FBI spy sent to prison for life

Hanssen's sentencing ends `darkest chapter'

Apology to wife, children

22 years of espionage still being evaluated

May 11, 2002|By Eric Lichtblau | Eric Lichtblau,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen, speaking publicly for the first time about his crimes, apologized in court yesterday for disgracing himself and his family, as he was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison for selling the Russians reams of valuable state secrets.

"I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it," a sullen Hanssen told a packed federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va. "I have opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I have hurt so many deeply."

Hanssen's remarks in court were brief, and he said his defense attorney, Plato Cacheris, had suggested he make them. While he expressed regret to his family and friends and said he was "humbled" by their generosity, he did not apologize to the FBI or to the country.

Moments later, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton sentenced Hanssen to life in prison without the possibility of parole as punishment for his 22 years of spying.

The sentence became a foregone conclusion this week when federal prosecutors, despite concerns that Hanssen had lied to them during hundreds of hours of debriefing sessions, decided not to try to scrap a plea agreement reached with Hanssen last year. The deal spared Hanssen a possible death sentence in exchange for a life sentence and his full cooperation.

Although the life sentence itself was anticlimactic, the scene was nonetheless an emotional one for Hanssen's friends and enemies, many of whom turned out to mark the end of one of the worst episodes of espionage in U.S. history.

"Justice was served. This is closure to the darkest chapter in the history of the FBI," said Van A. Harp, head of the FBI's Washington field office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Bellows, who prosecuted the case, called Hanssen "the cruelest kind of thief," responsible for stealing valuable national secrets and jeopardizing many U.S. lives in the process.

And Attorney General John Ashcroft said Hanssen "threatened the safety and security of America. And I'm pleased that this chapter in American history has been closed on this day."

Beginning in 1979, Hanssen gave his Russian handlers more than 6,000 pages of classified material and 26 computer discs with information on national security secrets. Sometimes he would simply grab whatever classified report he could find on his way out of the office. He would leave his cache at designated "dead drop" spots at a park near his home in Vienna, Va., and prosecutors say he received $1.4 million in cash, diamonds and gifts in exchange.

Hanssen told debriefers in recent months that he began spying mainly for the money because he felt strapped for cash from the pressure of buying a home in the metropolitan New York area, where he was assigned in the late 1970s, and of supporting six children.

"There were a lot of complex reasons as to why he did it," Cacheris said after the sentencing. But whether it was the money, the ego boost or some other motive, he said, "none of them are valid."

Hanssen was arrested in February last year, after he left his latest batch of stolen secrets at a drop site. Although the FBI had missed years of warning signs about Hanssen, information from a Russian defector alerted U.S. officials to his spying months earlier, and investigators then began aggressively monitoring his activities.

Authorities are still assessing the damage that Hanssen's espionage did to U.S. national security. But they have already determined that he prompted the Russians to execute at least three double agents by revealing that they were working for the United States, that he compromised national security by selling U.S. nuclear assessment, and that he exposed gaps in U.S. intelligence capabilities that the Russians were able to exploit.

Hanssen is often ranked with former CIA agent Aldrich Ames at the top of the list of U.S. spies, in terms of the damage they did to national security. Hanssen is expected to be sent to the federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., where Ames is jailed.

Hanssen's wife, Bonnie, who will receive nearly $40,000 a year from his FBI pension and has stood by her husband throughout the 14-month ordeal, did not attend the sentencing; neither did any other family members.

Eric Lichtblau writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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