Spy Hanssen admitted contacts in 1979

WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

After his wife became suspicious in 1979, accused FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen told her he had exchanged information for money from Soviet agents, but only in a gambit to trick them, government officials and others familiar with the case said Friday night.

He then promised his wife, Bonnie Hanssen, that he would end his dealings with Moscow, consult a Catholic priest and donate the money to Mother Teresa, sources close to the investigation said.

This account, parts of which were first reported by CBS News Friday night, suggests that Robert Hanssen had surreptitious contacts with Moscow at least six years earlier than prosecutors have alleged. It is also the first public indication that his wife ever suspected him of espionage before his arrest.

“He told her he was tricking the Russians and passing useless information to see if they would bite,” a source close to the case said, adding that she was so upset that she asked him to stop, then accepted his explanations.

“Bonnie thought it was what he told her it was, and she thought it was finished,” the source said.

It is unclear what made Bonnie Hanssen suspicious of her husband. FBI and Justice Department investigators also are unsure whether Hanssen truly halted contact with Moscow until 1985, when the government alleges he betrayed the identities of two double agents who were later executed by the Soviets.

The government is also investigating whether Hanssen actually gave the money he allegedly received from Moscow in 1979 to Mother Teresa, the late Catholic nun who devoted her life to India’s poor.

Hanssen, 57, is accused of spying for the Soviet and, later, Russian intelligence service in exchange for at least US$1.4 million in cash, diamonds and deposits in foreign bank accounts. The Vienna, Virginia resident has been charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, attempted espionage and 19 specific acts of spying. He is being held without bond.

Sources told The Washington Post on Thursday that Hanssen had resumed plea negotiations with federal prosecutors after the Justice Department agreed to drop the death penalty in exchange for a full accounting of his activities. The deal now in the works, sources familiar with the case said Friday, would result in Hanssen being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but would allow his wife to receive a federal pension.

Hanssen allegedly betrayed nine double agents, including the two who were later executed, and provided details about several top-secret communications programs and U.S. nuclear war preparations, according to a grand jury indictment on May 16.

Fourteen of the charges against Hanssen carry the possibility of a death sentence. But nearly all modern espionage cases have ended with deals in which the defendants have agreed to plead guilty and tell the government about their activities in exchange for reduced sentences.

Top officials in Justice, the FBI and the CIA had been divided over whether to seek the death penalty against Hanssen. But many intelligence officials urged Attorney General John D. Ashcroft to seek cooperation instead, arguing that the information Hanssen could provide about his activities will be invaluable in assessing the damage he has caused.

Federal officials are still trying to determine what happened to most of the money Hanssen allegedly received from the Russians. A former Washington stripper has said that Hanssen showered her with nearly US$100,000 in cash, jewelry and other gifts in the early ‘90s.