Hanssen case teams in plea bargain talks


U.S. prosecutors and lawyers for Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent accused of passing some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets to Moscow, are trying to negotiate a plea deal, federal law enforcement officials said on Wednesday.

They could not say if the talks, which could determine if Hanssen avoids a possible death sentence and have been underway for weeks, would result in an agreement before the next scheduled court hearing on May 21.

Although U.S. officials have yet to decide on what punishment they might seek in the case, one goal for Hanssen in a plea deal would be to make sure he was spared from a possible death sentence, the officials said.

Hanssen, who worked for the FBI for 25 years, was arrested in February on charges of selling secrets to Moscow over a 5-year period for US$1.4 million in money and diamonds. Defense attorney Plato Cacheris has repeatedly declined comment on any plea bargain talks.

The officials said the U.S. government, under the terms of any plea deal, would want Hanssen’s full cooperation in detailing exactly what secrets he may have compromised and would seek a long prison term — most likely life imprisonment.

By getting a guilty plea, the government also would benefit by avoiding a trial in which national security secrets might be disclosed. However, the officials emphasized they were prepared to proceed to trial if necessary.

The officials and lawyers close to the case made clear no agreement was expected in the next few days, and they were unsure if one would be reached before May 21.

Prosecutors also face a May 21 deadline to bring an indictment of Hanssen, but both sides could agree to a delay if they still are engaged in talks on a plea bargain, they said.

Asked whether the Justice Department would be willing to pursue a possible plea bargain with Hanssen, Attorney General John Ashcroft has said it would have to serve the “best interest” of the United States. On Wednesday, Ashcroft declined comment on any plea bargain talks.

Ashcroft said in an interview with Reuters in late March the Justice Department would consider seeking the death penalty for Hanssen. Any decision on seeking the death penalty would have to be approved by Ashcroft.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, said the panel was trying to determine what happened during the 1991-1999 gap between alleged espionage activities described in the Justice Department affidavit.

The committee will also review “possible warning flags” in Hanssen’s behavior, FBI internal security procedures, and whether changes in law were required to help investigations and prosecutions of espionage cases, the Alabama Republican said.

“This process may take some time, as the final assessment of the Hanssen case will not be completed for some time, even if Hanssen were to reach a plea agreement tomorrow,” Shelby said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation.