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Catching Double Agent Robert Hanssen

Monday, October 17, 2011
Marymount graduate Forensic Psychology students were recently treated to an insider’s perspective by Eric O’Neill, former investigative specialist with the FBI’s Special Surveillance Group. O’Neill’s story inspired the movie “Breach” about the capture of Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviets/Russians for over 22 years while holding important positions with the FBI.

After students viewed the film, O’Neill outlined his actual role and provided insight into Hanssen’s complex personality. While Hanssen’s defense team said he suffered from psychosis, O’Neill disagreed. “He was clearly aware of what he was doing,” O’Neill explained. “Hanssen wasn’t approached by the Russians; he volunteered himself. He wanted to be the best spy and thought he was superior to everyone.” A psychopath has no remorse, no conscience. However, O’Neill said, “Hanssen felt tortured. He was an ardent Catholic, and his two sides were at war.”

O’Neill was chosen to be Hanssen’s assistant because of his computer skills and his Catholic faith. Hanssen saw himself in O’Neill. Also, O’Neill was in law school at the time, as was Hanssen’s son. Unlike his character in the movie, O’Neill did know going in that Hanssen was a spy. Even the Russians didn’t know who Hanssen was; he used the name “Ramon Garcia.” However, a Russian defector had handed over a tape with Hanssen’s voice on it, and the FBI had a trash bag from an old drop.

The FBI needed to catch Hanssen in the act to have leverage to get him to talk. To accomplish this, O’Neill had to obtain the drop site and date from Hanssen’s palm pilot, which he always carried. O’Neill joked, “Ryan Phillippe, the actor who played me, got it on the first try. It took me five or six tries!” He added, “Pride was Hanssen’s downfall.” A superior challenged him to a shooting contest with a bet, and Hanssen broke his routine, going out without the palm pilot.

O’Neill’s last words to Hanssen before he was caught making the drop in a local park were, “Catch you later, boss.” To avoid the death penalty, Hanssen did talk and plead guilty to 15 counts of espionage. He is serving a life sentence under maximum security conditions.

After earning his J.D. and leaving the FBI, O’Neill first joined DLA Piper US LLP as a senior associate, and then worked as General Counsel for CHF International, a global humanitarian relief organization. In 2009, he founded The Georgetown Group, an investigative and risk management company.
PHOTO 1 – Eric O’Neill
PHOTO 2 – Eric O’Neill with MU graduate Forensic Psychology students (left to right) Sasha Feldman, Danielle Huntley, and Holly Schreck