Fired FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of spying for the Russians over a 15-year span, and his lead attorney promised to attack the U.S. government's case aggressively in the wake of collapsed plea negotiations.
Hanssen, looking gaunt in a brief appearance in court in Alexandria, Va., told U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton that he wants a jury to hear his much-publicized case.
The judge set a date of Oct. 29 for Hanssen's trial, which promises a rare glimpse into one of the biggest and most embarrassing espionage breaches in U.S. intelligence history.
Hanssen, who was arrested in February near his home in suburban Washington, is accused of giving the Russians valuable secrets about U.S. intelligence operations beginning in 1985 in exchange for about $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. He was indicted by a grand jury last month.
Spy cases are almost invariably resolved through a plea bargain, preventing the public airing of spy-craft secrets during a trial. But publicly at least, neither side in the Hanssen case is willing to budge over the question of whether he should face the death penalty.
Talks broke down two weeks ago after federal prosecutors refused to take the death penalty option off the table.
Prosecutors have not declared whether they will seek the death penalty, but they say that it remains an option under a 1994 espionage law because Hanssen allegedly helped unmask two Soviet "moles" who were working for the United States in the 1980s. After their counterespionage was discovered, they were executed by Soviet authorities.
Hanssen's attorneys will likely argue, however, that the death penalty should not apply because Hanssen is alleged to have confirmed the identities of the two Soviet moles only after they had been fingered by CIA spy Aldrich H. Ames. Moreover, the moles were identified in 1985, nine years before the law allowing executions in such cases took effect.
Plato Cacheris, the lead defense attorney for Hanssen, told reporters after Hanssen's court appearance that the death penalty is "probably not" constitutional in this case.
Hanssen, wearing a green prison jumpsuit and appearing noticeably thinner, glanced around the courtroom and smiled occasionally at his lawyers during a proceeding that lasted only a few minutes. He stood to answer two questions from the judge, saying that he was pleading not guilty and that he wants a jury to hear his case.
A churchgoing father of six, Hanssen had a son-in-law in attendance in the courtroom. The defendant's wife was not present, Cacheris said, because "she wants her anonymity back if that's possible. . . . [Family members] are here in spirit."
While Cacheris would not discuss defense strategy or prospects for a plea bargain, he said he plans to file pretrial motions "attacking this indictment and this case."
Cacheris, a prominent Washington defense attorney who has represented such high-profile clients as CIA spy Ames and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, added that "if anything survives [from the charges against Hanssen], we will be back here on Oct. 29 for a trial."
Assistant U.S. Atty. Randy Bellows, the lead prosecutor, declined to discuss the case after the arraignment.