U.S. says Hanssen exposed tunnel under Soviet embassy

Secret operation meant to allow FBI, NSA to spy on Russians

March 04, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The United States government constructed a secret tunnel under the Soviet Union's new embassy in Washington in order to eavesdrop, but federal investigators now believe the operation was betrayed by the FBI agent who was arrested last month on charges of spying for Moscow, current and former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

The secret tunnel operation, which officials indicated was run jointly by the FBI and the National Security Agency, was part of a broad U.S. effort to eavesdrop on and track Soviet - later Russian - facilities and personnel operating in the United States.

Spokesmen at the FBI and the White House declined to comment on the tunnel operation yesterday.

Current and former U.S. officials estimated that the tunnel construction and related intelligence-gathering activities cost several hundred million dollars, apparently making it the most expensive clandestine intelligence operation that the agent, Robert Philip Hanssen, is accused of betraying. The tunnel was designed to aid in a sophisticated operation to eavesdrop on communications and conversations in the Soviet Embassy complex, which was built in the 1970s and 1980s but was not fully occupied until the 1990s.

In the 1980s, at about the time the tunnel operation was under way, the United States and the Soviet Union argued bitterly over their respective embassies in Moscow and Washington, with the United States accusing Moscow of spying at both locations.

The government has never publicly disclosed the existence of the tunnel operation. But in an FBI affidavit in the Hanssen case, the government stated that Hanssen "compromised an entire technical program of enormous value, expense and importance to the United States government." Officials said that was a reference to the tunnel operation and related intelligence activities.

The government charges that Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and a counterintelligence expert, volunteered to spy for Moscow in October 1985. He was arrested on Feb. 18 in a Virginia park after leaving a package containing classified documents for his Russian handlers, according to the affidavit.

It could not be determined when the government believes Hanssen betrayed the tunnel operation and related intelligence-gathering activities targeting the embassy complex. Nor are many details known about how and when the operation was mounted, or whether it ever succeeded in collecting useful intelligence.

But the emerging belief that the tunnel program had been compromised was a factor in the government's decision to keep looking for additional spies after the 1994 arrest of the CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames, according to current and former officials.

A secret investigative team was established to identify the source of a series of damaging intelligence losses, including the tunnel and related activities against the embassy, that could not be explained by Ames. Other unexplained intelligence losses, including other technical intelligence programs, as well as the 1989 disclosure to Moscow that the FBI was conducting an espionage investigation of a State Department official, Felix S. Bloch, also prompted officials to begin a new mole hunt, officials added.

That mole-hunt team played a critical role in the counterespionage probe that led to Hanssen's arrest, U.S. officials said. It was a successor to an earlier CIA mole-hunt team that helped uncover Ames.

The tunnel was built under Moscow's new embassy complex on Washington's Wisconsin Avenue, a hilltop location known as Mount Alto, officials said.

The Soviets were prevented for years from fully occupying the embassy complex as a result of a long-running dispute with the United States about charges that the American Embassy in Moscow had been thoroughly bugged. Soviet diplomats occupied apartments there in 1979, and congressional critics charged that they were using those buildings as espionage outposts.

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