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The Washington establishment was rocked Tuesday by news that a high-level FBI agent specializing in counterintelligence and electronic surveillance had been arrested and charged with espionage on behalf of Russia, following a six-month investigation.

FBI Special Agent Robert Philip Hanssen, aged 56, was placing a packet of classified information at a dead drop site near his residence in suburban Virginia Sunday night when the Feds collared him, much to his surprise.

Hanssen gave his Russian handlers over 6000 pages of secret and top secret documents, according to a detailed, 103-page FBI affidavit in support of a request for search and arrest warrants.

It is believed that he took in over $600,000 in cash and valuables for selling out national security, and in some instances his own colleagues. Much of what he sold involved US counterintelligence and electronic surveillance techniques, information on active double agents, and documents related to nuclear weapons technology.

Hanssen supplied information to the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvenoy Bezopasnosti) and its successor, the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki Rossii) tailored to enable Russian spooks to evade detection while improving their own spycraft against US targets.

Worse, it's also believed that he confirmed information originally supplied by convicted CIA rat Aldrich Ames, regarding three double agents attached to the Russian embassy in Washington, which led to the imprisonment of one and the executions of two.

"Hanssen compromised these three individuals expressly in order to enhance his own security and enable him to continue spying against the United States," the FBI affidavit alleges, qualifying him as one cold bastard.

Hanssen is a specialist in spycraft, and even trained other agents. He employed his skills to evade detection on the job with the FBI for approximately fifteen years. It is believed that his Russian handlers never knew his true identity, or even which US government agency he worked for.

Unlike the greedy Ames who spent his ill-got gains lavishly and so tipped investigators, Hanssen was exceptionally disciplined, remaining in a modest house and continuing to drive an older car, in keeping with his government salary.

Having the highest security clearance, he routinely scanned FBI files for evidence that his drop points were under surveillance, and for other titbits of data which might have suggested that the Feds were onto his schemes.

It was not until the US obtained Russian intelligence documents that the Feds finally learned of an American asset code-named "Ramon", who appeared to be Hanssen.

A delicate investigation was launched late last year, and culminated in Hanssen's arrest Sunday. While some agents carted him off to a detention centre, others remained on the scene in hopes that one of his Russian contacts would claim the packet he'd left, but no one turned up. Perhaps they were watching the site from a distance.

Or perhaps they were merely setting him up to confirm suspicions that their operation had been compromised. The FBI affidavit contains a great deal of documentary evidence which seems too old to have come from their recent surveillance of Hanssen. More likely it came as an entire case file from a Russian government source, probably via the CIA.

If the Russians suspected that they had a traitor of their own who gave Hanssen up to the Americans, they might well have planned to wait a day or two before going to fetch the packet he dropped.

Brilliant Career

Few traitors could have been better placed to compromise US security. In 1979, Hanssen worked in the FBI's New York field office where he helped establish a database about foreign intelligence officers assigned to the USA.

In the early to mid-1980s he was assigned to FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, as a supervisor in the intelligence division. He was later assigned to the FBI's Technical Committee. In the mid to late 1980s he was again assigned to the FBI's New York field office, this time as the supervisor of an intelligence squad.

From 1995 until shortly before his arrest, Hanssen served as the FBI's senior representative to the Office of Foreign Missions of the US State Department, working as the head of an interagency counterintelligence group, and as the FBI liaison to the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

During the investigation he was moved back to FBI headquarters, into a slot from which he would be unlikely to detect the Bureau's inquiries into his affairs.

The revelation is of course an immense embarrassment for the FBI, which has tried to stay 'on message' touting their success in investigating and catching Hanssen, while avoiding the fact that this bastard remained in operation under their noses for fifteen years.

"A betrayal of trust by an FBI Agent, who is not only sworn to enforce the law but specifically to help protect our nation's security, is particularly abhorrent," FBI Director Louis Freeh said during a Washington press conference Tuesday afternoon.

"I want to express my appreciation for the outstanding work done by the National Security Division and the Washington field office of the FBI in this investigation," Freeh said. "Their superlative work in this extraordinarily sensitive and important investigation is a testament to their professionalism and dedication."

Freeh was, however, a bit evasive when questioned by reporters on the FBI's internal auditing practices. Counterintelligence operators in particular are constant targets of lavish recruitment come-ons, and therefore require constant monitoring. Regular polygraphs and regular, extensive financial audits are clearly in order.

The Bureau has arranged for Judge William Webster, a former director of both the FBI and the CIA, to examine its internal security procedures and recommend improvements.

And not a minute too soon. ®

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