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Breaking News

Veteran FBI Agent Allegedly Spying for Russians for Up to 15 Years

Aired February 20, 2001 - 9:04 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: But first, we have to begin with a breaking story. A veteran FBI agent is in custody this morning. He is accused of spying for the Russians. The agent's name: Robert Philip Hanssen -- faces a court appearance about two hours from now.

Our Jeanne Meserve has been tracking the story from our Washington bureau. And she joins us now with the latest -- Jeanne, good morning.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Daryn.

A White House official describing the damage done by Robert Philip Hanssen as considerable, potentially quite serious. Hanssen worked for the FBI for 27 years. And authorities now believe he might have been spying for the Russians and Soviets for as many as 15 years.

They got wise to him after surreptitiously receiving some KGB documents which identified him as a mole. They had been watching him for more than four months before arresting him Sunday night in Virginia, where he allegedly had made a dead-drop. That means he was leaving classified information at a prearranged spot for pickup by the Russians.

Right now, Bob Franken is at the Justice Department for us with some more information.

Bob, what information exactly do authorities believe Hanssen may have passed to the Russians?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here at the FBI, where he had most recently been (INAUDIBLE) headquarters. Bob Hanssen was somebody who dealt with counterintelligence.

And what we're finding -- and, of course, we're finding it just a little bit at a time -- is that he may have given the Russians information on the way that the United States conducted electronic surveillance. He was a counterintelligence expert. Among his assignments had been advising the State Department of security. Of course, for the last several years. the State Department has had significant security problems.

He had been suspected for the last several months -- as you pointed out -- had been under surveillance, on Sunday picked up -- as you pointed out -- as he dropped off documents that are allegedly classified at a dead-drop, meaning that they were going to be picked up later by the person for whom they were intended. In addition to all that, he is considered somebody who was used to confirm information that had been given to the Russians by superspy Aldrich Ames. Aldrich Ames, you will remember, was a CIA agent, a mole in the CIA who is now serving a life prison term.

Ames is somebody who provided information on double agents, that type of thing, that the Russians badly needed. But they were not willing to completely trust the information from Ames. FBI officials say that perhaps the information from Hanssen was used to confirm information that had been provided by Russians by Ames. Much of this will probably come out, as there is a court appearance scheduled for 11:00 a.m. Eastern in Alexandria, Virginia, which is right across the river from Washington, of course.

And then there is a news conference scheduled for 12:45, right after noon, by the FBI director, Louis Freeh, where we will get an outline of the charges and more specifics. But, as you pointed out, Jeanne, the White House is saying -- security experts are saying that Hanssen was somebody with important information and could have done considerable damage to the United States -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: Bob, as you well recall, money was the motivating factor for Aldrich Ames. But neighbors of the Hanssens say they lived within their means. They drove a van that was 10 or 12 years old. What do they think might have motivated Hanssen, if indeed if he was a spy?

FRANKEN: Well, they haven't given that information yet. That is the type of thing that we expect when the indictment is read in court and the type of information we might expect from Louis Freeh. We just know that he was in a position to do serious harm to the United States, somebody that the Russians would consider quite desirable as a -- quote -- "mole." And he is somebody who, in fact, is now accused of being just that.

MESERVE: Bob Franken at the Justice Department, thanks so much for your information -- Daryn, now back to you.

KAGAN: Jeanne, quick question for you: If officials are saying that Hanssen might have been or allegedly spying for 15 years, why would they just be onto him now in the last four months? That seems like a big time gap.

MESERVE: Well, I think these things happen in intelligence: Someone has a successful cover. He was very trusted member of the FBI. He had their highest security clearance. He was assigned to counterintelligence, which means that he was considered one of their very brightest and most capable agents.

He was someone that they would not have suspected, apparently, after serious background checks. What brought him to light was this information from the KGB, which, as I said, was surreptitiously obtained, which named him, I am told, as a mole -- back to you.

KAGAN: Jeanne, thank you so much.

And stay with CNN for developments on spy-investigation case. We're going to bringing you live coverage. A couple things that Bob Franken just mentioned to you, but to repeat once again, there is an FBI news conference scheduled today at 12:45 Eastern. FBI Director Louis Freeh will be joined by CIA Director George Tenet. Also there will be U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI Director William Webster. We are told that Webster will head up a blue-ribbon panel looking into the possible damage.

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