Robert Hanssen, Spy for Russia, Dies in Prison

FBI agent sold US secrets for years for $1.4M
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 5, 2023 4:14 PM CDT
Robert Hanssen, Spy for Russia, Dies in Prison
In this artist depiction, US Attorney Randy Bellows, right, addresses the court during the sentencing of convicted spy Robert Hanssen, center, seen with his attorney Plato Cacheris, left, at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, in May 2002.   (William Hennessy, Jr. via AP)

Robert Hanssen, the notorious FBI agent who sold national security secrets to Russia for years—making dead drops in a Virginia park—in one of the most harmful espionage cases in US history, died Monday in a Colorado prison. He was found unresponsive in his cell, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported, and was pronounced dead after lifesaving measures failed. Hanssen, 79, had been held in the maximum security prison complex in Florence since 2002, the Hill reports, serving life without parole after pleading guilty to 15 counts of espionage. The FBI pronounced Hanssen "the most damaging spy in Bureau history."

Hanssen began spying three years into his FBI career, when he walked into the New York offices of a Soviet trade organization, Amtorg, known to be a front for the Soviet military intelligence agency. He had access to classified information as part of the counterintelligence jobs he'd been assigned, per the New York Times. He took a break of several years after his wife caught him with papers in the basement of their New York state home in 1980. Hanssen confessed his spying to his wife and to a priest affiliated with Opus Dei, a Catholic organization the couple belonged to. He resumed the espionage in 1985, being more careful from then on, using encrypted messages and code names—often "Ramon Garcia."

He told the Soviets that the US had built a tunnel under the Soviet Embassy in Washington, information that American officials said wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. And he named three Soviet spy agency officers who were actually working for the US. The information netted Hanssen $1.4 million in cash and diamonds, per the Washington Post. The FBI and CIA knew a spy was at work but weren't able to put together Russian information to lead them to Hanssen until 2000. In February 2001, Hanssen was arrested in a Virginia park where he'd left documents for his Russian contacts to pick up. He'd been living in the DC suburbs with his wife and six children as he neared retirement.

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"What we wanted to do was get enough evidence to convict him, and the ultimate aim was to catch him in the act," said Debra Evans Smith, formerly of the Counterintelligence Division. Three hundred agents were assigned to the case, the BBC reports. The FBI said at the time it was difficult to assess the damage Hanssen had done. "The information he delivered compromised numerous human sources, counterintelligence techniques, investigations, dozens of classified US government documents, and technical operations of extraordinary importance and value," the agency said. (More espionage stories.)

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