How an FBI Sting Took Down KGB Spy Robert Hanssen 

Listen to Eric O'Neill's story | Gray Suit & the Ghost


FBI agent Eric O’Neill was a newbie when his boss drove over to his house at 8 am one Sunday morning for an unscheduled meeting. When does that ever bode well?

“So I went outside, got in the car with him - and he's just grinning because he knows that I'm stressed out - and he says: ‘Have you ever heard of a guy named Robert Hanssen?’”

The FBI was offering O’Neill the career opportunity of a lifetime but it was one that came with a huge risk. They wanted O’Neill to work as an undercover spycatcher reporting to a new manager: suspected FBI-KGB mole Robert Hanssen, believed to be the biggest traitor in US espionage history. 

At that moment, I had no clue what I was getting into,” O’Neill told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.

Eric O'Neill, ex-FBI agent
        At first, SPYEX consultant Eric O’Neill didn’t know he was shadowing a legendary KGB spy


Hanssen was suspected of leaking critical US intelligence. In one deadly instance in 1985, the FBI believed Hanssen exposed three KGB agents working for the Americans. They were deported and arrested. Two were executed.

By the time O’Neill slipped into the car on that fateful Sunday morning in 2001, an FBI operation was already underway to monitor Hanssen. The Bureau needed someone on the inside, however, someone working side-by-side to gather rock-solid evidence - a ‘smoking gun’ to ensure Hanssen would spend the rest of his life in a US federal supermax prison.

The undercover had to be techie as the operation involved cybersecurity. They’d also need an ‘unknown’ so Hanssen didn’t suspect he was under surveillance. Eric O’Neill, at the time a computer-savvy 27-year-old, fit the bill.

How an FBI Sting Took Down KGB Spy Robert Hanssen 

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Listen to Eric O'Neill's story | Gray Suit & the Ghost


FBI agent Eric O’Neill was a newbie when his boss drove over to his house at 8 am one Sunday morning for an unscheduled meeting. When does that ever bode well?

“So I went outside, got in the car with him - and he's just grinning because he knows that I'm stressed out - and he says: ‘Have you ever heard of a guy named Robert Hanssen?’”

The FBI was offering O’Neill the career opportunity of a lifetime but it was one that came with a huge risk. They wanted O’Neill to work as an undercover spycatcher reporting to a new manager: suspected FBI-KGB mole Robert Hanssen, believed to be the biggest traitor in US espionage history. 

At that moment, I had no clue what I was getting into,” O’Neill told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.

Eric O'Neill, ex-FBI agent
        At first, SPYEX consultant Eric O’Neill didn’t know he was shadowing a legendary KGB spy


Hanssen was suspected of leaking critical US intelligence. In one deadly instance in 1985, the FBI believed Hanssen exposed three KGB agents working for the Americans. They were deported and arrested. Two were executed.

By the time O’Neill slipped into the car on that fateful Sunday morning in 2001, an FBI operation was already underway to monitor Hanssen. The Bureau needed someone on the inside, however, someone working side-by-side to gather rock-solid evidence - a ‘smoking gun’ to ensure Hanssen would spend the rest of his life in a US federal supermax prison.

The undercover had to be techie as the operation involved cybersecurity. They’d also need an ‘unknown’ so Hanssen didn’t suspect he was under surveillance. Eric O’Neill, at the time a computer-savvy 27-year-old, fit the bill.

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Codename: Werewolf

“My role in Operation Gray Suit was to work undercover with Robert Hanssen in a newly established division in the FBI called the Information Assurance Section,” O’Neill recalled. “He thought we were doing the job of cybersecurity, but my covert role was to gather information about Hanssen and determine whether he was the spy.”

O’Neill started his career as a government investigations specialist - a surveillance ‘ghost’ - so he knew about clandestine techniques and disguises. Normally he’d use a fake identity but, in this case, O’Neill would need to rely on his Werewolf shape-shifting skills to go undercover disguised as himself. He’d also need to keep the stress inside. His wife would potentially be exposed to Hanssen and the KGB, but he couldn’t tell her.


Robert Hanssen, KGB spy
Hanssen was nicknamed ‘Dr. Death’ for his love of black clothing


O’Neill was walking a high wire every day on the ninth floor of the FBI’s D.C. headquarters. It was the line between suspicion and paranoia. He had his own FBI handler, but it was just O’Neill and Hanssen together all day, every day, sharing two rooms: the main pit where Eric sat with the computers, and Hanssen’s office.

“We could barely fit in there with Hanssen's ego,” O’Neill said.

Gray Suit and the Ghost podcast on True Spies


Roger Moore as 007
Hanssen thought of himself as a suave, 007-like agent


For Your Eyes Only

Hanssen was a James Bond aficionado. He even had the Walther PPK gun and was determined to live the 007 lifestyle. Operationally, however, he struggled in the field. Fortunately he was a brilliant analyst, but also a classic narcissist who thought he was working below his station in life. 

Vanity and dissatisfaction - two ingredients that often lead to betrayal and spying. The third ingredient was money. Hanssen married up and aimed to appear affluent. He’d been selling secrets to the Russians to fund the illusion for more than 20 years.

While it was mind-numbing to hear Hanssen’s bravado, O’Neill needed to keep him talking, hoping he’d incriminate himself. Eventually, they bonded. That’s when O’Neill began taking risks, slipping in and out of Hanssen’s office, going through his computer disks or checking anything Hanssen left it behind. 

Ryan Phillippe
Ryan Phillippe stars as Eric O'Neill in Breach

Technical difficulties

O’Neill suspected Hanssen’s PalmPilot - a device he talked about more than his wife - was likely the ‘smoking gun’ that would reveal all. So, the FBI came up with a ruse to get Hanssen out of the office without his beloved Palm IIIx. 

An FBI assistant director - one Hanssen didn't like - threw down the gauntlet by challenging Hanssen to a shooting competition with a $20 bet. With Hanssen safely down at the range, O’Neill grabbed the PalmPilot, a floppy disk, and a data card from Hanssen’s bag and ran down three flights of steps where the FBI tech team were ready to make a copy. They’d break the encryption later.

“They're starting to do the work and it's slowly moving,” O’Neill said. “As this is happening, I get another page: I don't know what happened. Out of pocket. Probably coming to you.”

Hanssen was returning early. The FBI tech team thrust the PalmPilot in O’Neill’s hand with a warning: "Run."

O’Neill had two minutes to run back to the office and replace Hanssen’s PalmPilot


Back in the office, O’Neill made a beeline for Hanssen’s bag and realized there were four pockets. “And I've opened all four and I have three devices and I have no clue which pocket it went into.”

With his heart slamming into his chest, O’Neill did the only thing he could - he guessed. Hanssen already had the blood of two KGB agents on his hands. Would he spare O’Neill? What if Hanssen shared his suspicions with the KGB and potentially arranged an ‘accident’.

Instead, Hanssen barged into the room, barked a few orders, and left. Days later, Hanssen made his final ‘dead drop’ passing intelligence to the Russians. The FBI caught him in the act.

The dead drop location for Hanssen's Russian contacts
The Foxstone Park ‘dead drop’ where Hanssen left FBI documents hidden in a garbage bag

End game

In March 2002, Hanssen admitted guilt on 15 counts of espionage and agreed to help the FBI to avoid the death penalty. He didn’t explain why he carried on spying for Moscow when he no longer needed the money but Eric O’Neill thinks he knows the answer.

It was the thing that made him feel that he was the best at something in the world. No one was better,” O’Neill said. “And he knew that it was going to make him immortal. And it did.”


****


Ex-FBI counterintelligence officer
Eric O’Neill is a SPYEX consultant, lawyer, and an expert on cybersecurity, investigation, and security. For further information please contact SPYEX.

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