Diamonds Are a Spy’s Best Friend

David Wise writes frequently about intelligence. He is the author of "Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas."

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the espionage firestorm that broke over Washington last week was that for many years neither the KGB nor the FBI knew the identity of the spy.

Senior officials of the KGB and its successor, Russia’s SVR, were doubtless ecstatic to have another incredibly valuable mole planted somewhere inside the U.S. intelligence establishment. But the spy had refused to reveal his name, to meet face to face with the Russians or even to say where he worked. He was known to them only as “Ramon.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in turn, had for several years suspected that a mole was burrowing away inside its ranks, but only within the past few months was it able to narrow the search to Robert Philip Hanssen. Last Sunday evening, the FBI arrested Hanssen, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, as he emerged from a “dead drop,” a hiding place in a park in Northern Virginia, where officials said he had left a bag of classified documents. A package containing $50,000 was waiting for him in another hiding place nearby, the FBI said. As far as is known, the Russian spy agency did not learn the name Robert Hanssen until just after 7 o’clock Tuesday morning, when Matt Lauer, co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, and correspondent Pete Williams broke the news of the arrest hours before it was officially revealed.


According to the FBI, for more than 15 years, Hanssen, who has pleaded not guilty to espionage charges, provided highly sensitive classified documents and information to the KGB and the SVR. The damage, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said, was “exceptionally grave.” Hanssen’s spying, he added, “represents the most traitorous actions imaginable.” The 56-year-old FBI man had worked for the bureau for 25 years, most of that time in counterintelligence.

In a long and detailed affidavit, the FBI charged that its trusted counterintelligence agent had been paid or promised $1.4 million. He was earning $114,000 a year at the FBI. Hanssen, the FBI said, had received $600,000 in cash and diamonds and was told that another $800,000 had been placed in an escrow account for him in Moscow.

The existence of a suspected deep-cover mole in the most sensitive area of the FBI’s operations, its National Security Division, was a devastating blow to the bureau, whose counterintelligence agents have in the past been regarded as highly effective at catching foreign spies. Now, it is alleged, one of their own turned his training and counterespionage skills against his agency and his country. If so, it means that the FBI harbored its own Aldrich H. Ames for more than 15 years. Hanssen is said to have begun his double life on Oct. 1, 1985, less than six months after Ames volunteered his services to Moscow.

Ames, a trusted CIA officer, was arrested in 1994 after betraying the names of countless Russians, most of them intelligence agents working for the Central Intelligence Agency. Ten were executed; many others imprisoned. Hanssen stands accused of confirming to the KGB the names of two of those agents who were subsequently shot, and a third, who was imprisoned by the Soviets but later pardoned by former President Boris N. Yeltsin. Ames pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

After the Ames case, Congress passed a law restoring the death penalty for espionage in certain situations. Because Hanssen is accused of contributing to the deaths of two agents, Valery F. Martinov and Sergei M. Motorin, KGB officers who were stationed in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, he could face the death penalty for that or other alleged acts. As his lawyer, Hanssen has hired the wily and formidable Plato Cacheris, who also represented Ames.

Hanssen is married with a wife and six children--he attends the same Catholic church as Freeh and the two know each other--and to all outward appearances, he was a dedicated, straight-arrow FBI man living within his means. Although the government might choose to put him on trial, the greater likelihood is that Cacheris, if his client agrees, will seek a plea bargain. Under such a deal, Hanssen would be expected to reveal the full extent of his alleged treachery in exchange for something less than the death penalty.


In his alleged spying for Moscow, Hanssen himself appeared well aware of the danger. In one letter to his Russian handlers, the FBI said he wrote: “Recent changes in U.S. law now attach the death penalty to my help to you as you know, so I do take some risk.”

When an intelligence disaster is uncovered, spy agencies embark on a “damage assessment,” now underway in the Hanssen case. Mark Hulkower, the former assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Ames, has said that Hanssen’s prosecutors must figure out a way to get a plea bargain. Without it, the government may never know the full extent of the alleged damage done.

But the FBI has already claimed that Hanssen provided the Russians with 6,000 pages of documents and compromised a huge amount of highly classified programs and intelligence methods, including “technical operations,” a euphemism for bugging, wiretapping and other exotic means of listening in on Russian installations and operatives in this country.

If there is any comfort for the FBI in all this, it is that U.S. spies, in what Freeh called a “counterintelligence coup,” apparently succeeded in obtaining a rare treasure: the actual KGB file on Ramon. The file includes letters between an unidentified American spy and his Russian handlers. Some of those same letters, the FBI said, were found on a computer card in Hanssen’s office at bureau headquarters in Washington. The FBI has not said how it obtained the KGB file, although one possibility is that a Russian defector brought it out as his ticket to a generous amount of money from the CIA or the FBI and a new life in America. The FBI isn’t saying.

Under the CIA’s “resettlement program,” a defector who came over with a jewel of that magnitude would be guaranteed red-carpet treatment, a large stipend for life, a new identity and personal security.

There are many unresolved questions about the case, including not only the extent of the damage, Hanssen’s alleged motives, how he was caught and how he managed, if the charges are true, to get away with his spying for so long.


The last question is, in some ways, the easiest to answer. As a trained counterintelligence agent, and a good one by all accounts, Hanssen’s job was to catch Soviet, then Russian spies. That would have provided him with unexcelled cover if he betrayed his trust. Moreover, someone in Hanssen’s position would have known exactly how to maintain contact with the Russians in a way to avoid detection by his counterintelligence colleagues. He knew all the tricks of the trade--that was his job.

He refused to meet any Russians, either here or abroad. Typically, Russian spies meet their American agents in Vienna, Mexico or other overseas locations for a simple reason: They assume the FBI will not be watching. Hanssen, according to the FBI affidavit, set the terms by refusing to reveal his true identity or in what government agency he worked.

William H. Webster, the respected former director of both the FBI and the CIA, has been enlisted to review the bureau’s internal procedures to see whether they can be improved in the wake of the Hanssen case. He will no doubt take a close look at the bureau’s lie-detector policy.

Although new FBI employees are polygraphed, only selected agents involved in highly sensitive cases are given lie-detector tests, and not routinely. The CIA, which has much greater faith in lie detectors, polygraphs its officers at set intervals. On the other hand, Ames sailed through his polygraph tests with no great difficulty; the KGB had advised him to just relax and get a good night’s sleep before facing the machine.

Hanssen apparently knew that life on the edge might one day lead to his undoing. “Eventually, I would appreciate an escape plan,” he allegedly wrote to his Soviet handlers in 1985. “Nothing lasts forever.”