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Spy Held for Revealing Secret Tunnel Under Russian Embassy

By Eric Lichtblau and Robyn Dixon
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

A federal judge ruled Monday that “extraordinarily strong” evidence against accused spy Robert Philip Hanssen warrants keeping him behind bars for now, as Russian diplomats demanded information about a secret eavesdropping tunnel that might be linked to the former FBI agent.

Russian officials said reports that the United States built the spy tunnel underneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington beginning in the 1970s, if true, represent “a flagrant violation” of international law. The White House, while refusing to confirm or deny the existence of the tunnel, said Monday that it does not expect the diplomatic flare-up to hurt the Bush administration’s fledgling relations with Moscow.

“I think that the president is still going to approach relations with Moscow the same way he always has,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. “We’re looking forward to having good relations with Russia, straightforward and direct conversations, which is the president’s manner and style.”

The episode was triggered by a report in Sunday’s New York Times disclosing that the United States spent several hundred million dollars building an eavesdropping tunnel under the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington. Hanssen might have betrayed the joint FBI-National Security Agency operation to his Russian handlers, the newspaper said.

Intelligence sources Monday confirmed the existence of the tunnel but cautioned that it is unclear how much secret information it ever generated or exactly what role Hanssen might have played in tipping off Moscow to its construction.

Hanssen’s defense attorney, Plato Cacheris, also warned the public to be “skeptical” about what he characterized as speculative reports on the tunnel and Hanssen’s connection to it.

The former FBI counterintelligence agent, responsible for catching Russian spies, is accused of selling top-secret data to Russia over a period of 15 years in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. Facing a possible death sentence, he plans to plead not guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Bellows told the magistrate that Hanssen, if freed, could try to flee the country and poses “an exceptionally grave danger” to U.S. national security because he had access to such sensitive information at the FBI.