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Breaking News

Key FBI Agent Arrested for Spying

Aired February 20, 2001 - 7:31 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Colleen McEdwards at CNN Center. Philip Hanssen, a key agent of the FBI, has been arrested on spying charges. He is due to appear in court at 11 a.m. Eastern -- that's just a few hours from now.

CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor joins us now with more on this.

David, what can you tell us?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Colleen, Philip Robert Hanssen is a 27-year veteran of the FBI. He is said by officials to have been working for the Russians as a counteragent for over 15 years. He was -- at the FBI, he spent most of his career doing counterintelligence work, in other words, trying to catch Russian spies -- at least that was what the FBI thought -- mostly working in the Washington area.

He was -- he was arrested Sunday putting classified information into a dead drop in Virginia.

As you mentioned, he's going to be arraigned today in federal court, and we understand that the FBI is planning a news conference probably around one o'clock, with a very senior official, possibly Louis Freeh, laying out the case against Philip Robert Hanssen.

There will also be a lengthy affidavit made public later today, we understand -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Have officials said anything more about how long they were watching him, what the nature of their investigation was, how they determined, after a course of, as you say, 15 years working for the Russians, how they were able to determine that something was up here?

ENSOR: All I know so far is that they have been watching him for a little while. As I mentioned, he was arrested on Sunday. I gathered that at least a number of officials around the government knew for some time before that. I haven't got a specific timeline yet, no. But apparently, they were on to him for awhile, were watching him, and were looking for a chance to catch him red-handed, which officials say they did on Sunday.

MCEDWARDS: Can you tell us more about that? You said caught putting documents in what I think you called a dead drop. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

ENSOR: Well, that is -- that is sort of spy talk for how an agent for a foreign power will leave materials, you know, hide -- hide them somewhere, and put them under a rock or put them somewhere innocuous, and then there will be a coded message some other way letting the power that they're working for -- in this case, Russia -- know that there's classified material put somewhere.

It's the way that agents communicate with their -- with the foreign power they work for without being seen, you know, meeting with them directly.

MCEDWARDS: Tell us more about what a counterspy does: what a counterspy does, how they're trained, that kind of thing.

ENSOR: Well, here's the thing that is -- that is very bad news for the United States if indeed Philip Robert Hanssen was an agent for the Russians, as he's been accused of being: A counterintelligence official is one of the people who works for the U.S. government trying to catch Russian spies.

So if indeed this man was a Russian spy himself and was working in the part of the government trying to catch Russian spies, he would have been in a position to warn the Russians anytime the Americans were suspicious of somebody. He -- he would have known how far along the cases were against particular suspects. He would have been able to warn his fellow Russian spies how to avoid capture and would have been a tremendously useful person for the Russians to have on their payroll.

So if it is true, as he's being accused this morning, this would have been a very, very useful spy for the Russians to have. And apparently, as we mentioned, he was working for them for more than 15 years. So that goes back to the Soviet period and to a time when our countries were still in the state of Cold War.

MCEDWARDS: David, tell us more about how the two governments have handled these types of situations in the past, the U.S. government and the Russian government.

ENSOR: Well obviously, both governments have caught spies in the past and generally speaking, you know, they are sentenced to long jail sentences. There have occasionally been spy swaps where individuals were exchanged, but generally speaking, when it's an American citizen who's being charged with spying for Russia, the U.S. government is pretty angry at him, and they're not interested in swapping.

So if the evidence holds up in court, I think you'd probably expect to see Mr. Hanssen spending the rest of his life in an American prison.

MCEDWARDS: All right, can you just recap for us, David, Philip Robert Hanssen...

ENSOR: Yes, again, officials saying that Philip Robert Hanssen, a 27-year veteran of the FBI was arrested on Sunday, and he is accused of having worked for Russian intelligence, the KGB presumably or the GRU, one of the Russian intelligence agencies -- they now have new names, but those are the old Soviet names -- accused of working for them for over 15 years.

Now, the reason this is so damaging, if true, is that Mr. Hanssen is described as having been a counterintelligence expert, one of the people based mostly in Washington, who was actually assigned to trying to catch Russian spies.

He was caught on Sunday, officials say, putting classified information into a dead drop in Virginia, in other words, putting classified information into a prearranged place where the Russians could pick it up.

He will be arraigned today in federal court, and we understand that the FBI will hold a news conference on all of this at around 1:00.

MCEDWARDS: OK, David, and any more information about Philip Hanssen -- his age or where he's from, at this point?

ENSOR: Don't have his age. He's a Washington resident, I understand. But more than that I can't tell you.

MCEDWARDS: All right, got you, CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor, bringing us up to date on that.

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