their adversaries or even sometimes their allies may be thinking or doing or planning. We also are a country of great technological prowess. And the level of economic espionage takes place between countries today is a very important factor. And the government -- our government, at least, both at the CIA and the FBI, have taken steps to affirmatively deal with that threat.

LIN: What are the -- what is the maximum sentence, do you think, that Mr. Hanssen might be facing here if he is found guilty?

TERWILLIGER: Well, I'm not certain what he has been charged with. Certainly life imprisonment is a possibility. The death penalty is available for treason. I don't know what the government's plans might be in that regard. But obviously this kind of thing is just the most serious of offenses and a great breach of trust.

LIN: All right, we shall see. Mr. Hanssen will be in court today at 11:00 a.m. George Terwilliger, former deputy attorney general.



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