Their Man in Washington

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Attorney General John Ashcroft discusses the Hanssen spy case

"This is a difficult day for the FBI," said FBI director Louis Freeh at the Tuesday press conference, because accused spy Robert Philip Hanssen was one of their own. A proud day, too, because they appear to have beaten him at his own game.

Hanssen, only the third FBI agent to be accused of espionage, was a 27-year veteran of the FBI's and State Department's own counterintelligence operations, a man who caught spies for a living and was good at it. He had been assigned to the FBI's most important counterespionage offices, in New York and Washington, and as Hanssen himself is alleged to have written to his Russian handlers, knew "far better than most what minefields may be laid, and the risks."

So there was some satisfaction evident at Tuesday's press conference, at which Freeh officially announced that agents had arrested Hanssen on Sunday evening — in a Vienna, Va., park while he allegedly made a "dead drop" of highly classified materials that his Russian handlers were to pick up later. Freeh was able to wrap up what he said was a year-long, multi-agency investigation by announcing a list of espionage charges against Hanssen that date back to 1985, and even brag a little. After all, the FBI ferreted out the identity of Hanssen, who Freeh said was code-named "Ramon," long before the Russians did.

"They are learning of it today."

The downside, of course, is the betrayal, and the damage done. Freeh, calling the breach "exceptionally grave," wasted no time in appointing a blue-ribbon panel, led by former FBI chief William Webster, to do the assessing, and early figurings put it in the Aldrich Ames ballpark — not quite as bad, but close. (In fact, one of the charges against Hanssen is that he confirmed the identities of two Russian moles first fingered by Ames, leading to their execution.)

By the looks of things, this is no Wen Ho Lee. A 100-page packet of charges and evidence was handed out to reporters. As is usual with American spies, Hanssen appears to have done it for the money — Freeh's agents have a remuneration figure approaching $1.6 million plus diamonds and an additional $50,000 at another northern Virginia "dead drop" they say was meant for Hanssen. Hanssen got himself a heck of a lawyer — Plato Cacheris of John Mitchell, Fawn Hall and Monica Lewinsky fame — but if the feds don't have an airtight case this time, they're badly overconfident.

Was Hanssen? He seems to have known all the tricks of the trade, to be sure, and knew exactly what the FBI looked for when it was trying to catch people like him. That he appears to have kept it up for more than 15 years shows some serious hubris. That he looks to have got away with it for most of them is something Webster and his panel will be very interested in.