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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

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Russian tip set up the trap

By Kevin Johnson

and Toni Locy

WASHINGTON -- Late last year, carefully cultivated Russian sources brought U.S. officials a prize package of intelligence: There was a well-placed mole operating within their ranks.

That kicked off a frenzied search within the FBI from Nov. 17 to Dec. 12 that led the bureau to focus on veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who is now charged with having sold sensitive U.S. secrets to Moscow for the past 15 years.

FBI officials have not discussed specifically how they zeroed in on Hanssen or who helped guide them to him. But other sources -- court records supporting the espionage charges against Hanssen, national security analysts who have examined the government's account, and a senior U.S. official -- describe a scenario in which the FBI moved quickly after being tipped to a devastating security breach.

Using the new intelligence, which included original KGB documents, a small army of investigators began checking myriad databases before setting up round-the-clock surveillance on the dour counterintelligence agent allegedly known to his Russian handlers as ''Ramon Garcia'' or ''B.''

Once they had focused on Hanssen, the FBI scrambled to build a case against him. Surveillance recordings of known Russian agents going back to at least 1986 were hauled out of U.S. intelligence archives and reviewed. On one tape, the FBI affidavit says, two of Hanssen's colleagues at the bureau identified his voice discussing what appears to be a document sale with a KGB agent.

The FBI even checked Hanssen's speech patterns. The Russian intelligence file suggests that the mole occasionally used a profane quote attributed to World War II Gen. George S. Patton. Colleagues at the FBI confirmed that Hanssen occasionally had used the same quote to spur them to action.

The FBI also got court orders to secretly search Hanssen's office, cars, computers and PalmPilot, and found what it calls incriminating evidence in each case. Agents retrieved a garbage bag believed to have been used to wrap documents left for the Russians. FBI technicians later matched two fingerprints from the bag to Hanssen.

Records searches, including peeks into Hanssen's personal calendars, led agents to several parks near Washington where, court documents say, they observed Hanssen at information drop sites and signal locations working overtime for the enemy.

Although authorities have declined to say who provided the critical Russian documents that helped expose Hanssen, the exchange occurred near the time high-ranking Russian diplomat Sergey Tretyakov defected with his family from his post with the Russian Mission at the United Nations.

Tretyakov's defection was not reported until last month, but authorities have confirmed that it took place in October.

FBI Director Louis Freeh has declined to comment on whether Tretyakov helped identify Hanssen. A senior U.S. official did not dismiss the notion that Tretyakov was involved, but he indicated that multiple sources played roles in pointing U.S. intelligence officials toward Hanssen.

''When you read the (FBI's) affidavit, it's obvious somebody walked in and gave them the 'Ramon' file after Nov. 17,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security policy group in Washington.

Pike referred to the date of Hanssen's last letter to his Russian handlers. The letter is contained in the FBI's detailed affidavit supporting espionage charges against Hanssen. Pike said the affidavit suggests that the file obtained from Russian sources ends Nov. 17 because the affidavit's narrative abruptly shifts to Dec. 12, the FBI's first reported surveillance of Hanssen.

On that day, Hanssen drove four times past the Foxstone Park sign in Vienna, Va., a drop site he allegedly used for selling highly classified documents to Russia.

Two weeks later, agents saw Hanssen pointing a flashlight at the sign. The affidavit says Hanssen and his Russian contacts used pieces of tape to signal each other to drops of documents and money.

On Feb. 12, the FBI checked the drop site and found a package containing $50,000 in used $100 bills. The FBI opened the package, photographed its contents and returned it to the spot so as not to raise suspicion.

On his PalmPilot, the FBI found a reference to ''Ellis,'' the code name Hanssen and his handlers allegedly used for the drop site in Foxstone Park. The notation on the PalmPilot also referred to 8 p.m. Feb. 18.

At a news conference Tuesday, Freeh said the FBI knew ''some time before Sunday,'' Feb. 18, about the appointment, so agents were ready. Shortly after Hanssen allegedly placed a bag of documents near the base of a footbridge, agents arrested him.

The FBI kicked its effort into high gear just after Hanssen allegedly penned the Nov. 17 letter, in which he boasted that ''my ship has successfully navigated the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.''

In a later reference, he mocked his own agency's counterintelligence capabilities.

''Generally speaking,'' the letter to his Russian contacts began, ''you overestimate the FBI's capacity to interdict you.''

Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.