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Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Fired FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen agreed Friday to spend the rest of his life in prison for selling national security secrets to the Russians, as he revealed fresh details about one of the most damaging spy cases in U.S. history.

Hanssen’s guilty plea sets the stage for six months of intensive debriefings at which U.S. interrogators will try to determine exactly what secrets Hanssen gave away, how he avoided detection for more than two decades, and what other “moles” may still be at work.

Even before debriefers begin interrogations in earnest, the defendant and his defense lawyers offered new details about his espionage, revealing that Hanssen:

First began selling secrets to the Soviets as far back as 1979 — six years earlier than government investigators had realized — and broke off his activities for two long stretches over the next two decades.

Had a “premonition” that he was going to be arrested one day in February of this year as he drove to a “dead drop” site to leave a cache of materials for the Russians in exchange for $50,000. But he went ahead with the drop anyway, and the FBI apprehended him.

Managed to avoid detection in large part because, unlike past U.S. spies, he insisted on never having any personal contact with the Russian agents to whom he was selling national secrets, according to defense attorney Plato Cacheris, a prominent Washington attorney who also represented notorious CIA spy Aldrich Ames seven years ago.

“He never met any Russians. … He was controlling the operation,” Cacheris said. “I think he was pretty good, to be honest.”

The decision to drop the death penalty against Hanssen was a difficult one, said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. But only by gaining Hanssen’s cooperation and brokering a deal with him could U.S. authorities put themselves in a position “to fully assess the magnitude and scope of Hanssen’s espionage activities,” Thompson said.

The 57-year-old Hanssen, looking relaxed and even confident as he appeared in federal court in green prison garb, pleaded guilty to 15 espionage-related counts in a deal that will send him to federal prison for the rest of his life with no possibility of parole.

His plea, which also ensures that his wife will receive a pension estimated at about $39,000 a year, “brings to a close one of the most disturbing and appalling stories of a turncoat imaginable,” said eastern Virginia U.S. Attorney Kenneth E. Melson.

Cacheris said the plea deal was a victory for both sides because the government will get to find out the extent of the national security damage, while Hanssen avoids the death penalty.

But Justice Department officials took issue with that characterization.

Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who became a counterintelligence supervisor, “is not a winner, and he will never be a winner. He disgraced himself, and he disgraced his badge,” Melson said at a news conference following the guilty plea.

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Under the terms of the plea, Hanssen is barred from profiting from any of the film or book projects about his story that are already under way.

And he agreed to give back about $1.4 million in proceeds that the Russians paid him in cash, diamonds and Rolex watches. While Justice Department officials indicated that they want to try to recover $800,000 that the Russians allegedly deposited for Hanssen in a Moscow bank, Cacheris said he doubts that U.S. authorities will ever recover any of the $1.4 million.

Hanssen’s family is allowed to keep their house in suburban Washington and their three vehicles. And most importantly for Hanssen, his wife Bonnie will collect a “survivor’s pension” because authorities say she has cooperated fully in their investigation.

FBI officials said the pension should amount to about $39,000 a year, given Hanssen’s high pay grade and 25 years of government service.

The Hanssens have six children, ranging from high school age through young adults. Cacheris said family members have been visiting Hanssen weekly in prison and that “his family very much stands with him.”

Authorities already suspect that Hanssen may have compromised key intelligence operations — including an eavesdropping tunnel that the United States was building under the Russian embassy in Washington — and that he helped unmask two Russian agents who were secretly working for the United States but were executed after Moscow learned about their activities.

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