For Robert Hanssen, a Dance With the Death Penalty

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Could face the death penalty: Accused spy Robert Philip Hanssen

No matter how bad your day was, chances are it was better than Robert Hanssenís. The former FBI counterintelligence officer was indicted in Washington, D.C. Wednesday; government prosecutors pummeled him with a hailstorm of espionage charges, including several new, especially serious accusations concerning nuclear-defense secrets.

If convicted, Hanssen could face the death penalty. Plato Cacheris, Hanssenís defense attorney and a prominent fixture in the Beltway legal scene, has promised to fight a death sentence, saying he does not feel capital punishment is "justified" in this case.

The U.S. government, spearheaded in this case by the Justice Department, may beg to differ. Hanssen reportedly spied for the Soviet Union for 15 years, providing Moscow with top secret information — and receiving an estimated $1.4 million in return.

TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon has been watching developments in the Hanssen case. She spoke with Wednesday about the latest charges. What were the new charges in Wednesdayís indictment against Hanssen?

Elaine Shannon: In this latest complaint, we see language having to do not only with Hanssenís involvement in counterintelligence and his interaction with moles, but with his involvement in telling the Soviets about U.S. defense systems and their abilities to anticipate nuclear attacks. We were tapping their military communications, and Hanssen told them.

These new charges are much weightier than what the prosecution was talking about before; these are secrets relating to, as the indictment reads, "satellites, early warning systems, means of defense or retaliation against large scale attack, communications intelligence and defense strategy."

Why are those charges so important to the prosecutionís case?

To the average American, the new charges will sound a lot more chilling than hearing about Hanssenís dealings with various moles and informants. If this case goes to trial, the prosecution will argue that Hanssen compromised the U.S.ís ability to prepare for nuclear attack — and they know that wonít sit well with a jury.

Plato Cacheris has vowed to keep his client from being executed. Has espionage always been a capital crime, punishable by death?

Not always; a relatively new statute makes espionage a capital crime if the actual act results in someoneís death. And the government charges against Hanssen mentions two KGB agents who had turned and were working for the U.S. — Hanssen apparently revealed their identities, and they were executed.

Whatís going to happen to Hanssenís family? His wife hasnít been implicated in this, has she?

No, she hasnít been. Itís unclear what will happen to Mrs. Hanssen and their kids; Iím sure they have a lawyer trying to figure all of this out. Itís possible that the IRS could come after her for tax fraud, the government could take away their house and his pension, and she could be left destitute. On the other hand, the government could take a more lenient position, since she didnít seem to be involved in the espionage.