LOS ANGELES — While former FBI agent Robert Hanssen was selling secrets to Moscow, he also was a key supervisor in a 1980s domestic program that questioned the loyalty of Americans in an effort to thwart Soviet spy activity, according to a newspaper report.
The program monitored peace and anti-nuclear activists and other groups that the White House worried could be manipulated by Soviet propaganda. Its stated goal was to uncover Soviet attempts at altering U.S. policy by influencing targeted groups.
Hanssen's initials appear on numerous files among 2,815 pages of formerly classified documents recently obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
"It's astonishing that the very guy who was going after dissenters was in fact working for the Soviets," said Michael Ratner, vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a left-leaning political group that has been monitored by the FBI in the past.
As federal agents spent thousands of hours collecting political intelligence over a decade, Hanssen was giving his Soviet and Russian handlers a host of U.S. secrets on defense plans, nuclear weapons systems and American intelligence gathering.
In a plea agreement reached this month, Hanssen, 57, admitted to 15 criminal counts, including 13 of espionage and one of attempted espionage. Under the agreement, Hanssen will give a full confession of his spying activities in exchange for a life sentence without parole, thus avoiding the death penalty.
Hanssen's former boss, David Major, confirmed that Hanssen was "one of a handful of experts" on Soviet political influence operations inside the United States. Major is retired from the FBI and works as a counterintelligence consultant.
Hanssen's assignment to the bureau's Soviet counterintelligence unit has been reported, but the documents disclosed in April show that he also was a key supervisor in the political intelligence operation.
Hanssen declined to be interviewed, and the FBI declined to comment further about the confessed spy's activity within the bureau.
According to the files, the Soviet Analytical Unit would evaluate information collected about Soviet spies in the United States, analyze raw intelligence reports regarding alleged subversion and provide conclusions to the intelligence community and government officials.
Major said Hanssen, who was deputy chief of the unit from 1987 to 1990, "played a fundamental role in producing the final product. He was significantly involved in the process."
And even though Hanssen was not head of the unit, he often was left in charge when its chief was supervising other matters. Some documents confirm this by showing Hanssen signing off for his boss.