WASHINGTON — Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who took more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds to trade secrets with Moscow in one of the most notorious spying cases in American history, died in prison Monday.
Hanssen, 79, was found unresponsive in his cell at a federal prison in Florence, Colorado, and later pronounced dead, prison officials said. He is believed to have died of natural causes, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The person was not authorized to publicly discuss details of Hanssen’s death and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
He had been serving a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole since 2002, after pleading guilty to 15 counts of espionage and other charges.
Hanssen had divulged a wealth of information about American intelligence-gathering, including extensive detail about how US officials had tapped into Russian spy operations, since at least 1985.
Because he was in the FBI’s crucial New York counterintelligence department, tasked with chasing down foreign spies, he was able to cover his tracks as he ostensibly investigated Moscow’s agents in the United States.
He was finally caught exchanging messages with his Russian handlers in suburban Virginia just outside Washington on February 18, 2001.
Hanssen was believed to have been partly responsible for the deaths of at least three Soviet officers who were working for US intelligence and executed after being exposed.
He got more than $1.4 million in cash, bank funds, diamonds and Rolex watches in exchange for providing highly classified national security information to the Soviet Union and later Russia.
He didn’t adopt an obviously lavish lifestyle, instead living in a modest suburban home in Virginia with his family and driving a Taurus.
Hanssen would later say he was motivated by money rather than ideology, but a letter written to his Soviet handlers in 1985 explains a large payoff could have caused complications because he could not spend it without setting off warning bells.
Using the alias “Ramon Garcia,” he passed some 6,000 documents and 26 computer disks to his handlers, authorities said. They detailed eavesdropping techniques, helped to confirm the identity of Russian double agents, and spilled other secrets. Officials also believed he tipped off Moscow to a secret tunnel the Americans built under the Soviet Embassy in Washington for eavesdropping.
The FBI called him “the most damaging spy in bureau history.”
Hanssen joined the FBI in 1976 after first serving as a policeman in Chicago.
Nine years later he took a position in counterintelligence in the New York City office, where agents invested huge amounts of time tracking and trying to recruit Soviet officials at the United Nations.
He went undetected for years, but later investigations found missed red flags. After he became the focus of a hunt for a Russian mole, Hanssen was caught taping a garbage bag full of secrets to the underside of a footbridge in a park in a “dead drop” for Russian handlers.
At the time that he was caught, he was considered the most damaging mole ever to pass US secrets to a foreign government, with thousands of classified US documents handed over to the Soviets, and later to the Russians.
Those included US nuclear war plans, software for tracking spying investigations, and the identities of US sources in Moscow, including Dmitri Polyakov or “Tophat,” a Soviet general who fed his country’s secrets to the United States between the 1960s and 1980s.
Polyakov was arrested in 1986 and executed several years later.
While for several years the FBI and CIA knew there was a well-placed informant in their ranks, Hanssen was for a long time not a top suspect.
He had a wife and six children, lived frugally, and mixed closely with Washington’s conservative Catholic elite.
US investigators eventually turned more attention to Hanssen with small bits of information provided by a Russian defector.
He was secretly tracked and recorded in his office for months before being caught at the Virginia dead drop.
In May 2002 he pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage in exchange for a prosecution agreement not to seek the death penalty.
“I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it.” Hanssen said at his sentencing.
“I have opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children,” he said. “I’ve hurt so many deeply.”
The story was made into a movie titled “Breach” in 2007, staring Chris Cooper as Hanssen and Ryan Phillippe as a young bureau operative who helps bring him down.
The FBI has been notified of Hanssen’s death, according to the Bureau of Prisons.