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Thursday, February 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alleged spy's access, skills 'unprecedented'

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON - The damage from Robert P. Hanssen's alleged KGB spy career could be particularly severe because he possessed both access to intelligence information across the government and computer skills that made him among the most technologically sophisticated officials at the FBI, three of his former colleagues said yesterday.

Two years after he allegedly began spying in 1985, Hanssen served as deputy director of the FBI Intelligence Division's Soviet section, giving him full access to information about counterspy activities against the Soviet Union.

David Major, who was Hanssen's boss and worked with him for 20 years, described Hanssen's access as: "Everything - all sources, all methods, all techniques, all targets. There's only a few people in counterintelligence that have to know everything. And he was one of them."

Major said the spy suspect also had virtually unlimited access to intelligence documents from the CIA, the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

State Department post

With Hanssen in custody, FBI agents stepped up questioning of State Department employees yesterday to learn more about Hanssen's activities there. For the last five years, Hanssen had been an FBI liaison at State, with access to sensitive information and many parts of the building.

FBI personnel searched his home and yard yesterday in suburban Vienna. But the key task now, present and former FBI officials say, is to determine exactly what information Hanssen may have given away.

"It's going to be horrible," said Paul Moore, a former colleague who said he considered Hanssen a close friend. "You develop a capability into the other side that puts information into your hands - and somebody comes along and blows that up."

Former FBI Director William Webster, who will lead a blue-ribbon inquiry into the FBI's security measures, said the spy case "highlights very clearly" the debate over whether the FBI needs to use lie-detector tests more aggressively.

Polygraphs are conducted on all new agents and other employees. They are also used in certain cases when agents are given access to sensitive information about a secret program or criminal case.

The FBI also performs background re-investigations of all employees every five years, but uses lie-detector tests only in those instances where there is an unexplained anomaly.

Moore noted that Hanssen could program computers in two languages, C and Pascal, and created a system for automating the teletype at the FBI's Washington Field Office for receiving cables from agents in the field. That system was so successful it quickly gained use at FBI headquarters, Moore said.

Hanssen, 56, has been charged with betraying numerous U.S. intelligence operations and at least three of the FBI's Russian agents over the past 15 years in return for more than $1.4 million in cash, diamonds and deposits in a Russian bank.

He was arrested Sunday at a park near his home. Authorities say he was caught attempting to deliver a garbage bag full of classified documents to Russian intelligence agents in exchange for $50,000 in cash left at another park.

The government filed a 109-page affidavit in U.S. District Court on Tuesday that appears to be based largely on a KGB dossier. It cites correspondence between Hanssen and his handlers from 1985 to 1991 and alleges that two of the three Russian agents he betrayed were executed.

While FBI Director Louis Freeh has called Hanssen's apprehension a "counterintelligence coup," neither he nor other senior officials have explained how the KGB internal documents were obtained.

"The real story is how we got the stuff," said one former government official who has been briefed on the Hanssen case.

Detailed affidavit

But the extensive detail in the affidavit, including references to the executed Russian agents, indicates prosecutors are prepared to seek the death penalty and are willing to bring into court someone who can authenticate the documents as originals.

Under a law passed after the 1994 arrest of CIA spy Aldrich Ames, prosecutors can seek the death penalty for a person who delivers classified information to a foreign power that betrays nuclear secrets or results in the death of U.S. agents.

With the threat of seeking the death penalty, prosecutors apparently hope to persuade Hanssen to negotiate a plea bargain and cooperate with an investigation into the damage from his alleged spying.

Although Freeh said at a news conference Tuesday that the FBI investigation into Hanssen began late last year, federal agents have been searching since at least the summer of 1999 for a mole with broad access to FBI and CIA counterintelligence data, two sources close to the investigation said. Initially, the search focused on someone else. The target of the investigation in 1999 was suspected of passing information to the Russians in return for cash and diamonds.

It is not clear when the U.S. government received the KGB internal documents that investigators used in singling out Hanssen.

Source is denied

Intelligence officials yesterday reiterated Freeh's answer to a question at Tuesday's news conference in which he denied that the source of the documents was a former Russian diplomat, Sergey Tretyakov, who defected last November from his post as first secretary at Moscow's mission to the United Nations.

A former Russian ambassador to Iran, Tretyakov had an intelligence background, sources said.

Freeh and other officials have said it may take years to determine the damage caused by Hanssen's alleged spying. One result may be a reassessment of their previous conclusions about the damage caused by Ames, who began his career as a CIA spy for the KGB six months before Hanssen.

Investigators have suspected since 1994 that another spy helped confirm information passed to the Russians by Ames, who pleaded guilty and is imprisoned for life. At one time, the investigators suspected the second mole was FBI counterintelligence agent Earl E. Pitts, who pleaded guilty to spying for the KGB in 1997.

But Pitts has maintained that he had nothing to do with Ames' activities, which have been blamed for the deaths of 10 Russian agents working for U.S. intelligence.

Hanssen's former colleagues believe the damage he caused could equal or exceed Ames.

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