This Day In History: May 10

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On May 10, 2002, Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who intermittently sold state secrets to Russia over the course of two decades, receives his sentencing for espionage: life in prison without the possibility of parole. "I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it," said Hanssen. "I have opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I have hurt so many deeply."

Hanssen, who began working with Soviet military intelligence in 1979, was arrested in 2001 after an ex-KGB officer revealed information to the FBI that identified him as a double agent. He took a plea bargain, which reduced the 21 counts against him to 15, guaranteed his wife a portion of his pension and ownership of their Virginia home and took the possibility of the death penalty off the table. In return, Hanssen agreed to provide federal investigators with detailed accounts of his years as a spy.

Special Agent Van Harp, then head the FBI’s Washington Field Office, referred to Hanssen's sentencing as the “closure to the darkest chapter in the history of the FBI.” Hanssen had provided the Russians with classified materials, including the identity of three K.G.B. officers who were spying on behalf of the U.S., details about American nuclear operations and information about the existence of a secret tunnel that the U.S. government dug under the Soviet Embassy in Washington in order to eavesdrop. Among the most significant revelations that Hanssen shared with Russia was the identity of a high-ranking mole for the U.S., the Russian General Dmitri Polyakov, who for eight ensuing years may have provided the U.S. with false or deceptive intelligence.

Rather than being an ideological turncoat, it’s believed that Hanssen’s motivations were monetary. He received over $1.4 million in assets from Russia, including $800,000 that was deposited into a Russian bank, two Rolex watches and approximately $600,000 in the form of diamonds and cash. Hanssen was the third agent in FBI history to be charged with espionage. He died in prison on June 5, 2023.

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