FBI spy suspect had access to weapons-tracking secrets

Hanssen among handful cleared for programs on sub, missile detection

March 07, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Robert P. Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent accused of spying, may have sold Russia some of America's most precious intelligence secrets, including information on how the United States tracks foreign submarines and sniffs out nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, intelligence experts said yesterday.

The loss of such technical secrets could dwarf the damage from Hanssen's alleged disclosure of a secret tunnel under the Russian Embassy in Washington, demolishing a number of the nation's most important intelligence programs and wiping out more than $1 billion in research and investment, the officials said.

Hanssen was one of a handful of FBI counterintelligence experts whom the Defense Department and other agencies called upon to protect a wide range of exotic high-tech intelligence programs collectively called "Measurement and Signature Intelligence," or MASINT, said a senior intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Hanssen also accessed CIA and Defense Department computer databases to collect highly classified information on MASINT programs, according to counterintelligence experts who asked not to be named.

MASINT programs detect, find and track submarines, missiles and other weapons by analyzing the sounds they make, the heat they generate, the radiation they emit or other evidence.

Such programs have become increasingly important to the United States as other nations have learned how to combat more conventional forms of intelligence gathering, such as satellite photography and communications intercepts, said the senior intelligence official. They also have become critical to America's ability to monitor the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and to keep track of mobile Russian nuclear missiles.

"If Hanssen sold the Russians everything he knew about these programs, the damage would be devastating, among the worst we've ever seen," the official said. "These things can be compromised in an instant."

Officials are trying to assess how much damage Hanssen allegedly did, but his arrest affidavit charges that he passed on details of at least one "Top Secret SCI" (Sensitive Compartmented Information) MASINT program. SCI is a level of security clearance higher than Top Secret that restricts information to a small number of people who are cleared for a specific code word.

The MASINT document Hanssen is accused of giving the Russians detailed recommendations for the director of the CIA on how MASINT information would be collected and used into the 21st century, according to the affidavit.

The document was "highly specific and technical" and disclosed "the Intelligence Community's consensus on specific MASINT objectives and studies leading to needed capabilities," the affidavit said.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said he couldn't comment on what MASINT documents were passed or what threat they represent to national security.

Hanssen, 56, was arrested last month and charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage for allegedly passing 6,000 pages of secret documents to the Russians. In exchange for spying over a 15-year period, court papers charge, he received $1.4 million in cash, diamonds and deferred deposits in a Moscow bank.

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