CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As one of the most effective spies in U.S. history, FBI agent Robert Hanssen sold secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than twenty years. His espionage led to one of the most damaging cases of the breaching of national security in the history of the United States. Hanssen was sentenced to life imprisonment, avoiding the death penalty for treason, by pleading guilty to fifteen counts of espionage and conspiracy.

Summary of Event

Robert Hanssen, a counterintelligence officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stationed in Washington, D.C., had access to large amounts of secret federal government information that he willingly sold to the Soviets and Russians. Hanssen approached the Soviets with the offer to give them U.S. secrets by writing a note and dropping it into the vehicle of a member of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. [kw]Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians, CIA Agent Robert (Feb. 18, 2001) [kw]Spying for the Russians, CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for (Feb. 18, 2001) Hanssen, Robert Treason;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen] Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen] Soviet Union;espionage Hanssen, Robert Treason;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen] Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen] Soviet Union;espionage [g]United States;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [g]Europe;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [g]Russia;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [c]Espionage;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [c]Government;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [c]Corruption;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] [c]Law and the courts;Feb. 18, 2001: CIA Agent Robert Hanssen Is Arrested for Spying for the Russians[03060] Freeh, Louis Cherkashin, Victor

Robert Hanssen.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Victor Cherkashin became the Soviet case officer and handled communications with Hanssen until he retired. Hanssen, whose job with the FBI was to track spies working in the United States under diplomatic cover, kept his identity a secret from the Soviets to lessen his chances of being caught. He also asked for very little money and did not spend in an extravagant manner. He dictated all of his tradecraft to the Soviets and was extremely careful.

In November, 2000, an unknown person clandestinely smuggled a file to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., from Moscow. The file contained information regarding the suspected mole, or embedded double agent, within U.S. intelligence. Included in the file was a list of the six thousand pages that this mole had turned over to the Russians. FBI investigators began to collect all documents that had been passed to the Russians and then searched for clues that would lead them to a suspect. The actual name of the mole was never used in the file, though there was some discussion regarding the mole’s promotions and assignments, with dates. There also was a tape recording of a telephone conversation between the mole and a KGB KGB officer. The FBI counterintelligence agents listened to the tape and recognized the voice as that of Hanssen.

A former KGB agent who turned defector also turned over another critical piece of evidence to the FBI: a plastic bag. Hanssen had used plastic trash bags to cover up the documents he passed to Russian intelligence. The FBI was able to pull two usable fingerprints from the bag, both of which matched Hanssen’s fingerprints. Agent Hanssen was then placed under surveillance.

The FBI stationed Hanssen at its headquarters to work in the new Information Resources Division. His office was bugged and his telephones were tapped. He was being followed when he drove by Foxstone Park, his dead-drop site in nearby Vienna, Virginia, looking for a signal from his Russian handlers. By the end of January, 2001, the FBI had searched through Hanssen’s Ford Taurus. They discovered chalk used for signaling, tape, garbage bags, and classified documents, which were related to ongoing FBI counterintelligence operations. A few days later, agents searched Hanssen’s office, where they found communications between Hanssen and Soviet-Russian intelligence.

Hanssen began to suspect that his new position was useless and that he was under surveillance. He claimed his car was bugged and that he could hear burst transmissions in his vehicle. He also wrote his final letter to Russian intelligence. In the letter he stated that he was breaking off contact for now but would contact the Russians again in one year.

On Sunday, February 18, 2001, the FBI arrest team was assembled and ready. They followed Hanssen as he drove a friend to Dulles Airport and then headed for Foxstone Park. On the way, he pulled into the parking lot of a shopping plaza and added a few more documents to his package for the drop. The FBI team relayed details of its surveillance to headquarters. Hanssen then drove to Foxstone Park, parked his car, entered the woods, and slipped the package underneath a bridge. He headed back to his car and was confronted by the FBI team, which arrested him.

FBI agents informed Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, that her husband had been arrested for espionage. Upon being questioned, she revealed that Hanssen first sold secrets to the Soviets as early as 1979. The FBI believed 1985 was the year he first contacted the Soviets.

Hanssen’s arrest was announced on February 20 by FBI director Louis Freeh. Reporters discovered that Hanssen was arrested while making another document drop. Freeh briefly discussed the file the FBI received from the Russians. He added that Hanssen’s espionage was a severe breach of national security. However, Freeh did not reveal the extent of the case, including that Hanssen had spied for the Soviets—and later the Russians—over a period of more than twenty years.

Impact

Hanssen’s exploits had extremely grave consequences for U.S. security, but it is unlikely that the extent of his espionage will ever be known. What is known is that he had given the Soviets and Russians close to six thousand pages of documents and more than twenty computer disks of highly sensitive, classified information from the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, and perhaps most damaging, the National Security Agency National Security Agency. He compromised numerous intelligence sources who were embedded in Russia and U.S. intelligence efforts as a whole. He revealed the names of Russians who were working as double agents for the United States (many of whom were executed upon returning home to the Soviet Union). He informed the Russians of attempts by the United States to recruit double agents and disclosed U.S. counterintelligence techniques, which may have allowed the Russians to operate more effectively in the United States and evade surveillance or capture.

Hanssen’s arrest was particularly damaging to the U.S. intelligence community as well because it revealed that even a trusted FBI agent could deceive superiors and continue spying without being detected. The FBI was now faced with damage control and a public relations nightmare. The Hanssen case came just a few years after that of agent Aldrich Ames of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested for selling secrets, also to the Soviet Union. FBI director Freeh resigned because of the fallout from the Hanssen case, and the FBI also faced independent investigations about the breach of security. Soviet Union;espionage Hanssen, Robert Treason;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen] Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.;Robert Hanssen[Hanssen]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cherkashin, Victor, with Gregory Feifer. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer. New York: Basic Books, 2005. An account of Hanssen’s espionage by the Soviet agent who was a main contact for Hanssen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havill, Adrian. The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold: The Secret Life of FBI Double Agent Robert Hanssen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A psychological study of Hanssen that also provides some background on his life before the FBI. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vise, David A. The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002. An account by a reporter for The Washington Post. Includes copies of e-mails and notes written by Hanssen and an appendix that summarizes the secrets he sold.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Nigel. Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2007. Provides a detailed history of not only the Hanssen espionage case but also Cold War-era spy cases in general. Focuses on the compromised security of the CIA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wise, David. Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America. New York: Random House, 2002. Study by a noted expert on intelligence services, written with the help of a psychiatrist who interviewed Hanssen following his arrest.

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