The veteran FBI counterintelligence agent accused this week of spying for Russia is a talented computer programmer who once penetrated a senior agent's office computer to demonstrate the Bureau's vulnerability to hackers, according to newspaper reports Thursday.
In 1992 or 1993 Robert Hanssen openly hacked into the office computer of fellow agent Raymond Mislock, then section chief for counterintelligence operations against Russia, according to a story in Thursday's USA Today.
The paper, citing 'unnamed former senior intelligence officials', reported that Hanssen didn't attempt to conceal the penetration, but rather brought the computer's vulnerability to the attention of the FBI, which immediately disconnected some systems housing classified information.
Adding to the accused spy's growing technical bona fides, the Washington Post reported Thursday that Hansen could program in C and Pascal, and once created a system for automating the teletype at the FBI's Washington field office.
Hanssen is accused of betraying some of the US intelligence community's most closely-held secrets to the KGB, and its successor agency the SVR, over a fifteen year period, in exchange for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.
A 100-page FBI affidavit in support of Hanssen's arrest, and a subsequent search of his home, portrays an unusually computer-savvy spy.
As early as November 1985, after making initial contact with the KGB, Hanssen allegedly began trying to push his Russian handlers into using more high-tech methods to communicate with him. He rejected the KGB's first proposed communications scheme, suggesting instead that they exchange encrypted messages over a computer bulletin board system (BBS), the mid-eighties dial-up version of a modern Web board.
In 1991, Hanssen allegedly proposed another scheme, in which he'd establish an office in Washington DC that would house a computer, described vaguely in the FBI affidavit as "specially-equipped with certain advanced technology" that would allow them to communicate securely.
And last year, Hanssen allegedly tried to sell the Russians on using handheld Palm VII organizers. According to the FBI affidavit, Hanssen wrote his handlers, "we do need a better form of secure communication -- faster."
"The VII version comes with wireless internet capability built in," Hanssen allegedly wrote. "It can allow the rapid transmission of encrypted messages, which if used on an infrequent basis, could be quite effective in preventing confusions if the existence [sic] of the accounts could be appropriately hidden as well as the existance [sic] of the devices themselves. Such a device might even serve for rapid transmittal of substantial material in digital form."
The Russians evidently ignored Hanssen's geeky proposals. As detailed in the FBI affidavit, the accused spy's tradecraft never got more hi-tech then passing messages on floppy disks, encrypted with an unspecified algorithm. Hanssen allegedly stashed the disks along with reams of classified papers under two pedestrian bridges, and a wooden podium, in public parks in the Washington DC area, where Russian case officers would later pick them up.
Hanssen was arrested Sunday night at once such "dead drop" near his residence in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Hanssen's technophilia may have helped his colleagues build a case against him. According to the FBI affidavit, a covert search of Hanssen's Palm III organizer prior to his arrest turned up a reminder of the secret Sunday-night appointment.
A search of his office uncovered an 8MB Flash memory card with incriminating copies of some of the notes he sent to, or received from, Russian intelligence. And FBI computer logs showed that Hanssen continuously ego-surfed the Bureau's Automated Case Support System (ACS), performing incriminating searches on his own name, address, and key words like "DEAD DROP AND WASHINGTON."
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