Spying on the spy: Raw Story interviews former FBI investigator Eric O’Neill
Agent's riveting account is basis for the film, Breach
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. While much of the information Hanssen provided to the Russians remains classified, what has been released to the public illustrates the real life meaning of treason.
At various times throughout his double-agent career at the FBI, Hanssen served as the head of the Soviet Analytical Squad, the chief of the National Security Threat List Unit, part of the Bureau’s computer espionage squad, and even part of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions. By all accounts he was an outstanding computer technician, even a hacker according to some, and a brilliant analyst. But he was also as enigmatic a person as counter-intelligence has ever encountered.
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.” (A Review of the FBI's Performance in Deterring, Detecting, and Investigating the Espionage Activities of Robert Philip Hanssen)
Although he managed to avoid detection for over 20 years, by 2000 an FBI task force was well in place and focusing exclusively on Hanssen. They only needed to catch him in the act of making what is called a dead drop for the Soviets.
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.
RAW STORY's managing editor for investigative news and frequent reporter on intelligence and national security, Larisa Alexandrovna, caught up with O’Neill to discuss his role in the capture of Hanssen, the PROMIS software, the Valerie Plame leak, and other topics involving espionage and government secrecy.
Even though O'Neill never had experience going face-to-face with a "target," he was trained as a "ghost," able to follow someone closely for weeks, "but you would never know I was there."
Along with exposing the identities of foreign agents the US had "turned," According to O'Neill, Hanssen "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."
Although he doesn't think there is any "correlation" between the Hanssen and Plame cases, O'Neill tells RAW STORY "a journalist that knowingly or negligently releases/reveals classified information should face federal prosecution."
O'Neill also believes "there are still moles in government agencies."
"I’d like to think that Hanssen was the last FBI mole, but that’s probably wishful thinking," O'Neill said. "I do think that the Hanssen case made the FBI more sound – better able to screen for spies, and better able to catch them once they activate."
O'Neill added, "I think there will always be spies, for the same reason there will always be crime. Some people are so morally broken they see no problem with taking the easy road at the cost of others."
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF O'NEILL INTERVIEW
Raw Story: Nice to meet you, Eric.
Eric O’Neill: Yes, nice to meet you as well
RS: Let’s begin with the obvious question, for me anyway: Why were you picked to get close to Hanssen? You were not an FBI agent, but an operative for the FBI – working toward becoming an agent. Is that correct?
EO: I was a member of a group of specialized FBI investigators called the SSG, Special Surveillance Group. It was [essentially] based on the [British] MI5 model… We were intelligence investigators in [the equivalent of] counterintelligence and handled such things as surveillance work … using technology to target suspects, as well as penetration work, data collection, etc.
RS: But you were on your way to becoming an agent?
EO: Well, there are two separate tracks; you eventually hit a glass ceiling as an investigator. I originally applied to the FBI for the Special Agent’s class. At the time I was 22 years old and was told that 22 was too young to become a Special Agent. Instead, I was offered a position with the Special Surveillance Group – a group of specially trained counter intelligence and counter terrorism operatives who focus on clandestine vehicular and foot surveillance of foreign nationals and American citizens known or suspected of spying or terrorism. The FBI made a decision to create squads of SSG “Investigative Specialists” in order to overcome an institutional problem that Special Agents have always had with surveillance. SSG are called ghosts. When an Investigative Specialist is “ghosting” a target, we are invisible.
RS: And the schooling and training are comparable to that of Special Agents?
EO: SSG are graduates of the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, carry FBI credentials and badges, and conduct much of the same investigative work the Agents carry out. The singular distinctions are that SSG personnel do not carry firearms and do not make arrests. The goal of SSG is to follow a target without ever being seen. I eventually wanted to re-apply to Special Agent’s class, which would require me to return to the FBI Academy.
RS: Did you have the requisite skill set to be face to face with someone like Hanssen? You had no training for this in counter intelligence operations of this nature, did you? I am trying to understand why you were picked for this assignment at such a young age and with limited training in this particular field.
EO: Investigative specialists are highly trained in counterintelligence and I was working for the FBI at that point for about 5 years. But I did not have any experience with [being face to face] with a target. I was a ghost, what is called a ghost. I could follow you for two weeks, Larisa, and know everything about you, but you would never know I was there.
RS: Yes, and I would be very paranoid too.
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.
RS: There have been news accounts about the PROMIS software and allegations that Osama Bin Laden had purchased the software from the Russians who had obtained it from Hanssen. Is that true?
EO: I don’t know. The FBI has briefed me in generalities, but not [specifics]. I don’t even know everything that was in the last drop.
RS: There were seven pages; one was a letter Hanssen had authored to his handlers. Was there more?
EO: Not everything has been released to the public.
RS: But did he give up software to the Russians?
EO: Yes. He did give them software and encrypted it. The KGB did not like that. They have their own way of doing things. But Hanssen was a control [freak]. He set the rules and that kept them guessing as to who he was. For a long time they thought he was working at the CIA because of some of the information he had provided them and that included software from a number of agencies.
RS: But you don’t know if any of it was the PROMIS software?
EO: I really don’t know.
RS: How was he able to keep them guessing as to the nature of his identity? Did they not watch the drop sites and photograph him, etc?
EO: It’s a severe violation of tradecraft to watch the drop sites. A Russian Intelligence Officer (in this case Russian KGB and then SVR) is NEVER in the same place as his/her asset. IO’s have to assume that they might have Ghosts on them. If this is the case, and they go stake out drop sites, they are leading FBI to their asset and become responsible for burning the asset.
RS: We know that he gave the names of KGB agents, such as Valery Martynov and Sergei Motorin – who were subsequently executed. Do we know if he gave up the names of any CIA officers working overseas?
EO: That’s the thing that really bothers me. For the amount of money he made, he could have given them anything … he did not make that much. He told the Russians that he could not use large amounts of money. So he could have given them anything … but he had no remorse. Yes, he did identify CIA personnel working abroad.
RS: Were any of them compromised or killed?
EO: I don’t know if any were killed. But they were compromised. In some ways, being compromised is worse than being killed. You spend your whole life building something…
RS: Like a legend…
EO: Right and then it falls apart…
RS: And the person’s life is at risk too…
EO: Right. Their cover is blown. Their families are at risk. Or they could be working in the field and Al Qaeda [for example] could know who they really are and feed them disinformation, so that we would not know when the next bombing would be, and that puts even more lives at risk.
RS: Speaking of a national security breach, have you followed the Valerie Plame case?
RS: Is there any correlation to the Hanssen case in terms of the type of breach of national security this was?
EO: I don’t think there is a correlation because Hanssen affected so many areas over a long period of time. There are things only he can tell us and will take a long time to fix. In the Plame case, they know what needs to be fixed and what the damages are. We still don’t fully know with Hanssen.
RS: I find it ironic that columnist Robert Novak was used by Hanssen to disseminate information and then again by Karl Rove to disseminate classified information. Do you think there is a risk of journalists being used by foreign agents of influence to create a serious national security breach and, if so, can you think of a case where such a thing occurred?
EO: Can’t think of a particular case, but I think this is a severe risk. I think that as journalism becomes more advanced and access to information becomes more and more available, journalists need to be responsible for what they report. I think that a journalist that knowingly or negligently releases/reveals classified information should face federal prosecution.
RS: When does the public’s right to know become less important than the government’s right to guard information… In your opinion, what is the line that cannot be crossed?
EO: I believe that freedom is the currency we barter in order to guarantee our safety. There is always a tradeoff between complete transparency of government action and the ability to protect a population. If the government can’t act on information because the media has already released it, we lose. On the same note, if clandestine operations are compromised because enemy forces are watching about it on CNN before we can act, we lose.
I think that any time the release of information would compromise our global efforts to safeguard lives, that release becomes a breach of security and there should be repercussions. The media has incredible power, and should use it responsibly.
A Religious Spy
RS: Hansen was highly religious (at least overtly) and a member of Opus Dei. It is said by many of his colleagues and associates that he was always trying to recruit them. For example, James Bamford has said that Hanssen had tried to recruit him very aggressively. Did he try to recruit you?
EO: I believe that Hanssen was working to recruit me. In many ways, I was his protégé. The Agents on the case certainly believed this was true, and went so far as to ask me to encourage any recruitment efforts. Obviously if that happened it would be an enormous break in the case.
I think that spying was VERY important to Hanssen’s sense of self. He felt very emotional about discontinuing his career as one of the more powerful historical spies. I always had the feeling that he really wanted to tell someone, and how much better to leave someone behind to stand in his shoes?
RS: Yet on one hand he is trying to recruit you seemingly into both espionage and Opus Dei. Yet at the same time he entertained his sexual fantasies in the office, did he not? Like for example his now well documented obsession with the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. Do you think his overtly contradictory and odd behavior was a part of his recruitment of you at times and less about his own deviancy? How did he act toward you?
EO: He acted inappropriately in a number of ways, mostly in invading personal space (psychologically and physically). I think discussions of faith were 1) important to him as a member of Opus Dei – he was recruiting me, and 2) an important element of his continued attempts to confirm that he could trust me.
RS: Speaking of Catherine Zeta-Jones, did he ever use his position at the FBI to try to get close to her or use agency resources to gather information about her?
EO: Not that I know of.
RS: Why do you think he did it, spy that is? Was it the fix?
EO: That is what I think. I think he initially did it for the money. He had a growing family to support and his wife Bonnie came from a [family with money]. I think it always bothered him that he had to provide her with a [comparable lifestyle]. So I think he needed the money, but later needed the fix. He was a geek at the FBI. The Russians made him feel important. He was like the kid on the playground who got [his revenge] from the bully that was stealing his lunch money. In his mind anyway. You know, he always said a man’s priorities should be God, family, country, then job.
RS: What I never quite understood was that, according to Hansen’s Russian handler, Victor Cherkashin, documents and items obtained by US authorities after the fall of the Soviet Union contained the garbage bags Hansen used for his dead drops. The bags had his finger prints on them. Why not nab him then? Why go through this elaborate process?
EO: The fingerprints were only partial fingerprints. They were circumstantial at best and did not definitively prove that he had made those drops.
RS: Do you believe there are moles inside the FBI to this day and, if so, do you think the FBI is using the lessons learned from the Hanssen case, or do you think the bureaucratic structure continues to make that difficult?
EO: I believe there are still moles in government agencies. I’d like to think that Hanssen was the last FBI mole, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I do think that the Hanssen case made the FBI more sound – better able to screen for spies, and better able to catch them once they activate.
I think there will always be spies, for the same reason there will always be crime. Some people are so morally broken they see no problem with taking the easy road at the cost of others.
RS: Have you followed the Sibel Edmonds case at all? She identified a mole inside the FBI working for Turkish intelligence. The mole in question is married to a US military officer, and yet neither the woman or her husband were in any way investigated by the FBI for espionage and were allowed to leave the country. Edmonds for her part, was fired and slapped with a state secrets gag. Hanssen made many mistakes that should have set off red flags, yet the agency missed them over and over. Are we seeing a repeat of the agency's failures with Hanssen in the Sibel Edmonds case?
EO: I’m not familiar enough with the case to comment intelligently. I do think that Hanssen had some personal problems that probably should have raised suspicions. But he was very good at hiding his spying by manipulating the FBI and the information he passed.
RS: The film is excellent by the way. The PDA scene is exactly what happened in real life, is it not? Can you describe what happened and what you were feeling when you realized you did not know which pocket the PDA was in?
EO: Very close to what happened in real life. I did take his Palm Pilot and had forgotten which pocket of his bag I had taken it from. A very novice mistake, but I was pretty excited that he had finally left his Palm Pilot. In real life I had to run two floors down to a tech team who copied the data. As they were copying, I got a page that Hanssen was returning to the office. I ran up and got it in the bag at the last second – but couldn’t remember which pocket. As he came through the door, I guessed on a pocket, dropped the Palm Pilot, zipped it up and made it to my desk without him seeing me.
He immediately checked the bag and I sat at my desk worried that I’d be shot.
Turns out I got the right pocket.
RS: I know a lot of people find the scene in the woods to be the most important, but for me, the scene with the Palm Pilot was the most important. Maybe it’s because I know that it is true.
EO: It’s funny, but people thought that scene was fictional and the scene in the woods was real, when the reverse was true. I guess it’s easier to believe in a Hollywood film. But the movie comes incredibly close to what happened.
RS: Why do you think it important for people to see the film and what do you want them to take away from it?
EO: I hope that people see the film and consider what makes a person a moral person. It's easy to sell out, to commit corrupt and damaging acts at the cost of others. I still wonder what societal urge restricts more people from doing this (although I’m glad for it). What makes you a good person? If you leave the movie and talk about this with friends and family, the movie has accomplished a great thing – it's made people think about the core human values.
RS: You are a National Defense and Homeland Security Attorney now, right?. What does that mean exactly and what types of clients and cases do you handle?
EO: I specialize in government contracts-related work for clients who seek to contract with the Federal and state and local governments. I also provide advice on national security legal issues and government affairs.
RS: Thank you so much Eric for your time and service to the country.
EO: Thank you for the interview, Larisa. I really enjoyed it.
Larisa Alexandrovna is the Managing Editor for Investigative News at RAW STORY and regularly covers intelligence and national security stories.
Eric O’Neill, whose story is the inspiration for the film Breach, for which he was special consultant, is a national defense and homeland security attorney in Washington, D.C. with DLA Piper. A graduate of George Washington University Law School and Auburn University, O’Neill was an operative for the FBI’s Special Surveillance Group and worked undercover during the Robert Hanssen case, serving as Hanssen’s assistant and closest associate. During his time with the Bureau, his key role in the investigation into Hanssen’s work as a spy helped bring the double agent to justice. Currently, O’Neill lives in Maryland with his wife, Juliana.
The DVD release of Breach is today, June 12. For more information about the film, please visit the official Web site.
(Check RAW STORY tomorrow to learn how to enter an essay contest in order to win a copy of the film Breach, autographed by Eric O’Neill and an official movie t-shirt)