On February 18, 2001, Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested and charged with committing espionage on behalf of the intelligence services of the former Soviet Union and its successors. He pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage on July 6, 2001 and was sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole. Hanssen is considered the most damaging spy in FBI history. Below are a press release issued following his arrest and a statement by then-FBI Director Louis Freeh. Also read the affidavit.
For Immediate Release
February 20, 2001
FBI National Press Office
Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and United States Attorney Helen Fahey announced today that a veteran FBI counterintelligence Agent was arrested Sunday by the FBI and charged with committing espionage by providing highly classified national security information to Russia and the former Soviet Union.
At the time of the arrest at a park in Vienna, Virginia, Robert Philip Hanssen, age 56, was clandestinely placing a package containing highly classified information at a pre-arranged, or “dead drop,” site for pick-up by his Russian handlers. Hanssen had previously received substantial sums of money from the Russians for the information he disclosed to them.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh expressed both outrage and sadness. He said the charges, if proven, represent “the most serious violations of law — and threat to national security.”
“A betrayal of trust by an FBI Agent, who is not only sworn to enforce the law but specifically to help protect our nation’s security, is particularly abhorrent. This kind of criminal conduct represents the most traitorous action imaginable against a country governed by the Rule of Law. It also strikes at the heart of everything the FBI represents — the commitment of over 28,000 honest and dedicated men and women in the FBI who work diligently to earn the trust and confidence of the American people every day.”
“These kinds of cases are the most difficult, sensitive and sophisticated imaginable. I am immensely proud of the men and women of the FBI who conducted this investigation. Their actions represent counterintelligence at its very best, reflecting dedication to both principle and mission. It is not an easy assignment to investigate a colleague, but they did so unhesitatingly, quietly and securely.”
Hanssen was charged in a criminal complaint filed in Federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, with espionage and conspiracy to commit espionage, violations that carry a possible punishment of life in prison, and under certain circumstances, the death penalty. Following the arrest, FBI Agents began searching Hanssen’s residence, automobiles and workspace for additional evidence.
A detailed affidavit, filed in support of the criminal complaint and search warrants, provides a troubling account of how Hanssen first volunteered to furnish highly sensitive documents to KGB intelligence officers assigned to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. The affidavit chronicles the systematic transfer of highly classified national security and counterintelligence information by Hanssen in exchange for diamonds and cash worth more than $600,000. Hanssen’s activities also have links to other, earlier espionage and national security investigations including the Aldrich Ames and Felix Bloch cases, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit alleges that on over 20 separate occasions, Hanssen clandestinely left packages for the KGB, and its successor agency, the SVR, at dead drop sites in the Washington area. He also provided over two dozen computer diskettes containing additional disclosures of information. Overall, Hanssen gave the KGB/SVR more than 6,000 pages of valuable documentary material, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit alleges that Hanssen compromised numerous human sources of the U.S. Intelligence Community, dozens of classified U.S. Government documents, including “Top Secret” and “codeword” documents, and technical operations of extraordinary importance and value. It also alleges that Hanssen compromised FBI counterintelligence investigative techniques, sources, methods and operations, and disclosed to the KGB the FBI’s secret investigation of Felix Bloch, a foreign service officer, for espionage.
Freeh said that although no formal damage assessment could be conducted before the arrest without jeopardizing the investigation, it is believed that the damage will be exceptionally grave.
During the time of his alleged illegal activities, Hanssen was assigned to New York and Washington, D.C., where he held key counterintelligence positions. As a result of his assignments, Hanssen had direct and legitimate access to voluminous information about sensitive programs and operations. As the complaint alleges, Hanssen effectively used his training, expertise and experience as a counterintelligence Agent to avoid detection, to include keeping his identity and place of employment from his Russian handlers and avoiding all the customary “tradecraft” and travel usually associated with espionage. The turning point in this investigation came when the FBI was able to secure original Russian documentation of an American spy who appeared to the FBI to be Hanssen, which subsequent investigation confirmed.
Freeh said the investigation that led to the charges is a direct result of the combined and continuing FBI/CIA effort ongoing for many years to identify additional foreign penetrations of the U.S. intelligence community. The investigation of Hanssen was conducted by the FBI with direct assistance from the CIA, Department of State and the Justice Department, and represents an aggressive and creative effort which led to this counterintelligence success. Freeh said, “We appreciate the unhesitating leadership and support of Attorney General John Ashcroft from the moment he took office.”
Freeh also expressed his gratitude to Helen Fahey, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Assistant United States Attorney Randy Bellows, and senior Justice Department officials Robert Mueller, Frances Fragos Townsend, John Dion and Laura Ingersoll for their contributions to the case.
United States Attorney Fahey said, “In the past decade, it has been our unfortunate duty to prosecute a number of espionage cases — Ames, Pitts, Nicholson, Squillacote, Kim, Boone, and others. With each case, we hope it will be the last. Today, however with the arrest of Robert Hanssen, we begin again the process of bringing to justice a U.S. Government official charged with the most egregious violations of the public trust. The full resources of the Department of Justice will be devoted to ensuring that those persons who would betray their country and the people of the United States are prosecuted and severely punished.”
“I want to express my appreciation for the outstanding work done by the National Security Division and the Washington Field Office of the FBI in this investigation. Their superlative work in this extraordinarily sensitive and important investigation is testament to their professionalism and dedication. We also express our deep appreciation for the outstanding assistance provided by the Internal Security Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.”
Freeh and CIA Director George Tenet kept the Intelligence Committees of Congress, because of the clear national security and foreign policy implications, informed about the case.
As a result of Hanssen’s actions, Freeh has ordered a comprehensive review of information and personnel security programs in the FBI. Former FBI Director and Director of Central Intelligence William H. Webster will lead the review. Webster, currently in private law practice, brings a “unique experience and background in government management and counterintelligence,” Freeh said. “Moreover, the respect he enjoys throughout the intelligence community and elsewhere in government is second to none. Judge Webster will have complete access and whatever resources that are necessary to complete the task and will report directly to Attorney General Ashcroft and me. I will share his report with the National Security Council and then Congress as well,” Freeh said.
Statement of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh On the Arrest of FBI Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen
For Immediate Release
February 20, 2001
FBI National Press Office
Sunday night the FBI arrested Robert Philip Hanssen who has been charged with committing espionage. Hanssen is a Special Agent of the FBI with a long career in counterintelligence.
The investigation that led to these charges is the direct result of the longstanding FBI/CIA efforts, ongoing since the Aldrich Ames case, to identify additional foreign penetrations of the United States Intelligence Community. The investigation of Hanssen was conducted by the FBI in partnership with the CIA, the Department of State, and, of course, the Justice Department.
The complaint alleges that Hanssen conspired to and did commit espionage for Russia and the former Soviet Union. The actions alleged date back as far as 1985 and, with the possible exception of several years in the 1990s, continued until his arrest on Sunday. He was arrested while in the process of using a “dead drop” to clandestinely provide numerous classified documents to his Russian handler.
It is alleged that Hanssen provided to the former Soviet Union and subsequently to Russia substantial volumes of highly classified information that he acquired during the course of his job responsibilities in counterintelligence. In return, he received large sums of money and other remuneration. The complaint alleges that he received over $600,000.
The full extent of the damage done is yet unknown because no accurate damage assessment could be conducted without jeopardizing the investigation. We believe it was exceptionally grave.
The criminal conduct alleged represents the most traitorous actions imaginable against a country governed by the Rule of Law. As difficult as this moment is for the FBI and for the country, I am immensely proud of the men and women who conducted this investigation. Their actions represent counterintelligence at its very best and under the most difficult and sensitive of circumstances. Literally, Hanssen’s colleagues and coworkers at the FBI conducted this investigation and did so quietly, securely and without hesitation. Much of what these men and women did remains undisclosed but their success and that of their CIA counterparts represents unparalleled expertise and dedication to both principle and mission.
The complaint alleges that Hanssen, using the code name “Ramon,” engaged in espionage by providing highly classified information to the KGB and its successor agency, the SVR, using encrypted communications, dead drops, and other clandestine techniques. The information he is alleged to have provided compromised numerous human sources, technical operations, counterintelligence techniques, sources and methods, and investigations, including the Felix Bloch investigation.
The affidavit alleges that Hanssen voluntarily became an agent of the KGB in 1985 while assigned to the intelligence division at the FBI field office in New York City as supervisor of a foreign counterintelligence squad. Hanssen allegedly began spying for the Soviets in 1985 when, in his first letter to the KGB, he volunteered information that compromised several sensitive techniques. He also independently disclosed the identity of two KGB officials who, first compromised by Aldrich Ames, had been recruited by the U.S. Government to serve as “agents in place” at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. When these two KGB officials returned to Moscow, they were tried and convicted on espionage charges and executed.
Hanssen subsequently was assigned to a variety of national security posts that legitimately provided him access to classified information relating to the former Soviet Union and Russia. As a result of these assignments within the FBI, Hanssen gained access to some of the most sensitive and highly classified information in the United States Government. To be very clear on this issue, at no time was he authorized to communicate information to agents of the KGB/SVR. Nor can there be any doubt that he was keenly aware of the gravity of his traitorous actions. He later wrote to his KGB handler, speaking about the severity with which U.S. laws punishes his alleged actions, and acknowledging “...I know far better than most what minefields are laid and the risks.”
Hanssen was detailed to the Office of Foreign Missions at the Department of State from 1995 to 2000. The complaint, however, does not allege any compromises by him at the State Department. In one letter to his Russian handlers, Hanssen complains about lost opportunities to alert them that the FBI had discovered the microphone hidden at the State Department, known then by the FBI but apparently not by Hanssen as being monitored by a Russian intelligence officer. In this assignment, however, Hanssen did continue to have access to sensitive FBI information as he remained assigned to the FBI’s National Security Division and routinely dealt with sensitive and classified matters.
For many years, the CIA and FBI have been aggressively engaged in a sustained analytical effort to identify foreign penetrations of the Intelligence Community. That effort is complemented by substantial FBI proactive investigation of foreign service intelligence officers here and by the critical work done by the CIA. Because of these coordinated efforts, the FBI was able to secure original Russian documentation of an American spy who appeared to the FBI to be Hanssen — a premise that was soon to be confirmed when Hanssen was identified by the FBI as having clandestinely communicated with Russian intelligence officers.
As alleged in the complaint, computer forensic analysis, substantial covert surveillance, court authorized searches and other sensitive techniques revealed that Hanssen has routinely accessed FBI records and clandestinely provided those records and other classified information to Russian intelligence officers. As alleged, he did so using a variety of sophisticated means of communication, encryption, and dead drops.
Further, the complaint alleges that Hanssen, using his training and experience to protect himself from discovery by the FBI, never met face-to-face with his Russian handlers, never revealed to them his true identity or where he worked, constantly checked FBI records for signs he and the drop sites he was using were being investigated, refused any foreign travel to meet with the Russians, and even declined to accept any “trade craft.” Hanssen never displayed outward signs that he was receiving large amounts of unexplained cash. He was, after all, a trained counterintelligence specialist. For these reasons, the FBI learned of his true identity before the Russians; they are learning of it only now. Even without knowing who he was or where he worked, Hanssen’s value to the Russians was clear both by the substantial sums of money paid and the prestigious awards given to their own agents for Hanssen’s operation.
While this arrest represents a counterintelligence investigative success, the complaint alleges that Hanssen located and removed undetected from the FBI substantial quantities of information that he was able to access as a result of his assignments. None of the internal information or personnel security measures in place alerted those charged with internal security to his activities. In short, the trusted insider betrayed his trust without detection.
While the risk that an employee of the United States Government will betray his country can never be eliminated, there must be more that the FBI can do to protect itself from such an occurrence. I have asked Judge William H. Webster, and he has graciously agreed, to examine thoroughly the internal security functions and procedures of the FBI and recommend improvements. Judge Webster is uniquely qualified as a former FBI Director, CIA Director and Director of Central Intelligence to undertake this review. This is particularly timely as we move to the next generation of automation to support the FBI’s information infrastructure. Judge Webster and anyone he selects to assist him will have complete access and whatever resources are necessary to complete this task. He will report directly to the Attorney General and me and we will share his report with the National Security Council and Congress. I intend to act swiftly on his recommendations.
Before concluding, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet for the cooperation and assistance of his agency in this investigation. Through our cooperative efforts, the FBI and CIA were able to learn the true identity of “Ramon” and the FBI was able to conduct a solid investigation. Our joint efforts over the last several years and specifically in this case should give pause to those contemplating betrayal of the Nation’s trust. Without the current unprecedented level of trust and cooperation between the CIA and FBI, making this case would not have been possible. Nor would many other intelligence and counterintelligence accomplishments that routinely but quietly contribute to the security of this Nation.
Through Attorney General John Ashcroft, I would like to thank the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The level of support and expertise from Acting Deputy Attorney General Robert Mueller, Counsel for Intelligence Policy Frances Fragos Townsend, U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey and Assistant United States Attorney Randy Bellows is superb. We particularly appreciate the unhesitating leadership and support of Attorney General Ashcroft from the moment he took office.
Director Tenet and I have briefed the intelligence committees of Congress because of the clear national security implications.
As Director of the FBI, I am proud of the courageous men and women of the FBI who each day make enormous sacrifices in serving their country. They have committed their lives to public service and to upholding the high standards of the FBI. Since becoming Director over seven years ago, I have administered the FBI oath to each graduating class of Special Agents at the FBI Academy. Each time, I share the pride and sanctity of those words when new agents swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
Regrettably, I stand here today both saddened and outraged. An FBI Agent who raised his right hand and spoke those words over 25 years ago has been charged today with violating that oath in the most egregious and reprehensible manner imaginable. The FBI entrusted him with some of the most sensitive secrets of the United States Government and instead of being humbled by this honor, Hanssen has allegedly abused and betrayed that trust. The crimes alleged are an affront not only to his fellow FBI employees but to the American people, not to mention the pain and suffering he has brought upon his family. Our hearts go out to them. I take solace and satisfaction, however, that the FBI succeeded in this investigation. As an agency, we lived up to our responsibility, regardless of how painful it might be.