Justice Department officials now are willing to waive the death penalty for accused FBI spy Robert Philip Hanssen if he agrees to plead guilty to espionage charges and cooperate with prosecutors, sources close to the case said Thursday.
The change from the department's hard-line stance in insisting that Hanssen go to trial under the threat of execution opens the door for a negotiated plea agreement.
The shift was confirmed Thursday night by sources close to the case after it was reported by the Washington Post. Neither the Justice Department nor Hanssen's attorney, Plato Cacheris, would comment.
If the agreement goes through, it would remove a major obstacle to deciding the outcome of Hanssen's case. Past and present officials of the intelligence community have urged the Justice Department to drop any pursuit of the death penalty for the sake of learning how much damage Hanssen may have done and how much information he may have given the Russians.
A Justice Department official familiar with the negotiations emphasized Thursday that discussions between the two sides are tenuous and that no final understanding has been reached.
But the official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing talks, said federal prosecutors have always been "open to taking [the death penalty] off the table" if a firm commitment could be reached to ensure Hanssen's cooperation.
Such a move "is the best decision at this time," the official said.
Negotiations in recent weeks have stalled, the official said, in part because Hanssen was seeking not only to remove the death penalty option but also to get a sentence shorter than life without the possibility of parole.
That seems unlikely, however. With Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft actively following the course of negotiations, the Justice Department remains committed to ensuring a severe sentence, the official said.
"This is a very serious case, and it's important to us to send the message that this kind of crime will not be taken lightly," the Justice Department official said. "There's a reason that an offense of this nature is even eligible for the death penalty, and that's because it is so serious."
Hanssen was arrested in February near his home in suburban Washington and charged with 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 in May and has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have said that the death penalty was an option in the case 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.
On May 31, a U.S. district judge in Alexandria, Va., set an Oct. 29 date for Hanssen's trial, which promises a rare glimpse into one of the biggest and most embarrassing espionage cases in U.S. intelligence history.
Hanssen faces charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, attempted espionage and 19 specific acts of spying.