Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.: Russia Rushes to Plug Leak Over Hanssen

WASHINGTON — The Russian government has launched an aggressive probe to determine who within its ranks may have provided the United States with the KGB case file that led to the arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen on espionage charges, Bush administration officials said.

While the U.S. government's attention has focused on assessing the damage from Hanssen's alleged sale of secrets, Russian officials are grappling with an espionage debacle of their own. They suspect, sources said late last week, that one or more Russians who work in Washington or New York provided the information that enabled the FBI to catch Hanssen as he allegedly tried to exchange classified documents for $50,000 in cash at a "dead drop" in a Virginia park last month.

"I know that an investigation is going on, a full-scale investigation," said a former top Russian intelligence official. "It's tradition. It always happens."

"If there is a mole, it is someone who is sitting very high," added Nikolai Dolgopolov, author of "They Stole the Bomb for the Soviets," a book of interviews with former Russian spies.

President Vladimir Putin and other senior government officials in Moscow are involved in the investigation, in addition to frontline agents in the United States who have been assigned to track down the mole or moles, sources said. As part of the review, the Russians are questioning their personnel in Washington and New York and scrutinizing the documents given to the United States, according to information obtained by Bush administration officials through electronic eavesdropping.

The Russian government historically has maintained tight control over secret documents, prohibiting the use of copying machines where such documents are stored and severely restricting access, according to Ronald Kessler, a spy expert and author of "The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency."

"The Russians are extremely good at keeping track of who has access to their materials," Kessler said. "They're going to be able to trace who had access to these documents."

The Russian probe is focusing on who would have had direct access to the documents, as well as who might have had access to Russian officers with the security clearances to obtain the confidential papers. The documents cited in the court affidavit that details Hanssen's alleged activities include original letters and envelopes, leading many analysts to conclude that the U.S. government obtained all or part of a Soviet case file.

Because of their desire to tighten security and minimize the chances of future breaches, the Russians believe they must learn the mole's identity even if he ultimately accepts refuge from the United States, sources said.

As part of its probe, the Russian government also wants to learn whether other information has been compromised, Bush administration officials said.

Paul Redmond Jr., the former head of CIA counterintelligence who helped catch convicted spy Aldrich Ames in 1994, said that "a tiny handful of people" inside Russian intelligence would have had access to the Hanssen file.

"If they don't know where the secrets are coming from, I'll eat my hat," Redmond said. "They know how to keep secrets."

The 109-page affidavit alleging that Hanssen spied for Moscow does not state how U.S. authorities obtained the correspondence between Hanssen and his Soviet handlers from 1985 through 1991, the first part of an alleged spy career that covered much of the past 15 years. The affidavit includes no information from 1992 through October 1999, when it again begins to detail Hanssen's alleged spying and correspondence with Russian contacts.

Former KGB spy Mikhail Lyubimov dismissed the omission of information in the middle and late 1990s as meaningless.

"It is normal disinformation," he said. "The FBI is very clever. Like all special services, they will do their utmost to protect their sources."

Former KGB spies said internal probes typically involve a special team tasked to track down the answer to what happened, empowered to look at all relevant files and require polygraph tests for those in doubt. Such a team would report its results to Putin without public release of the findings.

"We will never know the answer," a former Russian intelligence official said. "Only a few people in intelligence services — you can count it on two fingers — maybe they know the truth. And even then, not the whole truth. There is no single person who knows 100 percent of the truth about … the Hanssen case."

The United States has been searching for a Russian spy within the FBI or CIA since 1994, when the arrest of CIA officer Ames failed to explain some leaks of information. Among the secrets allegedly revealed by Hanssen was the existence of a secret tunnel beneath the Russian Embassy compound in Washington that was operated by the National Security Agency and the FBI for electronic eavesdropping.

While experts predict negotiations will lead to a plea bargain, Hanssen's attorney, Plato Cacheris, has said his client will plead not guilty.