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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Writing to Moscow With Love, Longing

WASHINGTON — The relationship had lasted for years, through letters written and gifts exchanged, but eventually the FBI agent and his friends from Moscow drifted apart. Once defined by regular communication, their ties had frayed to nothing.

The estrangement seemed to gnaw at accused spy Robert Philip Hanssen.

He had secrets to share and lessons to teach. But for a while, perhaps as long as eight years, there was no one he could share them with. No one at all.

"I have come as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you, and I get silence," Hanssen allegedly wrote to his Russian intelligence contacts last year, after they had resumed their liaison. "I hate silence."

Later, his anger melted: "Please, at least say good-bye. It's been a long time my dear friends, a long and lonely time."

Despite the high-tech surveillance and encryption methods that have blossomed in the intelligence trade, a spy's success still often depends on the psychologically complicated relationship with a foreign patron. That bond is clearly evident in the case of Hanssen, the highly placed FBI counterintelligence expert whose alleged illicit correspondence is part spy tale and part Valentine.

The 109-page affidavit against Hanssen filed last week in U.S. District Court portrays a tangled and, at times, almost intimate relationship between Hanssen and his contacts, known as "handlers."

What began as an alliance solely on Hanssen's terms became, over time, a murkier compact, a dance between two parties united in suspicion and dependent on trust. There are moments of joy, angry spats and expressions of deep gratitude. "Thank you for your friendship and help," one Soviet official wrote; "Your 'thank you' was deeply appreciated," Hanssen responded.

"His handlers were, in many ways, his lifeline and his refuge," said Robert Blitzer, former head of the FBI's counterterrorism division. "He was out there totally, totally alone. There's a very close bond that can develop, and it was even more intense in this case."

The affidavit includes a breathtaking amount of detailed information about Hanssen's alleged relationship with foreign agents, most of it apparently acquired by the United States from Russian sources. Other correspondence was seized from Hanssen's home and car.

The dalliance began with a single letter, dated Oct. 1, 1985, and sent through an intermediary to Viktor Cherkashin, a KGB colonel who, Hanssen allegedly wrote, was "held in esteem" in the Soviet intelligence circles he had studied for years. Cherkashin — already blessed by the start of a fruitful relationship with CIA operative Aldrich Ames — found himself in possession of another intelligence gold mine. Hanssen's opening gambit was to offer three names of KGB officers helping the CIA and FBI, two of whom were soon convicted of espionage and shot.

Hanssen declined to give his handlers his name, his position or even the agency he worked for. He signed his letters "Ramon Garcia" or "Ramon" and was known to the KGB and, later, the Foreign Intelligence Service simply as "B."

From the beginning, Hanssen seemed to envision a long-term relationship.

In one of his earliest notes, he cautions against sending too much money to avoid setting off warning bells, but adds: "Eventually, I would appreciate an escape plan. (Nothing lasts forever.)"

Over the next six years, the flattery and expressions of mutual respect increased. The Moscow agents called him "friend"; he addressed them as "friends." In 1989, a Dec. 25 package included "Christmas greetings from the KGB."

"They were very skillful in the way they played him. It is clear he became quite dependent on them," said former FBI Deputy Director Larry Potts, now executive vice president of the Washington-based Investigative Group Inc.

"It wasn't unintentional that the handlers of this guy treated him by calling him a friend and expressing concern for his family. They were at least trying to make him think there was a personal relationship."

The final letter was retrieved Feb. 18, when a phalanx of his fellow FBI agents surrounded Hanssen in a Virginia park where he allegedly had just left a black trash bag full of classified documents.

"Want me to lecture in your 101 course in my old age?" he wrote in the letter. "My college level Russian has sunk low through inattention all these years; I would be a novelty attraction, but I don't think a practical one except in extremis."

His final request: "Wish me luck."