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?
EO: Certainly, in real life, we didn't do the, the picture wasn't part of it. It was actual shooting. His superiors came in and said, "you're gonna go shooting with us," and didn't give him a chance and he went after them very disgruntled. Now, here of course, Ryan's being very clever and I dump water in order to get him to just go and hurry and get him frazzled so he doesn't take the palm pilot with him.
PT: Now, again, it's dramatic here, but it's just as tense, right?
EO: Yes. Certainly, I mean the tension is exactly the same. We needed this guy to leave the office without his palm pilot and whatever we could do to do it, because we needed to take that palm pilot and copy the thing and get it back before he came back.
PT: And when he said, "don't you knock?" did he have that sort of superior attitude?
EO: He had a very abrupt, right, it could be very terse in the way he spoke to you. And, so that's certainly true to life. And, I mean, it was just the way he looked at you sometimes, too, it was like he was peeling away everything you were trying to put up to hide who you were from him.
PT: At some point, you get the signal, he's gone, he's in place, go to work.
EO: Right. He comes down. Now, in real life, he was down in the firing range and someone pages me. Here, they use the 25-year photo as part of it. And, the idea was, Billy was trying to show, was trying to heighten the fact that it wasn't just me in this investigation. There were a lot of other people working on it. I just happened to be the guy in the room with him. So, here, there are a couple of elements in the chain of keeping him away from that office.
PT: Now, is it specific, did they send you a page saying ...?
EO: Yes. That he's in pocket and it's go time. Go get the palm pilot, take it, and get it copied. Now of course, I got the page that said he's out of pocket which just incredibly increased my anxiety because I needed to get that thing back in the bag before he got there, so I had to beat him back into the office.
PT: But, one key difference here is, you had a long way to go right? You're running back to your office here ...
EO: And here, I'm just running back to my office. It was more tense in real life because I had to run down two flights of steps. I think the idea behind this was to make me do more. Instead of going down to a tech team, just cut that out and have it happen in my office where I'm doing the downloading. In real life, I took it to a tech team, handed it to Kate who handed it to a tech team, and they downloaded the whole thing in a hidden room in headquarters.
PT: Now, were you like hurry up, hurry up?
EO: I was, I was knocking on the door, I was like, "come on guys, come on, I got the page, he's on his way back to the office now." And they were like, "hold on just a little bit longer." I'm like, "we don't have that time. You don't understand. I've gotta get this thing back in there." And, it was up to the last minute when I finally got that thing back in my hands and Kate just looked at me and goes, "run, run, run, go!" And I just ran up the stairs as fast as I could.
PT: And he walks back in, you're at your desk. What kind of look does he give you? I know this scene is extended.
EO: He almost gave me a, just looking at me, as if, "is something else going on?" You know. And I just, "hey, how's it going? Did you win? Did you shoot better than those guys?" And he just grumbled and stormed into his office and slammed the door.
PT: Because he didn't like the fact that people were telling him what to do?
PT: And they had forced him, basically.
EO: And they forced them down there. And to him, it was his superior saying, "you're gonna shoot with me." And him saying, "today's not a good day, I don't really want to." And his superior saying, "no I don't think you understand, you are going to go shoot with me." This wasn't a request. So here, here in the movie, it's great, it's played down. It looks like I've just done a great job, I get up, move the water thing a little bit, everything's just right, did a great job, and then the moment of realization, wrong pocket. As this guy's walking in the door.
PT: That really happened?
EO: It's that thought that, "oh, my God, it's in the wrong pocket, what do I do?" and he's happy and I feel like I've done a great job and then you hit that moment right there, and Ryan does it so well. The, oh God. I mean, that's just so great. And running back, and this is what it was like for me, right there, just this desperate sense of "did it look right here, was it here, what do I do?"
PT: In the real time, you didn't have enough time to go back in there?
EO: No. I mean, I just, this was the moment before Hanssen came in the door where I'm putting it in the bag -- you can hear the door every time someone keys in and I just had to drop it and zip up and get away from the bag.
Art Imitating Life
PT: I gotta ask. Ryan Phillipe. Good you?
EO: Excellent. The guy is great. We've become friends through this process. And, you put a certain level of trust in someone who portrays you in a movie and I felt like that trust that I put in Ryan was completely justified.
PT: How heady is it to have yourself immortalized on celluloid?
EO: It's pretty amazing. And, having someone of Ryan's caliber playing me and sort of he's portraying my face to the world in a sense, and it's incredibly flattering.
"You Just Play It Off"
PT: Now, did he actually come out and ask you, "have you been in my bag?"
EO: Yes. He asked me, "have you been in my office? You messed with my bag?" And I just looked at him and said, "No. What are you talking about? No. I don't go in your office." You just play it off. Unless he can prove it and the only way he could have done that is if I had put it in the wrong pocket. And it turns out I got it in the right pocket. I was very lucky in that sense. But, I [would've] been in a lot of trouble if I'd gotten it in the wrong pocket.
PT: And again. You feel he was capable of killing someone?
EO: I think at that moment he could have come out and shot me. I mean, the sense of betrayal would have been incredibly high and the feeling that "I've lost," you know, and it's all over, anyway. And oh, "I'm in a sound proof room. I just shut the door and then nobody knows." So, there's that moment that you just play it off. What? Everything's fine. So, yeah, there was that level of danger working with Hanssen. I mean, he had killed people in Russia. He had given up the names of people, knowing that the KGB would terminate them. So there was certainly that level of danger.
Hitting Close to Home
PT: Just having watched it, you seem to be a little bit on edge.
EO: Right. I'm leaning forward. That scene brings me back to [the] moment. I mean, watching Ryan going through the same thing I went through, I mean, he does it so well. Every time I watch that scene, I'm brought back to that tense feeling of "oh my God, I've screwed everything up" that I felt with that palm pilot in my hand.
PT: So, did this happen?
EO: This did not happen. Hanssen never pulled a gun out and shot at me.
PT: But why do you think it was a good thing to do in the movie, though?
EO: Well, I think just as a dramatic scene and to put the actors in this intense crazy situation just makes for great drama. It also really portrays in a very in-your-face, easy for the audience to understand way, the terrible tension between Hanssen and myself and what was going on with me. I mean, obviously, that clip is right out here and these things were internalized for me but it's a great way to just show where I was in my head at least when this guy was putting such enormous pressure on me. I would have loved to have a moment in that case where I could have screamed at him and loaded at him as Ryan is right there. It's almost satisfying to watch, watch Ryan there just yelling at Chris Cooper playing Hanssen.
PT: What do you think would have happened if you had yelled at him?
EO: I think he would not have missed with that last shot. Of course, here he's out of bullets and in the context of this it makes sense and there's just a great line here where I tell Hanssen "you know, you don't matter. You're just not important. Yeah, you've got this great ego and we've been playing to this all along but in this moment right now, in this time in our sense of where we've come together, you just don't matter. You're not that important." And, that drives him, that drives him, I think, to make that last drop.