Episode 2

GRAY SUIT & THE GHOST

GRAY SUIT & THE GHOST

Hayley Atwell describes the hunt for the infamous FBI mole Robert Hanssen, with Eric O’Neill, the agent tasked with catching him. Eric needs to get Hanssen into a hire car so his own car can be searched for evidence of his betrayal... but the hire car isn’t there and Hanssen is getting more suspicious by the minute. What would you do in O'Neill's position?
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 2: Gray Suit & the Ghost

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who operate in this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 2: Gray Suit and the Ghost.

ERIC O’NEILL: It was this game of back and forth, and one of us was going to win and one of us was going to fail. My name is Eric O'Neill. I am a former Investigative Specialist for the FBI. That's an undercover operative that primarily engages in surveillance operations. I worked for the FBI from 1996 until 2001 and my code name was ‘Werewolf’.

NARRATOR: This is the story of the capture of America’s most notorious spy, Robert Hanssen. Your guide for this episode: former FBI ghost, Eric O’Neill. He didn’t just work on the case, observing his target from the shadows. He was the spycatcher working side by side with the mole.

ERIC O’NEILL: Typically when you work undercover, to protect you, you're given what's called a ‘legend’, another identity, another name, another background. But here, I had to go undercover as myself.

NARRATOR: From 1979 to 2001, the FBI had been ignoring one of the cardinal rules of counterintelligence: watch those with access to the keys to the kingdom. For more than 20 years, Robert Hanssen had been handing over critical information to the Russians and undermining America’s top-secret operations to collect intelligence from the enemy. In 1985, he exposed three KGB agents working for the Americans who were promptly sent back to Russia and arrested. Two were executed. But it doesn’t end there. In 1992, Hanssen hacked the FBI’s computer system and illegally snatched Soviet documents. Remarkably, the FBI had no systems to monitor and track access to classified national security information and Hanssen waltzed out of FBI buildings with some of the US government's most sensitive material. A bully, lacking the management skills to climb further up the FBI ladder, Hanssen was moved into a backwater office at the State Department for six years and forgotten. He spent his days watching movies and stealing secrets. In 1999, Hanssen signaled to the Russians that he was ready to trade again. But this time he was being watched. Operation Gray Suit was born and Eric O’Neill was recruited. 

ERIC O’NEILL: 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. He thought we were doing the job of cybersecurity, but my covert role was to gather information about Hanssen, determine whether he was the spy, Gray Suit, that we had been after for over two decades, and then once we determined that, find the means for the information to catch him in the act of espionage.

NARRATOR: The first Eric knew about his mission was early on a Sunday morning. His boss called and explained they needed to meet.

ERIC O’NEILL: I said: “I'll come down to the office and we can have a meeting.” It was not unusual for me to have to work on a Sunday. We work 24/7. We worked when our targets worked, and we slept when our targets slept. And that's how it was. But he said something that I'll never forget. He said: "You don't have to come downtown. I'm parked right outside."

NARRATOR: This doesn’t happen in the FBI. It doesn't happen anywhere, in fact. Imagine if your boss was parked outside your house at 8 am on a Sunday. What would be going through your head?

ERIC O’NEILL: 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?"

NARRATOR: He hadn’t. Which was what his boss was hoping because if Eric hadn’t heard of Hanssen, then Hanssen hadn’t heard of him.

ERIC O’NEILL: In that moment, I had no clue what I was getting into.

NARRATOR: It’s 2001. Google has been around for three years. Most civilians have Hotmail accounts, but inside FBI headquarters, it was still the early ‘90s. The FBI was, frankly, behind the curve. Amazingly many staff weren't using computers, hadn't been trained on computers, didn't really know what a computer could do much less understand how to protect the information that moved through their computer systems. They were still passing paper memos around the building and placing them in colleagues ‘in-trays’.

ERIC O’NEILL: I was one of the few people in the FBI, I think, that had both the parallel knowledge of how to turn a computer on and how to catch a spy. And so I worked perfectly for that position.

NARRATOR: And they needed someone who’d never come across Robert Hanssen. Eric O’Neill had - however - heard of Gray Suit. Of course.

ERIC O’NEILL: So everybody knew about this legendary spy named Gray Suit who the intelligence community believed had been the spy who had cost us every single asset - so, all of our spies working in Russia in the year 1984 and '85. He had almost become a mythological figure, like we were never going to catch him. So going into the case, I didn't realize that I was being put on someone that we thought was Gray Suit.

NARRATOR: Like the idea of working undercover for the FBI? Here’s the job description. 

ERIC O’NEILL: We had to learn all of the tradecraft of all of the spies who might operate in the United States so that we could determine whether they were targets, and to follow those targets and catch them in the act of espionage or terrorism when they went to do their bad act. We worked from the shadows. We were trained in all of the traditional clandestine techniques, disguises, how to use photography to capture a target from a long distance.

NARRATOR: Eric was just 22 years old when he joined.

ERIC O’NEILL: Now I couldn't be a special agent because, at the time I applied, I was three years short of the cutoff. You had to be 25 back then. But they liked my resume so they asked if I would choose a clandestine program called the Investigative Specialists that did not have that limit at the time.

NARRATOR: Another word for an investigative specialist - like Eric - is ‘a ghost’.

ERIC O’NEILL: I think that when people imagine a spy hunter, they're not thinking of an FBI special agent. They're thinking of a ghost.

NARRATOR: Think you might have a knack for ghosting? Here’s what it takes. First, you need to know your target.

ERIC O’NEILL: Whether they like coffee or tea, whether they're going to go into a fast-food restaurant, or they like high-end places. You need to know enough about them to know where they might go when you're following them.

NARRATOR: Second, you need to know your environment:

ERIC O’NEILL: Are you dressed correctly? You don't dress in jeans and a ratty T-shirt if you're downtown in the middle of corporate DC, but you might if you're walking across a college campus.

NARRATOR: And third, you need to know how to be gray.

ERIC O’NEILL: If you are gray, you are unseen. That doesn't mean that someone doesn't look, and you're standing there, and they don’t notice you. That means that when they notice you, their eyes just sort of slide right by because you're nondescript. You're non-threatening. You're non-interesting. You're non-memorable. That means that you have to have the right disguise, wear the right clothing, act a particular way, not look like someone that stands out. And that is a skill that is extremely hard to teach, so the best field operatives who move around, following a target on foot, have to know the art of being gray.

NARRATOR: Eric had been doing the job for just a year when he was forced out of the shadows and onto the ninth floor of the FBI headquarters. He was expected, for the first time, to play himself. It was a lonely task. He couldn’t tell his former colleagues or his wife what he was up to. The only person he could speak to about the case was his handler, special agent Kate Alleman. He reported to Alleman on a daily basis, but most of the time it was just Eric in a room with the enemy.

ERIC O’NEILL: The first time I met Hanssen was my first day on the job. Hanssen was already there. He wakes up early, he gets into the office early, and I think our first interaction, he just sort of looked at me and then went into his office. I went into his office later and fumbled through our first conversation. I think I asked him how he felt about the Redskins. It was an important season. And he looked at me and he said: "Football is a barbaric sport and the only people dumber than the players who play it are those who watch it." And I thought: "We are just not going to get along." But I continued to try to find a way to start a conversation because even though I hadn't been trained for this sort of direct undercover work, I did know that if you can't get your target talking, you can't learn anything. So my main job was to get him to start talking so he would make a mistake and inadvertently reveal information that would get all the analysts that were reading my surveillance logs happy. He finally looked at me in that first interaction, stopped my babbling, and said: "Do you know what it takes to be a counterintelligence agent?"

NARRATOR: And that’s when he told Eric about ‘Hanssen’s Law’.

ERIC O’NEILL: He said: "Hanssen's law is this. The spy is in the worst possible place. The spy is in that place where they have access to the information that is going to do the most damage, and there they have the knowledge and the wherewithal to take that information and sell it to the party that's going to use it against the United States and pay them the most money. And that is what we're here to do, Eric. We're here to catch that spy in the worst possible place." Now, to this day, I don't know whether he was challenging me or he was just trying to push me back on my heels and see how I reacted. But I've never forgotten those words.

NARRATOR: America’s most notorious spy has just thrown down the gauntlet: “Catch me if you can.” Robert Hanssen, then in his mid-fifties but looking at least a decade older, was tall and imposing. Like I said, a bully with a dour demeanor.

ERIC O’NEILL: Of course, that spy was going to be someone like Robert Hanssen. Someone who is nondescript, someone who no one likes, someone who no one suspects. Someone who they made fun of and called Dr Death and “the mortician” because he wore the same black suit every day.

NARRATOR: He was a cookie-cutter FBI agent but a master spy. Someone with a huge amount of intelligence and potential who got put in the back office when he had bigger ideas.

ERIC O’NEILL: His first dream was to join the FBI and be James Bond, and I don't say that to be trite or silly. He really was a Bond aficionado. He had the Walther PPK gun. He had the camera. He loved the movies. He could recite them chapter and verse. He wanted to live that James Bond lifestyle. He wanted to be a spy hunter. The problem was that, unlike James Bond, operationally, he was a total flub. He was poor at managing people or leading a team. He wasn't good at field operations, but he was a brilliant analyst. His mind worked like a computer. He could gather large amounts of information, synthesize it quickly into actionable intelligence and hand it off to the operational teams who would go out and make it so. He was made a top analyst for the FBI.

NARRATOR: Which by the way, in counterintelligence is the most important job.

ERIC O’NEILL: Field operatives like myself could not do what we did if the analysts didn't give us the most critical information that made us able to do what we do. Hanssen was made an analyst and this made him very angry. We're talking about a classic narcissist who thinks they should be above the station they're in, who isn't given the job they want. Now they're a disgruntled employee and you've just mixed two of the main ingredients for someone to betray, to become a trusted insider or a spy.

NARRATOR: There’s also, in most cases, a third ingredient: money.

ERIC O’NEILL: He had married up. He married a woman who came from a more wealthy family than his. They were having kids pretty quickly in a way that his salary didn't quite let him at that point. He had to have the house. He had to have the position. He had to portray himself as really successful. But he wasn't there yet. And most people just wait. We diligently work and we get there. But someone who's a spy finds a shortcut. And so he volunteered himself to the Russians in, I think, the third year he was in the FBI. That early in his career he betrayed.

NARRATOR: Hanssen knew that the best spies are nothing like James Bond; they manipulate information from the shadows, unnoticed and unknown. But then - unplanned - he found himself center stage in a new unit called ‘information assurance’. Today, it is better known as cybersecurity. Classified as a ‘sensitive information facility’ it allowed Eric and Hanssen to access and analyze top-secret information. There were just two rooms, the main pit area where Eric sat with the computers, and Hanssen’s office.

ERIC O’NEILL: And we could barely fit in there with Hanssen's ego. He had an immense amount of pride. He had an immense amount of hubris. He talked about his amazing accomplishments, some true and many he completely made up whole cloth, ad nauseum.

NARRATOR: However, the entire unit was a conceit. It was a trap laid to catch him and Robert Hanssen was on high alert.

ERIC O’NEILL: You have to understand, Robert Hanssen had been banished to the State Department to work a liaison job. That was really just what we call ‘parking’ someone until they retire And suddenly, at the very end of his career when he's about to retire and get his full pension, he's not only asked to extend his service - which is an extraordinary event in the FBI - he's asked to come and head a brand new division in the FBI to do exactly what he had been asking to do his whole career - work in computer security and build cybersecurity for the FBI. So of course he was suspicious, and he's locked in a room with no other staff but me. If this was, in fact, an investigation and not a real job, if he could get me to fail, if he could make me say something that I shouldn't or reveal something that I definitely shouldn't, then he could learn that he was under investigation and know he had to run.

NARRATOR: In the spy versus spy world, you walk a fine line between suspicion and paranoia.

ERIC O’NEILL: He couldn't be paranoid because that would mean that, well, everyone's out to get him. Of course, this is an investigation. Of course, he's going to be caught. But he had to be suspicious. That means that he's being wise. He's looking around him. He's watching his back. He's exploring all of the different avenues of attack he had to determine whether he was still gray or whether he was going to be in a lot of trouble.

NARRATOR: And his point of attack? That was Eric from day one.

ERIC O’NEILL: He threw a legal pad across the desk toward me and handed me a pen and told me that I would need to write down my bureau name, my social security number, and my address, and then my wife's name, her social security number. Then, while I'm at it, put down my parents. He might need that, just in case, and their address. That made me feel very exposed and very uncomfortable.

NARRATOR: Hanssen had to be the alpha male in the room and so he looked for every opportunity to assert his dominance over Eric, including answering his phone.

ERIC O’NEILL: I think that Juliana and I had just had a pretty big fight that morning, and I was upset. And, of course, I had to turn that off and switch back on my Eric O'Neill information assurance working for Robert Hanssen persona, right? So you had to take all of that anger and angst I had from this fight I just had with my wife, and bury it deep, and then go into the office and do my job. So I prepared myself. I walk into the office, and he's on the phone. Not just the phone, but he's on my phone, my personal desk phone. And I realized within a moment or two, he's smiling and laughing on the phone. He's talking to my wife, as he's saying: "Oh, well Juliana it's so nice to talk to you."

NARRATOR: Your aggressive, dismissive boss - who you suspect to be America’s Most Wanted - is on your personal phone flirting with your wife. Not only that, but you’ve been using your wife as an excuse to call your handler, special agent Kate Alleman. And now he knows your wife’s voice. How would you react?

ERIC O’NEILL: There's nothing you can do in that situation other than standing there with your hands at your side trying not to make fists and wait for it to be over. And I remember saying: "Why did you answer my phone?" And he said: "Well, it rang, so I picked it up. And I said ‘Eric O'Neill's phone'. Isn't that funny?" I later asked Juliana: "What was that like?” And she said: "He was really weird and creepy, and was asking me questions about what it was like to grow up in East Germany, and whether I spoke Russian, and he speaks a little Russian." It was this game of back and forth, and one of us was going to win and one of us was going to fail.

NARRATOR: To stem the bleeding of crucial state secrets, and to prevent any more of America’s assets from being burned, Eric’s tasks are twofold. Number one, don’t blow your cover. Hanssen cannot know the FBI is onto him. Number two, gain his trust.

ERIC O’NEILL: I realized that the more I could get him talking about himself the more mistakes he made because he was trying to spin lies. And that's how we started to learn information that he could never have known unless he was the spy who was stealing that information.

NARRATOR: Loose lips do sink ships after all.

ERIC O’NEILL: The first clue that we had that Hanssen was the spy we were after - that he actually was Gray Suit - was when he started talking, boasting really, about how the FBI fails at the last minute because they're not able to rapidly make decisions and act. And so I said: "Well what do you mean by that? Can you give me an explanation?" And he sort of rolled his eyes back, thought about it for a minute, and said there was this case about a spy named Felix Bloch and the FBI had everything they needed to move in on the Russian spy and to catch Bloch. And, at the last minute, there was a phone call and Bloch was warned off and they ended up catching Bloch, but for nothing that they could have got them for. And the evidence was in a duffel bag. So, as he was talking about this case, he knew all these details about the case that no one knew. So, when I told all of this to the team of analysts who were scrutinizing every word, they determined that the only way he could have known these very intimate details about the Felix Bloch case was if he had been the one who had tipped the Russians that we were moving in to make these arrests.

NARRATOR: It’s becoming clear that Hanssen is the spy they’ve spent decades searching for. But now they need proof. They need to catch him in the act of espionage. Eric is asked to create a diversion so the team can search Hanssen’s car for evidence.

ERIC O’NEILL: Right. That should be pretty easy. Part of what we were doing in the information assurance section was visiting other agencies that had already had information assurance. Learning from them and then using that knowledge to build cybersecurity for the FBI. And he loved this. We were getting to go to all these other agencies and learn how they protect their data. If you're a spy, especially if you're the nation's first cyber spy, that's a really awesome thing to get to do.

NARRATOR: So he makes an appointment to meet with the head of information assurance at the Defense Intelligence Agency and asks a colleague to reserve a company car for the occasion. One of the FBI’s Tahoes, a big black SUV.

ERIC O’NEILL: He said: "Okay, it's going to be on the first level of the sub-basement parking and in slot whatever." And I said: "Okay, great." And just sort of check that off. All I have to do is get him out of the building. We go down to the basement and the car is not there. It's just what we call Murphy's Law. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. So plan for it. I hadn't planned for it. All I had to do was, over lunch, walk downstairs, and make sure the car was there with the keys sitting on the dashboard, and all would be good.

NARRATOR: But he didn’t and there’s no car.

ERIC O’NEILL: So we're wandering around the parking lot and he looks at me and he says: "Look, it's fine. We'll just take my car." And I was paralyzed for a moment because taking his car was literally the worst thing that could happen. And I said: "Well, I'm sorry. It might be one level down. Can we just go down one level and I'm sure it's going to be there. I must've gotten the parking space wrong." And he looks disgusted, but he begrudgingly agrees. And we walk down a stairwell, down one more level. Now he's getting angrier and the car is not there. And I said: "Well, maybe it's just one more level. Could we just try maybe back there?" And he looks at me and he says: "That's enough Eric. We're wasting our time. We're going to be late. We'll take my car." And he pulls out his keys.

NARRATOR: All you had to do was get him away from the building for the day and you’ve blown it. Not only can the team no longer search the car, but you're in danger of tipping a suspicious man over the edge. Your whole career’s riding on this. Can you turn a disaster into an opportunity?

ERIC O’NEILL: I remembered Kate, who is my handler, telling me: “If you ever get a chance, make him angry.” And I looked at her at that point like: “Are you crazy? He's got a temper and he's armed. Are you sure you want me to do that? That could escalate.” And she said: "Look, we’ve got to know how he'll act if we get into an arrest situation. So look, if you're in a controlled environment and you get a chance to do it, do it." And so I shrugged my shoulders that moment and I said: "Well, okay, I can't get that car search, but I can make him angry because he's already pretty pissed off." So he's walking toward his car and I said: "Hey, wait.” And he stops and turns around and I said: "We're not going to take your car." And he looked at me and he said: "What?" And I said: "Yeah, we're not taking your car. I'm not showing up at the DIA in your ugly beat-up old silver Ford Taurus that you should have replaced years ago. That's embarrassing. We're going to walk around this garage until we find that Tahoe and we're going to arrive the way we're supposed to arrive." And he was poleaxed. He was stunned. He didn't say anything. His mouth just sort of moved. And then slowly his shoulders hunched and his frown turned into a scowl and his eyes narrowed. And I realized I was in trouble. And in seconds he crossed the parking lot. He had me by the lapels of my suit. He's lifting me up on my toes and he's spitting, screaming in my face, yelling at me. “Why do you insist that we not take my car? Why do you insist that we waste our time wandering around this empty parking lot looking for a car that isn't there?” And I realized that: “Hey, I can check that box, I made him angry. He overreacts when he gets angry but we can add that to a psych profile.”

NARRATOR: Which is all very useful but hardly going to help Eric in his current situation. He’s in trouble. How would you wriggle out of this one?

ERIC O’NEILL: I did what you do to any narcissist or person with a huge ego. I placate him. I kind of just put my hands up and I said: "Hey boss. Whoa. Relax. It's not about your car and it's not about you. It's about how we present you to the DIA. You're a supervisory special agent. You're a section chief. We can't show up in your personal vehicle. We need to show up in one of the big black SUVs with me driving because that's how important you are." And he looks at me a little skeptical and then the corner of his mouth kind of ticks up into a smile and he lets me down off my toes and he says: "All right Eric, well I understand, but we're out of time, so we'll just take my car."

NARRATOR: Nice move agent O’Neill. Use your social engineering skills. It’s what you’ve been trained for after all. Eric O'Neill may have been a relative newbie in the FBI but the desire to serve his country was in his DNA.

ERIC O’NEILL: I was Navy-bound from the moment I was born. I was born into a Navy hospital. And my father and his father and countless uncles and relatives, all were Naval officers. I chose at the very last minute not to go to the Naval Academy. And I think that is one of the reasons that I leapt into the FBI. I have always been fascinated with espionage, with the cloak-and-dagger world of spies. I think at a very young age, I gravitated toward that sort of career. I knew that I wanted to serve my country.

NARRATOR: But who could imagine that at the age of just 22 he would be working undercover on a case that would define his career and seriously jeopardize his marriage?

ERIC O’NEILL: At the time I was in the Hanssen investigation, I wasn't only working for the FBI. I was going to school at night at George Washington University Law School. So I worked in a high-stress job, against the most damaging spy in US history, and then I had to go to law school and try to get good grades. And I was getting no sleep, which meant that I wasn't a very nice person when I was home. And that's part of what happens in undercover work. It's like being an actor. You have to play that role. I was a good employee. I did my job. I didn't really grumble and complain that often. And you hold in all the stress and all the angst inside, and you tend to let it out when you feel safe. And, unfortunately, that's when you're home. And so I wasn't the best husband I could be.

NARRATOR: Compartmentalizing his life and keeping secrets from everyone, this intensified when Eric realized just how important the case was.

ERIC O’NEILL: I had to type up these surveillance logs every single night and hand them in. And at one point, I sat with Kate and I looked at her, and I said: "What is the point of these? Is anyone even reading them?" And she looked at me and said: "Yes, the director reads them every morning."

NARRATOR: That’s the then-director of the FBI - the head honcho - Louis Freeh. No pressure Eric.

ERIC O’NEILL: She said: "He's the case agent. He is running the case himself." Now that was shocking. That meant that this was the most important case that the FBI was running at that time. And I would later learn, of course, that it was the most important case we have ever run. It suddenly became real and I knew that I had to catch him. I had to win.

NARRATOR: But, to do that, he has to flip the narrative. He has to take control and turn his adversary into his friend.

ERIC O’NEILL: In the beginning, he was very brash. He was quick to anger. He could also call me all sorts of different names. His favorites were ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’. And I just took it. And slowly, I showed him that I understood computer systems. I understood computer security. We're both Catholic, which was another connection. One of the reasons I was recruited was for my faith. Now, no one told me that until much later. No one could tell me that, because you're not supposed to, especially in government, merge the religious with the political. But here I was recruited for the faith. I didn't know it. I learned it during the case. And I didn't feel comfortable using it in order to win this case but that's what undercover work does to you.

NARRATOR: Almost nothing is sacred in spy hunting. You have to gain respect. You have to win trust. You have to outplay the player. If faith is your edge, you’ve got to use it, which is how Eric found himself one lunchtime in church, kneeling next to a master spy.

ERIC O’NEILL: He was scrutinizing me as we prayed the Lord's Prayer - the ‘Our Father’ - and I knew, as I was saying it, if I made one little mistake, then there would be a problem. So, I was remembering Sister Rose from kindergarten chastising me for getting it wrong and saying: "Well thank you for that because I got it right. And that helped me catch a spy."

NARRATOR: He’s done it. He’s in the inner circle. They’re now swapping stories about faith and marriage. Hanssen begins to let down his guard and Eric starts to ramp up his espionage. He takes a risk and searches Hanssen’s bag when he’s out of the office. He finds a passport, financial statements, a computer disk, and a cellphone he hadn’t seen before. On the disk are two letters to the Russians. It’s enough for them to know that a drop is imminent and that the information detailing it is on Hanssen’s PalmPilot - a device, Eric notes, he talks about more than his wife or children. Eric has to steal it.

ERIC O’NEILL: It was a Palm IIIx, and he kept this thing in his left back pocket. That's important because it was way too big to put in a back pocket. It would distend the back pocket. When he pulled it out of his pocket, his pocket would kind of sag like an old balloon. And when he sat down, he'd have to pull it out or he'd hurt himself. So every time he sat down, like clockwork, he would pull this device out of his back pocket and he would reach down to the left of his desk without even looking - he'd done it so many times - and slide it into a pocket of his bag. And he kept his bag right in that same spot every day. He would come in the morning. He'd put his bag there. He would hang up his coat. He would sit down at his desk. He would pull out his PalmPilot. He would put it in his bag. Over and over. And when you're undercover and your job is to catch a spy, one of the big parts of that job is observation. Watching for the clues, watching for those things that might lead you to the evidence or that information that's going to help you catch them.

NARRATOR: We all have our little routines. They can be as simple as placing your car keys in a specific place so you know where they are when it’s time to leave. You put them on that special hook when you get home, and when you're leaving to go to work the next morning you know exactly where to find them. We have these routines to protect things that we don't want to lose, that we don't want someone to steal.

ERIC O’NEILL: And so I started asking him about the PalmPilot. I was intrigued by it, like: "Why is it so special to you?" And he looked at me and he said: "Look, you'd never understand. You wouldn't understand. This sort of device is what can mean the difference between an executive and someone who's never going to achieve anything because it is the way you organize your life. These devices are magnificent." And he pulled out his and he said: "I've written the encryption on this myself. These idiots at the FBI could never crack it on their best day." 

And now I knew we had to get that away from him because not only did he have routines to protect it, he also had encrypted the contents. The problem is that he always had it on him. It was never out of his sight, so we had to trick him. We had to social-engineer Hanssen. We had to hack him and get him to be away from that device long enough for us to take it, copy it, and get it back before he knew it was gone.

NARRATOR: It’s a classic spy operation. You know the evidence you need. You have to get it away and copy it then have it back before the spy notices it's gone. You’re going to have to use everything you’ve learned about him, against him. He's a narcissist. He dislikes authority. He doesn't like to be interrupted or challenged. He doesn't like certain people at the FBI. He feels that he should have been higher in his career than he was, and you also know he really likes to shoot guns. Now, what’s your plan?

ERIC O’NEILL: We read an assistant director that he specifically didn't like into the case, told him Hanssen is a spy that we're after. We're investigating him for espionage. We just need you to do one little thing. Walk into his office, slap $20 on this desk and challenge him to go shoot and not let him say no. And that's exactly what happened. I waited until we were sitting down at his desk. I, clandestinely, where Hanssen couldn't see under the desk, sent a quick page to an asset I had telling them: "He's sitting down. Let's go."

NARRATOR: And it worked beautifully.

ERIC O’NEILL: The assistant director slapped $20 on his desk. "I bet you this $20, five targets out of five, I beat you." And Hanssen looked at the money and looked at him and thought about it, but then said: "No, now's not a good time." I could tell he was very agitated but, of course, he can't yell at his boss. And the assistant director leans over his desk and looks at him and says: "I don't think you understand. This wasn't a request." Now Hanssen's angry. And when you're angry, you make mistakes And so he gets angry and he stands up abruptly and he reaches for his gun and holsters it and he grabs his ear protection and eye protection he's going to need down at the range. And for the first time, he forgets to reach down and grab that PalmPilot and he ambles off after them. And I wait. I just sat there and I waited and waited. And finally, I get a page from the asset that I have sitting down in that shooting range. So, I get a text and he says: "In pocket shooting." And I go into the bag and I find the PalmPilot and a floppy disk and a data card.

NARRATOR: And he takes all three and runs.

ERIC O’NEILL: Down three flights of steps and I handed them off to a tech team. They analyze the devices and they say: "Yep, it's all encrypted, but we can break the encryption later. We'll just copy it all one-to-one now so you can get it back in the bag." I'm really antsy and they're starting to do the work and it's slowly moving. And, as this is happening, I get another page. "I don't know what happened. Out of pocket. Probably coming to you.”

NARRATOR: He’s been down there all of 10 minutes and now he’s on his way back up. It later turned out that Hanssen got to the shooting range, loaded one target, sent it down the rail, fired off five rounds, paused, holstered his weapon, pulled the target back, and then turned around and left. But this time, Eric is prepared. He’s timed how long it takes to get back from the shooting range to their office.

ERIC O’NEILL: About nine minutes.

NARRATOR: But by the time the team is done with the PalmPilot he has just two minutes to get it back into the pocket of Hanssen’s bag.

ERIC O’NEILL: They handed it to me and they said: "Run." So I ran up three flights of steps. I barge into the main pit area of the office. I slam the big door behind me. And I go into his separate office and I kneel down in front of his bag, and I'm feeling really good like I just won. I did it. This operation was perfectly planned and executed and we're going to catch this spy. And I look at his bag and I realize that there are four pockets. They're all completely similar and they all look the same. And I've opened all four and I have three devices and I have no clue which pocket it went into.

NARRATOR: Tick-tock. Tick-tock. This is your James Bond moment. You’ve now got less than a minute before he comes through that door and finds you. You’ve got three items and four pockets. And you can’t remember where they go. Do you hang around to wait for the aftermath of your failure or run?

ERIC O’NEILL: And at that moment, all I could think of was that he was that meticulous and fastidious that if I didn't get this perfectly right, not only just right... I was thinking the floppy disk was leaning against the PalmPilot and they were in one pocket together, but the data card was in a totally different pocket. He knew that level of detail, and I'm trying to search back through my mind or self-hypnotize and just remember. I'm really, really stressed. My heart is slamming in my chest and I hear him coming through the big outer door and I just shook my head and dropped them all, best guess. Zipped up all four pockets, ran back to my desk and put the best poker face I have literally ever had in my life right there, and just waited. And I knew I was doomed. 

And he comes through the door, he sweeps through the office, glares at me, goes into his office, and slams the door so hard that the pictures on the wall rattle and I was just thinking to myself: "Why am I still sitting here? I am so dead." He had blood on his hands for our spies who were murdered in Russia when he turned them in. He was the kind of person that could possibly walk out and know: “Game's over, this is the guy who betrayed me. This is the person who has just ruined my life and I'm going to ruin his.” 

That was the thing running through my head and I thought: “He's going to shoot me.” And he comes out of the office, he leans over my desk and looks right at me, inches from my face, and he says: "Were you in my office?" And I just, cool as a cucumber, shrug my shoulders, looked at him, and said: "Yeah, I was in there. I put a memo in your inbox. Didn't you see it?" And he looks at me, and he just glares at me, and then finally, he stands back up and he says: "I never want you in my office again." He grabs his coat and his bag and he leaves for the day. And three days later, he made his final drop to the Russians and that's when we caught him.

NARRATOR: When the FBI finally brought Hanssen in, on Sunday, February 18, 2001, he asked them: “What took you so long?” In March 2002, Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty to multiple counts of espionage. In exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, he agreed to cooperate truthfully and fully during intelligence community debriefs and to provide the FBI with all information regarding his criminal activity and espionage. He has never explained why he did it, or why he carried on for so many years when he no longer needed the money. But Eric O’Neill thinks he knows why.

ERIC O’NEILL: He loved it. It was the thing that made him feel like he belonged to something bigger than him. It was the thing that made him feel that he was the best at something in the world. No one was better. And he knew that it was going to make him immortal, and it did.

NARRATOR: It made Eric’s career too. 

ERIC O’NEILL: Working with him for those months, directly under him and learning from him, and all his theories about counterintelligence and spy hunting, taught me to be a better spy hunter. And, in fact, gave me the tools I needed in order to beat him at his own game. I learned to catch Robert Hanssen from Robert Hanssen. It was a master's class in espionage and made me a better spy hunter.

NARRATOR: So there we have it. A master class in espionage from America’s most notorious spy. Oh, and by the way, Eric did his job so well that Robert Hanssen left a special message for the Russians in his final drop.

ERIC O’NEILL: One of the things that I'm told he put in there was my name and my phone number and my information, and telling the Russians that because this was going to be his last drop and he was going to retire, that I would be a perfect person to recruit.

NARRATOR: I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another conversation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Eric O'Neill is a SPYEX consultant and former FBI counter-terrorism operative who worked as an investigative specialist. He played a major role in the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of FBI agent Robert Hanssen for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union and Russia.

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