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Justice Department Officials Brief Press on Plea Agreement With Accused Spy Robert Hanssen

Aired July 6, 2001 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Federal prosecutors say FBI agent Robert Hanssen may well have talked some men to death, but he exposed Russian agents who were working for the United States. They were later executed. But just last hour, Hanssen used only a few words to save his own life.

Our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena has more on the plea deal that Hanssen has struck with the government. It spares him the threat of the death penalty -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Daryn. Robert Hanssen left this courthouse about 45 minutes ago. Here to plead guilty to 15 charges of espionage and conspiracy; six charges against him were dropped from the original 21 as part of a plea agreement. Under that agreement, Hanssen, as you said, will not face the death penalty, but instead life in prison without an opportunity for parole.

Over the next six months, Hanssen will be debriefed by the government -- the FBI and CIA. He will be subject to polygraph tests, to be sure that he is providing truthful information.

His wife, Bonnie, will receive survivor benefits under his government pension. The government says that she has cooperated fully, so she will receive those benefits and continue to receive them as long as she continues to cooperate.

Hanssen admitted to intermittent espionage activities dating back to 1979. Lawyer, Plato Cacheris, explained Hanssen's motivation to go ahead with this deal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PLATO CACHERIS, HANSSEN ATTORNEY: He very much wanted to make amends. That's a big reason for this disposition today. And he wanted to tell his former agency what he had done and how he had done it, matters of interest to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ARENA: There were some of Hanssen's former colleagues in the courtroom, about two dozen agents that had worked on the case against him. They were in the front two rows of the courthouse. Robert Hanssen, when he first walked into the room, was surveying the room, smiling at some people who had worked on his defense, looked squarely at those agents -- who looked squarely back at him.

He was noticeably tense when he was addressing the judge, when he was answering direct questions about whether or not he understood exactly what the plea agreement entailed and that he was pleading guilty. His hands were tight behind his back, his fingers very fidgety. He was noticeably thinner, quite gaunt since we last saw him, in May, when he pled not guilty to the charges -- and today reversed them.

We are expected to hear momentarily from the government. Representatives from the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office have scheduled a press conference, and Daryn, we will bring that live to you when that happens.

KAGAN: Kelli, very good, and in fact, I think we're going to hear from them in just about a minute.

Meanwhile, as I understand it, Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty today, but the sentencing won't take place for another six months. Why is it set up like that, Kelli?

ARENA: His sentencing will take place on January 11. That is to give the government time to debrief him and, as I said, to make sure that the information that he's providing is truthful. If the government has any cause to believe that he's lying, withholding information, as part of that deal -- he's also supposed to hand over any and all documents and materials that may be in his possession, relating to his espionage activities -- the government can pull back and say he is in violation of this plea agreement. The government does have six months to conduct those reviews with Robert Hanssen, and as I said, Daryn, if all goes well, January 11 will be the day that he faces sentencing.

KAGAN: You mentioned that there were these FBI agents in the courtroom. Were there any members of the Hanssen family, that you could tell, or any supporters for him, today?

ARENA: There were not any members of his family. We are told that his family has met with him weekly since he has been arrested. But his lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said that because they really do want to try to maintain some anonymity, they did not want to be interviewed or pursued by the press if they came to courthouse. So they chose to stay away.

They also stayed away when he was here the first time, on May 31. There was a son-in-law who was here on his behalf, but this time, there were no family members, and as far as I could tell, no one who was clearly in support of him.

Of course, you mentioned those agents were there, and those, as I said, were agents who had worked on the case. When Robert Hanssen had turned around and smiled, and seemingly smiled at some of them, they remained very stone faced and serious in their demeanor as they were sitting there. This was something that had taken months to put together as as strong a case as the government said they had against Robert Hanssen, and it was a lot of hard work and, I can tell you, much betrayal on the part of many of the FBI agents who were in that room -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Given the betrayal here, I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that Mrs. Hanssen is going to be able to keep part of his FBI pension, as part of this deal.

ARENA: Yes, when we found that out from sources and reported that earlier this week, many of the legal experts that we spoke were quite surprised. As one legal expert said, he was in the employ of another government for 15 years.

Daryn, I'm told the new conference is just starting. Why don't we go over and hear what the government has to say.

They're still filing in there, Kelli, so if you wanted to finish your thought, you could go ahead and do that.

ARENA: Are they?

KAGAN: I can watch it. I'll cue you.

ARENA: Sorry. Thanks very much, Daryn.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

(CROSSTALK)

KAGAN: Now they're starting -- sorry about that -- let's go ahead and listen in.

KEN MELSON, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA: My name is Ken Melson, United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and I want to introduce the people who are seated up here before we hear comments, first from Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general of the United States, who's sitting to my left. Ruben Garcia (ph) is to his left, he's the acting director of the FBI.

To my right is Michael Chertoff (ph), the assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division; Randy Bellows (ph), an assistant United States attorney in our office who has tried and worked on this case; Laura Ingersoll (ph) from the Internal Security Section; John Dyan (ph), the acting chief of the Internal Security Section of the Department of Justice.

We have over here two additional assistant U.S. attorneys who have worked on the case, Gordon Cromberg (ph), our asset forfeiture specialist, and Justin Williams (ph), who is the chief of criminal.

Let me introduce to you then and turn the floor over to Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general of the United States.

LARRY THOMPSON, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you, Ken.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

This morning, former FBI Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen publicly admitted that he engaged in a 15-year-long conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. In a plea agreement accepted by Judge Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia, Hanssen pleaded guilty to that conspiracy and 13 different acts of espionage and one count of attempted espionage.

Under this plea agreement, Hanssen will spend the rest of his life in federal prison, with no possibility of parole. Hanssen betrayed the trust of his country on the highest level imaginable, and today's plea ensures that he will be held fully accountable for his actions.

This case reminds us that the United States remains a target of efforts at home and abroad to undermine our national security and that our vigilance in defense of our national security must be uncompromising.

The Department of Justice will continue to work with members of the U.S. intelligence community to protect our national security and to hold accountable individuals who threaten our security by espionage or other means.

As you know, the charges against Hanssen carried the potential for the death penalty to be imposed. Given the gravity of Hanssen's betrayal and the strength of the government's case, the decision to forego the death penalty in this case was a difficult one. In reaching this decision, we determined that the interest of the United States would be best served by pursuing a course that would enable our government to fully assess the magnitude and scope of Hanssen's espionage activity, an objective we could not achieve if we sought and obtained the death penalty against him.

The guilty plea that Hanssen has entered today requires him to submit to extensive debriefings by the U.S. intelligence community. The information that we expect to receive in these debriefings will enable our government to assess fully the scope and consequences of Hanssen's espionage activity.

Today's plea marks the culmination of a lengthy and complex investigation, and I want to first commend the FBI for its exemplary work in investigating this extremely sensitive and painful matter. The successful resolution of this case is proof of the FBI's professionalism, skill and dedication. The men and women of the FBI, Ruben (ph), should be proud of their work in this case, and they have our thanks and gratitude.

I would also like to express my deep appreciation to the many other men and women throughout the United States government who contributed to bringing Hanssen to justice.

In particular, I want to commend the outstanding work of the CIA and other elements of the intelligence community for their cooperation

(BREAK IN COVERAGE) And now I would like to reintroduce to you Ken Melson, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Ken?

MELSON: Thank you, Mr. Thompson.

On January 12, 1976, Robert Hanssen took an oath in which he swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

Today, Hanssen has admitted the shocking truth, that in fact he swore false allegiance, that he betrayed his country, he betrayed his fellow Americans for no reason other than greed and that he caused irreparable damage to the national security of the United States.

His plea of guilty today brings to a close one of the most disturbing and appalling stories of a turncoat imaginable. Despite what his attorneys said in court, that Mr. Hanssen was a winner in this, he is not a winner, and he will never be a winner. He disgraced himself, and he disgraced his badge.

The reassuring news is that Hanssen will spend the rest of his natural life under the watchful eye of a prison guard. He will have to disgorge all of the money that he received from the Soviets and the Russians for his espionage activity. He will not be able to gain any further from his espionage activity through proceeds from books and other types of articles. And the government will fully be able to understand and fully comprehend the consequences of Hanssen's betrayal of the trust placed in him by the American people.

Let me emphasize a couple of the points we made in the plea agreement this morning in court. First of all, the sentence that Hanssen will receive is a true life sentence. In that, I mean that he will not be paroled. He will not be released early for good conduct while in prison or for any other reason.

In order to guarantee that he will receive a life sentence in this particular case, we submitted the plea agreement to the court in advance of the plea, and on June 14, 2001, Judge Hilton signed an order in which the court agreed that it would embody in its judgment and sentence, the sentence called for in the plea agreement, which is life in prison without parole.

The government's decision to enter into this case was a difficult one, but it was also contingent upon proffer sessions engaged in by Mr. Hanssen prior to the plea. He participated in two five-hour proffer sessions.

After those proffer sessions, the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department prosecution team all agreed that Hanssen had satisfied the requirements of our proffer agreement. Therefore, the plea agreement was signed, and he entered his plea today.

The government will now proceed with debriefing Mr. Hanssen over the next several months to determine and fully gauge the damage he caused to our national security.

The plea agreement required that he plead guilty to each of the most serious offenses that included the conspiracy charge, 13 substantive espionage charges. In addition, he was required to sign and admit to a lengthy statement of facts so that there can be no doubt whatsoever or any confusion whatsoever as to the gravity of his conduct and the fact that he was the one who engaged in it.

The plea agreement also ensures that he will obtain no financial benefit now or in the future. In fact, he will be forfeiting $1.4 million of the money that he received from the Russians and the Soviets or was set aside for him to receive at a later date. He also forfeits any benefit he might receive in the future from publicity associated with this matter.

In addition, Hanssen has forfeited his FBI pension, his government pension, as of today -- the day he entered his plea -- except for that portion which is a survivors benefit. That survivors annuity is guaranteed to the wife under a statute passed by Congress in 1996, which said that if a spouse fully cooperates with the government, she shall be or he shall be entitled to the spousal annuity.

Assuming that Mrs. Hanssen continues to be fully cooperative, we expect the attorney general to sign off on that annuity later on this year -- I expect at the time of the sentencing early next year. In the meantime, assuming that Mrs. Hanssen continues to cooperate, she will receive an amount equal to the spousal benefit between now and the time of the sentencing.

Obviously, a key element in this particular case was that Mr. Hanssen will now have to undergo full debriefing.

We expect him to be candid with us and truthful with us and completely open about his espionage activities. This will take place over the next six months.

He has agreed to take polygraph examinations if the government requests it to test his truthfulness. If he has not been truthful, if we determine that he is withholding information, the government has the authority under the plea agreement to terminate the plea and his whatever statements he made during his debriefings up to that point against him if we should decide to negate the plea agreement and proceed to trial.

Those are the key elements of the plea agreement. I would like to echo Mr. Thompson's appreciation of the FBI, the CIA, the other intelligence agencies, the prosecution team, the Department of Justice, the International Security Section, for all they've done in this particular case. It's a wonderful disposition of a very difficult case.

Now I would like to turn the floor over to Rubin Garcia, the acting director of the FBI.

KAGAN: We have been listening to officials from the Justice Department, learning more about the plea agreement between the federal government and now-confessed spy Robert Hanssen.

Some things we're learning from that briefing there are that this is a true life sentence, no possibility of parole for Robert Hanssen; that he will undergo a debriefing with a number of government officials and agencies, to determine the amount of damage he caused with his many years of spying for Soviets and for the Russians; and also that he had to plea guilty to the most serious charges against him, a total of 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy.

Let's bring in our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena.

Kelli, we also heard that he also had to agree that he would have no financial benefit, any money that he was allegedly given by the Russians and Soviets over the years, that's gone -- also, he can't benefit in the future, if somebody wants to make a movie or write a book about this.

ARENA: That's right. As you know, there will probably be a lot of interest in getting access to Robert Hanssen, to complete that goal.

During these six months before his sentencing, part of the plea agreement does not allow any media access -- just as a side note -- and as you said, he has to forfeit any future gain.

The one thing, though, that the plea agreement does allow is for his family to keep their residence and their three vehicles. Those will not be forfeited by the government.

And $800,000 dollars of the alleged $1.4 million that he received for his espionage activities is supposedly in a Moscow bank account, which no one is quite sure actually exists, Daryn. So whether or not they fully get $1.4 million is questionable at this point.

KAGAN: He also addressed the question we were talking about before the news conference started, the survivor benefit. It sounds like this is already part of a previous law that's already been set up. As long as Mrs. Hanssen cooperates with authorities, she will get the survivor benefit, part of the pension that Robert Hanssen would have had from his FBI pension.

ARENA: That's right. It was passed in 1996. But I will tell you, Daryn, that that hasn't stopped some legal experts from expressing some disbelief that they actually are going to provide those benefits. As one legal expert said to me earlier in the week, this is a man who was basically in the employ of a foreign government over a 15-year period, and that he found it shocking that taxpayers would have to pay survivor benefits to his wife.

Although I will tell you that sources all along have said to us that Mrs. Hanssen had been fully cooperative, that there's no indication that she knew that her husband had resumed spying in 1985. She was not in on this at all, as we had learned in previous spy cases where spouses were involved. She was, according to those sources, completely ignorant of her husband's activities. So there was some sympathy shown for her. You see that as well in the plea agreement in the fact that she gets to keep the home and the vehicles as well.

Let's not forget that Robert Hanssen has six children, and she is now charged with their wellbeing -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Kelli Arena, in Alexandria, Virginia, where that plea agreement took place, in a courtroom, today. Kelli, thank you for that report.

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