If it was a choice between a plea deal to extract more details or the death penalty for accused spy Robert Hanssen, the U.S. spy community would pick the plea bargain, intelligence officials said on Thursday.
Hanssen on Wednesday was indicted on 21 counts of espionage, 14 of which carry a maximum penalty of death, as prosecutors staked out their toughest stance on the case.
The indictment came a day after Hanssen's attorney Plato Cacheris said he had refused a 30-day extension for plea bargain talks because prosecutors would not take the death penalty off the table.
Neither of those moves precludes a deal being reached in the future.
Hanssen, a former FBI agent whose job was to catch spies, is charged with selling U.S. secrets to Moscow over 15 years for $1.4 million in money and diamonds. Those secrets included intelligence gathering methods and targets, names of Soviets spying for the United States and U.S. defense strategy.
"If we are going to get some cooperation from Mr. Hanssen, I'm anxious that we get it sooner rather than later," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, a Florida Republican, said.
Secrets allegedly sold by Hanssen since 1985 could be relevant to current operations, intelligence officials said.
For example, if the ability to listen into a particular circuit to gather information on a specific target had been revealed, U.S. spy agencies would have to reevaluate all the information gathered from that date.
"It might be cooked," one U.S. intelligence official said, referring to the potential for disinformation to intentionally point the United States in the wrong direction.
"We know a helluva lot" about the alleged compromises, the official said on condition of anonymity. "But you never know everything, and you don't know what you don't know."
So the intelligence community would prefer a plea bargain that would elicit as much disclosure from Hanssen as possible about secrets allegedly revealed to Moscow.
"I am interested in exploring any avenue that would give us the maximum amount of information so we can do the maximum possible best job for our national security," Goss, a former CIA officer, told Reuters.
"The prosecutor's side is to get the best possible result of bringing an alleged criminal to justice if proven guilty," Goss said. "And so they are not contradictory, but they are not necessarily exactly aligned. So there probably will end up being some trade-offs and that's what plea bargains are."
Attorney General John Ashcroft briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday behind closed doors. He would not respond to a reporter's question of whether plea bargain talks were on or whether he would seek the death penalty in the Hanssen case.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said the Justice Department had been "very diligent" and that Ashcroft was involved in the Hanssen case "from top to bottom."
Hanssen's attorney Plato Cacheris did not return phone calls seeking comment.