'Breach': Secrets and Double Lives


He's known as the most damaging spy in U.S. history. Over three decades, Robert Hanssen sold some of the nation's most sensitive secrets, first to the Soviets, then to the Russians.

Critical details about U.S. strategies for nuclear war and the identities of American spies in Russia became commodities for Hanssen -- ones he exchanged with the Russians for diamonds and cash worth more than $600,000. The barter made Hanssen rich a man, it also sent American spies working in Russia to labor camps or early deaths.

The FBI sent a rookie, a 27-year-old who wasn't even a full agent, to get inside Hanssen's head. The bureau asked Eric O'Neill to perform this huge job in true undercover fashion. His supervisor called him at home, waited for him in a car outside, and asked him to step outside his comfort zone as a surveillance expert and get up close and personal with Hanssen.

"I was used to following targets, ghosting them with cameras, telephoto lens, you know, back in traffic," O'Neill said. "The kind of things where I wasn't seen and if I was, I was probably wearing a disguise."

Now, Hollywood has taken it's turn dramatizing the story in Universal Pictures' new film "Breach."

The real story is pretty dramatic, full of secrets and double lives. But Hanssen wasn't the only one who needed to lead a double life. O'Neill had to be one person at home, and another at the office.

Even knowing that his office mate made shady deals that caused American deaths, he had to keep his cool. O'Neill recalls how "it went through my mind every time I walked in that room, I'm pretending I'm the other Eric now."

The tension between O'Neill and Hanssen built up over the course of the investigation. But did Hollywood add some extra drama, or was it just right? ABC's Pierre Thomas sat down with Eric O'Neill (portrayed by Ryan Phillippe in "Breach") to get his take on the film's depiction of events.

Racing Against a Spy

Pierre Thomas: What's happening here?

Eric O'Neill: Well, he's just taken the palm pilot, downloaded the information, put the palm pilot back, and he thinks, wrong pocket. And he has to run to change the pocket before Hanssen comes back in the room.

PT: So you had a fear that you had it in the wrong pocket?

EO: Yeah, right here is thinking which pocket did I pull it out of. I unzipped all four pockets and, oh my God, I've gotten back, is it this one or this one, just a stupid novice rookie mistake, I should have put a sticky note on the right one, or at least only left one unzipped. [Is this as tense as it seems?] Yes. This was certainly as tense as it was in real life. Now the difference here, of course, is Hanssen comes into the room and I haven't had time to get to my desk. In real life, I had run to my desk, but I think that Billy Ray wanted to insert my using religion against Hanssen now.

PT: This is a critical moment in the movie, is it not?

EO: Yeah. This was one of the biggest scenes in the movie.

PT: And one of the most important parts of the case, right?

EO: In the case, this was what broke the case. Taking this guy's palm pilot was really what led us to know this was the spy and to know where we had to be ahead of him and catch him.

PT: Now, they took a little bit of dramatic license here, right? Because how'd you get him out in real life?

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