Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who leaked top secrets to Moscow for nearly 20 years, has died in prison at the age of 79. Hanssen was one of the most damaging spies in the history of the FBI, and his betrayals are said to have cost lives. He was finally brought down in 2001, thanks to the covert work of FBI agents Richard Garcia and Eric O’Neill. Hanssen had studied Russian in college and began working for the FBI in 1976. Within a decade, he was double-crossing the bureau. Starting in 1985, Hanssen operated as a destructive mole within the US government, selling top secret documents to the USSR and Russia, and compromising the identities of undercover spies.
Hanssen operated under the radar for so long due to his old-school espionage methods. He relied on « dead drops », a method of physically leaving materials for his handlers to discover. He chose mundane sites throughout the suburban Virginia neighbourhoods that surround Washington to deliver the stolen intelligence. His handlers in Moscow did not know his identity. He went by the alias « Ramon Garcia », of no relation to Robert Garcia who mused the coincidence might have irked Hanssen once they met. His activities continued long after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR disintegrated. He was attempting to communicate with the Russians right up until the moment of his arrest.
The FBI hatched a plan to place Hanssen under surveillance by transferring him out of the State Department where he worked and creating a bogus job at the Bureau where operatives could monitor him. Richard Garcia, an experienced undercover operative, was to be Hanssen’s fake superior, a very bureaucratic boss. Eric O’Neill, a 26-year-old undercover operative with a knowledge of hacking, was recruited to pose as Hanssen’s administrative aide. Over the next few weeks, the two got to know each other well – though one was covertly investigating the other. At one point, O’Neill even accompanied Hanssen’s family to church.
Hanssen was arrested in February 2001 at Foxstone Park in Virginia and charged with espionage. He pleaded guilty to 15 counts and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The case threw a wrench into relations with its Cold War rival and President George W Bush expelled numerous Russian diplomats. Hanssen was sent to prison in Florence, Colorado, where he remained for over two decades until his death this week.
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