Alleged Russian spy Hanssen could gain FBI pension

1996 law allows benefits to get testimony of spouse

April 06, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Robert P. Hanssen could become the first foreign spy in U.S. history to enjoy some of the benefits of an FBI pension.

Although he faces a possible death sentence and was fired from the FBI for "gross misconduct," his family is eligible for a share of his pension and health insurance under an obscure law intended to help prosecutors win cooperation from the spouses of accused federal agents.

For Hanssen's wife, Bonnie, a suburban Virginia substitute teacher, and their six children, the benefits could come to about $36,000 a year, an FBI personnel specialist estimated.

If Hanssen is convicted, his family would be the first to gain from the 1996 law, said Ronald Kessler, writer of "The FBI" and other books on federal law enforcement and counterespionage.

Hanssen, 56, a former top counterintelligence specialist at FBI headquarters in Washington, is accused of identifying Russian agents working for the United States who later were executed.

The 27-year FBI agent also is charged with passing more than 6,000 pages of highly classified documents to Moscow between 1985 and his arrest in February.

Prosecutors are debating whether to seek a death sentence against Hanssen because Moscow executed some of the Russian agents he is accused of betraying.

What would be likely to save him, lawyers say, is that CIA officer turned Soviet spy Aldrich H. Ames identified those agents and others before Hanssen allegedly did. Ames was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994.

Bottom line: When Hanssen's lawyers meet government lawyers to discuss a plea deal, the pension issue is likely to rank higher on Hanssen's agenda than warding off the death penalty, according to officials close to the case who asked not to be identified.

Preston Burton, an attorney for Hanssen, said this week that plea negotiations had not yet begun. A preliminary hearing in the case is set for May 21.

Bonnie Hanssen, who has been cooperating with the FBI, had no knowledge of her husband's alleged espionage activities or of $1.4 million in cash and diamonds that he is alleged to have received from Moscow, according to her attorney, Janine Brookner.

A possible clue to $600,000 in unaccounted-for cash and diamonds that Hanssen had allegedly received emerged in news reports yesterday.

The Washington Post reported that Hanssen allegedly took a stripper to his Virginia Roman Catholic church in the early 1990s, spent at least $10,000 on a car for her and bought her a plane ticket to Tokyo.

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