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Espionage Arrest: FBI Agent May Have Spied for Russia for Over 15 Years

Aired February 20, 2001 - 8:00 a.m. ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: A 27-year veteran of the FBI, Robert Philip Hanssen, has been charged with spying, accused of having worked for Russia over a period of about 15 years.

CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor joins us now with the very latest on this -- David, what have you got?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Colleen, Robert Philip Hanssen, as you say, a 27-year veteran of the FBI, was arrested Sunday. He was caught, according to officials, putting classified information into what's known in the spy business as a dead-drop.

In other words, he was leaving classified information in a prearranged place where the Russians could pick it up. He will be arraigned today in federal court, we are told. And there will be a press conference by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a lot more detail. There will be a lengthy affidavit made public showing the evidence that the government hopes will convince a court that Robert Philip Hanssen was indeed a spy for Russia for more than 15 years.

Now, the last several of those years, he was assigned to the State Department to help them with their security. And this may help explain why there have been so many problems with security at the State Department in recent years. You will remember that not long ago, a Russian agent was caught in his car not far from the State Department eavesdropping with electronic equipment on a conference room in one of the high floors of the State Department. It would seem likely that if they had an inside agent helping them, it would have been easier to set that up. There has been this existing mystery as to how the bug got into that conference room. It's possible that this may be the explanation.

But Robert Philip Hanssen is a resident of Vienna, Virginia. He has lived in Washington for many years. He has a wife and children. We understand that it is believed that the wife did not know anything about this. You can imagine how the family must be feeling today -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's David Ensor, thanks -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. As David was just reporting, Hanssen will be in court today facing charges at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

CNN's Justice Department correspondent Kelli Arena is standing by.

Kelli, what are likely the specific charges he is going to be facing?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, obviously, charges of espionage to begin with. I mean, this investigation has gone back for at least four months. One of the keys to this investigation was that the FBI had obtained KGB documents which allowed them to specifically finger Hanssen.

And one thing that I wanted to just revisit, something that David had said: I have some fresh information that David was not aware of, that a -- the investigation thus far has not linked Hanssen at all with the intelligence problems over at State. In fact, everything that they found has been to the contrary of that. That is information that we just got in, so just to try to forward the story a little bit.

As David did say that -- you know, he was involved in espionage for Russia for as many as 15 years. He was primarily involved in counterterrorism, but all of that work was done here in the United States, mostly in New York and Washington.

LIN: Kelli, what links have they been able to make, if any, between Hanssen and convicted CIA spy Aldrich Ames?

ARENA: Well, there are indications that Hanssen confirmed information that was supplied by Ames that was used by the Russians against U.S. intelligence officials. So there is obviously some link there. And, as you know, the outcome for those Americans was not a wonderful one. He was involved in that, at least peripherally, is what documents are showing at this point.

LIN: David Ensor was reporting that at least 10 of those agents were actually executed overseas. Kelli, have your contacts characterized how damaging the information has been that Hanssen might have passed to the Russians?

ARENA: You know, they have not. Of course, any information that is passed on is obviously -- you know, the indications that he did confirm for the Russians what Ames had supplied was damaging enough. They had not qualified for me yet what type of information he was able to get for them. But he knew -- what I have been told is that he knew everything.

He had the highest clearances. He was involved in the intimate day-to-day operations. There was nothing that he didn't know about their procedures and who they had in place and exactly how they operated. So, as I said, this man was a 27-year veteran; 25 years in counterterrorism. So he knew the lay of the land and was obviously very willing to share that with another country.

LIN: He has been under the watchful eye of the FBI for at least the last four months. Why did it take so long to arrest him, then? ARENA: Well, I think what they were waiting for was to catch him in the act. And, as you know, he apparently made a drop at a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) park in Vienna, Virginia. Basically what that means is that he was dropping off information for his counterpart.

There is usually a place where you put information that is a public place that wouldn't necessarily be under suspicion. So I think what they were waiting for was the red-hot, you know, in-the-act evidence. Here you've got him. And, as I said earlier, those KGB documents that were obtained were very helpful. I don't know exactly how the FBI got their hands on KGB documents, but they did. And it was very helpful in fingering him.

LIN: Kelli, do you know what sort of classified information was in this so-called dead-drop in Virginia?

ARENA: No, I do not, unfortunately. But hopefully, we'll find out at 12:45 when the FBI has their press conference. But there is some of this, though, that will never be released.

There is, you know, some of this information that, you know, I am not sure that they'll ever know exactly what the Russians do have in their possession. And you know, so they'll be very careful in dealing with any classified information in terms of releasing it to the press or to the public.

LIN: Certainly. All right. Thank you very much, Kelli Arena, CNN's Justice Department correspondent reporting live.

And we want to note to our audience that, at 12:45 Eastern, CNN will be carrying Louis Freeh's news conference live. He is the director of the FBI commenting on this case -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right. Thanks very much, Carol.

A little bit more about the FBI for you now. Ron Kessler is joining us. He is an author. He has written a book that's called "The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency."

Mr. Kessler, thanks for joining us. Let's start with talking a little bit about these agents. How are they chosen? Who are they?

RON KESSLER, AUTHOR: FBI agents are required to be U.S. citizens. They have to be within certain ages. And it doesn't make any difference whether they go into counterintelligence, which is this person's area, or straight criminal work. They still get the same basic FBI training.

MCEDWARDS: So what kind of training would they have gone through? Tell us more.

KESSLER: Just initially, you know, they have to learn to shoot. They have to learn to climb ropes. They -- you know, a lot of physical work, a lot of computer work. But in the counterintelligence area, it becomes very specialized. In that area, they learn about the spy game. They learn about the drops, how to communicate clandestinely, how to surveil people without them knowing, and all of the various technical sophisticated techniques that are used to keep track of spies.

MCEDWARDS: CNN's Kelli Arena has reported that the person in this case, Robert Philip Hanssen, who is alleged to have spied, had the highest sort of security clearance, a 27-year veteran of the organization. What does that mean? What kind of access would he have had?

KESSLER: Well, the highest clearances don't necessarily mean that he has access to everything. But, in this case, it certainly sounds as if he is by far...

MCEDWARDS: OK, Ron, sorry, I've got to interrupt you. Ron Kessler. Thanks very much. Sorry to jump in on you there.


LIN: All right, still following this breaking news story about this FBI agent. And Colleen, we've been talking about a man who is a FBI veteran -- 27 years with the force -- but apparently, he is facing charges now of spying for the Russians for the last 15 years.

This is a man who was known as a dedicated FBI agent with the highest security clearance, with a wife and six children and a suburban life in Vienna, Virginia.

Joining us on the telephone, in fact, is one of Mr. Hanssen's neighbors. Her name is Nancy Cullen.

Nancy, can you hear me -- this is Carol Lin at the CNN Center?


LIN: Nancy, can you give us an idea of who this man is?

CULLEN: This family -- I mean we're all in shock. This morning one neighbor saw it on the news, and we're just all in shock because Bonnie Hanssen is the most perfect mother, just -- they go to church every Sunday, if that means anything, they load all six kids into the car; now a lot of them are off at college; they have a son in law school. I mean, every Sunday, there they go, the Hanssens, in their van. They're just the best of neighbors, and Bonnie is just an unparalleled kind of mother and wonderful person.

LIN: Nancy, have you talked to Bonnie Hanssen this morning?

CULLEN: No, I don't want to bother her. But it's just so sad because -- and even her sister lives three houses up with her family, and it's just a totally family-family family.

LIN: Was there any indication of personal problems or financial problems with the family?

CULLEN: Not that I know of -- not that I know of.

LIN: Did they seem to -- did they seem to live above their standard of living?

CULLEN: I don't believe so. They have a -- none of our houses are very fabulous. They're OK -- it's just a nice street. We've all lived together here for about -- we've lived here 15 years, and they've been here at least 10 of those years, coming to the block party every Memorial Day and doing all the same stuff, nothing extravagant. She's driven the same van for 10 or 12 years. I said Bonnie, get yourself a new van. But, no...

LIN: What was Robert Hanssen like with the neighbors? Was he a very public man?

CULLEN: Robert Hanssen is a very attractive, well -- composed person who isn't overly gregarious, but he would mix right in with everybody, and we never had any reason to feel that he was anything but just a dedicated, hard-working guy.

LIN: When was the last time you saw him? He was arrested on Sunday.

CULLEN: I saw Bob probably within the last week, because I walk two miles every morning, and it's hard for me to miss anything.

LIN: Did you...

CULLEN: I usually see him coming and going and, you know, just getting in the car, going to work, coming home normal kind of hours, that I've seen him. So I don't know.

LIN: Nancy, did he ever talk about his work?

CULLEN: No, not to my knowledge, but we weren't -- the guys weren't in the neighborhood -- weren't that -- ever around that much -- none of them, you know -- I mean, they're always coming home late and leaving early. So...

LIN: Well, I'm sure this must be a shock to you, Nancy, as well as the other neighbors in your Vienna, Virginia, neighborhood.

CULLEN: It is.

And their kids are all just incredibly well schooled, polite, wonderful people too. So it's going to be...

LIN: All right, well, I'm sure we'll be learning much more about this man, certainly as we see him today at his court hearing, at 11:00 a.m., and hearing from his boss, Louis Freeh, at a news conference, at 12:45 Eastern time.



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