Robert Hanssen Cuts a Deal

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FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen.

Accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen allegedly made a small fortune trading secrets to the Russians for cash. Now he's going to trade a few more to the U.S. — for his life.

Hanssen's attorneys confirmed Tuesday that Hanssen will walk into an Alexandria courthouse Friday and enter a guilty plea to espionage charges in an agreement with federal prosecutors that will save Hanssen from the death penalty.

That's just fine with Hanssen's beleaguered former employer, the FBI, which is happy to forgo some personal closure for more practical rewards. Both the FBI and the CIA will now have a chance to debrief Hanssen as to some tantalizing gaps in their knowledge of what secrets he passed and how he passed them, particularly the period after 1991 when the KGB file on him ends abruptly without explanation, and the period between 1999 and his arrest in February.

They'll be able to use a variety of carrots and sticks to keep him talking. Hanssen lived many lies for many years; if he dissembles now, the feds could reinstate the espionage charges and possibly perjury (if he lies to a federal grand jury) and tax-evasion charges that could make life miserable for Hanssen's wife Bonnie, although sources say the feds are not eager to torture the innocent wife of the rogue agent.

As for Hanssen, details of the agreement are under seal until the hearing, but sources say he will get another inducement than his life — the bulk of his FBI pension for Bonnie.

Hanssen's lawyers at Plato Cacheris' Washington firm, meanwhile, are mulling whether to go after fired defense team psychiatrist Aren Salerian on ethical violations for talking to the BBC, CBS and other media about the case, passing along embarrassing details such as Hanssen's alleged fascination with pornography, and Bonnie Hanssen's suspicions that her husband was spying as early as 1979. In addition to violating doctor-patient privilege, Hanssen's lawyers believe Salerian, as a member of the defense team, violated attorney-client privilege.

The FBI pushed for a plea, getting support in swaying Attorney General John Ashcroft from such corners as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA chief George Tenet and would clearly prefer the back-room route from here on out. For one thing, a trial would have forced prosecutors to put on the witness stand the FBI's prize source — a Russian who stole Hanssen's KGB file from Moscow Center, as Russian intelligence headquarters is known, and handed it over to the bureau. For another, the National Security Agency would have had to reveal highly classified details about its communications intercept capabilities in order to show exactly why the secrets Hanssen sold were so damaging to U.S. security. They'll now roll up their sleeves and try and get Hanssen to do what a good spy never does — come clean — while greatly reducing the risk of another embarrassing snafu.