Spying on the spy: Raw Story interviews former FBI investigator Eric O’Neill
by Larisa Alexandrovna
Ask anyone in the intelligence community who was the most damaging spy in US history and the answer comes quickly: Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent who spied for the Soviet Union – and, after the Cold War, for the Russians – on and off for a period of 15 years.
Hanssen was a devout Catholic, a member of the controversial and influential conservative religious group known as Opus Dei; he was fiercely anti-Communist, a good father, a good husband, and mostly an underachiever, seemingly by choice. At the same time, Hanssen was also selling the most sensitive information from across several US intelligence agencies to the Russians, making pornographic films of his unsuspecting wife and later showing them to his friends, and masturbating at work to images of screen goddesses such as Catherine Zeta-Jones. For the information he provided to the Russians, he got comparatively little compensation, roughly $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.
According to a 2003 Department of Justice Inspector General’s report, what Hanssen sold included some of the most classified and guarded information in the US government:
“During the next six years – the last stages of the Cold War – Hanssen delivered thousands of pages of highly classified documents and dozens of computer disks to the KGB detailing U.S. strategies in the event of nuclear war, major developments in military weapons technologies, identities of active and historical U.S. assets in the Soviet intelligence services, the locations of KGB defectors in the United States, analytical products from across the Intelligence Community, comprehensive budget and policy documents, and many other aspects of the Soviet counterintelligence program.”
Enter Eric O’Neill, a 27 year old FBI investigator on the Bureau’s Special Surveillance Group, specializing in surveillance of terrorism suspects. O’Neill was assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in a newly formed FBI computer squad. It was largely O’Neill’s attention to detail and confidence that provided the smoking gun needed to bring Hanssen in and led to his arrest on February 18, 2001.
O'Neill on the film, Breach
O’Neill’s riveting account of what transpired between himself and Hanssen over that final crucial period is the basis for the film Breach, released in theaters to high critical acclaim early this year. O’Neill is portrayed by Ryan Phillipe and Hanssen by Chris Cooper in an astonishing performance that, according to those who knew the spy, is chillingly accurate.
RS: So why do you think you were picked?
EO: The FBI really did not have anyone else. Many of our highly trained agents could not sell the job of an information assurance employee. You need someone who has some sort of background in computers. The computer tech guys working for the agency are all well and good [in terms of their skill set], but they are not trained in counter intelligence. If you remember in the film when Ryan [Phillipe] is passing around that database report … the report he was pushing in the film. I really did write that report and it got attention in the FBI. It got Hansen’s attention. I also think – and this might sound controversial – that I was picked because I was Catholic. Hansen would not have trusted someone who was not Catholic.
RS: What did the FBI declassify for the film to be made? Your identity, for example, was classified, was it not?
EO: Yes. My role was declassified for the film. I had to get special permission [a waiver] from the FBI. Then once Outlaw [Productions] and [director] Billy Ray were involved, they approached the FBI directly for additional information and, to my incredible shock, for whatever reason, the FBI agents who had run the case spilled everything. Billy Ray would come back to me and tell me what the FBI gave him. I would say, okay, give me a full briefing, and Billy would tell me about the cameras in the room where Hansen and I worked, which was classified stuff.
RS: Much of the information is still classified. Has the true damage of Hanssen’s espionage been fully calculated in terms of human losses? I know the estimation is around 50, but has the FBI been able to fully gauge the casualties?
EO: Numerous and extensive damage assessments have been done by the various agencies. Committees have been set up. None of it has been released. I am sure they are only beginning to approach some understanding of the damages. He compromised all agencies, the CIA, NSA, etc.
RS: What types of information are we talking about, other than giving up names of agents we had turned?
EO: He gave the Russians our nuclear information, information about agents and assets working penetration, he even gave them the source code to the FBI’s automated case system program.