Robert Hanssen, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, was indicted Wednesday on charges of spying for Russia and causing “grave injury to the security of the United States.” If convicted, he could get the death penalty.
Arrested last February by federal agents while allegedly delivering a package for pickup in a northern Virginia park, Hanssen was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage, 19 counts of espionage and one count of attempted espionage, the Justice Department said.
Hanssen is only the third FBI agent ever accused of espionage.
At the time of his arrest, the FBI said that Hanssen, 57, passed along to Soviet and later Russian agents 6,000 pages of documents on secret programs that described how the United States gathers intelligence, technologies used for listening, people who work as double agents and other highly sensitive matters. The bureau said this activity occurred over a 15-year period starting in 1985.
The conspiracy count and the espionage charges carry a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment. Each charge also carries a potential fine of not more than US$250,000 or double what Hanssen gained from the alleged spying. Discussing the indictment on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. Attorney Ken Melson refused to comment on the impact the indictment would have on plea negotiations between Hanssen and the government.
“I can’t comment on any plea negotiations or the existence of them or the status of them,” Melson told reporters, a day after Hanssen’s lawyers confirmed that such talks had stalled. Melson also said the 21 count indictment was filed Wednesday — five days before a scheduled hearing for Hanssen — because “the grand jury sits this week and does not sit on Monday.”
The indictment came after plea discussions between Hanssen’s lawyers and federal prosecutors broke down over the issue of the death penalty. Hanssen’s lawyers said the government wanted Hanssen to provide information about what secrets he revealed but would not agree to waive the death penalty in exchange for the information. Hanssen’s lawyers have said Hansen will plead innocent. An arraignment was scheduled for June 1.