Technology’s pace is showing no signs of slowing down and everything around it is starting to trail behind. Eric O’Neill, the man who captured the most notorious spies in the history of America believes that cyber technology has pushed the evolution of spies, in a way that they have become hackers who steal information. But, cyber security agencies are working overtime to counter these cyber spies. One good side of this evolution is that Eric is now a public personality who tells good stories with essential themes that provide impact to the lives of his audience. He shares the remarkable events that happened when he was a spy and where his passion has taken him now.
We’ve got Eric O’Neill. You probably don’t realize it, but you have probably seen his story because he was the one they made the movie Breach, with Ryan Philippe and Chris Cooper, about the most notorious spy in US history. He’s the FBI agent who caught the guy. He does different things now. He left the FBI, he’s a speaker, and he’s an author. He’s going to share some of the remarkable true events that happened with that and what he’s doing.
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Evolution Of Spies Into Criminals Of Cyberspace with Eric O’Neill
I am with Eric O’Neill who, in 2001,helped capture the most notorious spy in United States history, Robert Hanssen. A 25-year veteran of the FBI, the remarkable true events of his life are an inspiration behind the critically acclaimed dramatic thriller Breach, starring Ryan Philippe as O’Neill. The film is set inside the FBI, the gatekeeper of the nation’s most sensitive and potentially volatile secrets. It is the story of the greatest security breach in US history. What’s most interesting is that you’re here to talk about that.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me on the show.
I’m curious if everybody asks you the “four things about yourself, one’s not true” thing that they ask at the beginning of the movie. Is that something that people always follow you with on your interviews?
People do come up to me after I speak. I’m a prolific public speaker, and they’ll come up and occasionally someone will blindside me with that question. “Give me four things and tell me one true.” Sometimes it takes me a bit to figure out where that’s coming from, but I remember that from the movie and it was a really great scene, and it was all true. I worked with Billy Ray and he said, “You got to give me four things, one of them true.” Those were the three that I gave him. People know a lot about me from watching that movie. I’m in the situation where I used to be a top undercover asset for the FBI and nobody knew anything about me, including most people in the FBI. Now, I have this public life that still fits a like a scratchy shirt, where anyone who walks up to me knows infinitely more about me than I know about them. It is still quite strange.
You’ve been on what Nightline, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Fox News, Chris Wallace, CNN, C-Span, Washington Journal and NPR. This was quite a story, and I liked the movie when I first saw it. When I realized you were going to be on the show, I’m like, “I got to watch that again” because it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Was that guy as weird as he was portrayed in the movie? Was it an accurate representation?
I don’t believe he’s ever seen the movie. I don’t think he can watch any video, anything more than a paperback book where he is in maximum penitentiary. He would be flattered by Chris Cooper’s portrayal. Chris made him look good. He was a very smart person, clearly a genius in his ideas behind technology, cyber security in particular, and his ability to manipulate computer systems. What the FBI didn’t realize to their detriment was Hanssen was a hacker, one of our first, and he was able to use his skills to exploit the FBI and steal from it from within. On the other side, he was quirky, he was weird, and he was not well liked within the FBI. That caused some problems, but it was apparently not enough for his peers to trigger a review of his actions that may have caught him earlier.
You decide to leave the FBI after that. Do you ever have regret that you left or was it the right decision?
My father was in the Navy. He went to the Naval Academy. His first job was one of the first nuclear submarines. He was recruited by the Admiral at that point for that program. He served two tours on the nuclear submarines, which wasn’t all that long. When you’re underwater for most of the time, you don’t have to do too much, and he got right out and he went to law school. That man still thinks he’s in the Navy. You create those bonds, you create that formative association with an organization that’s so much bigger than you and lives and breathes around you.
I feel the same way in some aspects. I feel like I’ve never left the FBI. I still think in terms of my training. Part of it is I continually talk about this. People are fascinated by the secret world that I was a part of; this investigation that was one of the most critical and important investigations in recent history that I was in the middle of. The more I talk about it, it’s easy to forget that I’m not in the FBI anymore. I don’t have a badge anymore. I’m a regular person like everyone else. I have had other people associated with the FBI on my show. Chris Voss used to be an FBI profile.
It’s interesting to see how you guys weave what you’ve learned into what you do as you’re speaking. I was watching some of your talks where you were talking about how many identities are stolen and fingerprint metrics that are out there and our backgrounds. There’s so much content out there that they keep on you, even in the FBI. On your background of your experience, do you worry about people hacking and getting your identity information? Is this something that concerns you?
It concerns me more that it’s already in the hands of Chinese spies. You might recall that some years ago, our Office of Personnel Management, the OPM, which is in some sense is the HR for the government, was attacked by Chinese spies who breached the system multiple times and were able to extract millions of records, including biometric records and background investigation files for government employees including FBI employees, including my information. I speak to a lot of former government and current government people, and I always like to hold up my OPM letter and ask, “How many of you got the same letter?” You’ll see a forest of hands raised. That’s very concerning.
There are two aspects to this identity theft. One, the criminal steals your personally identifiable information, your birth date, your social security number, your address, and everything they can use to open up a fraudulent credit card. They try and get your birth certificate from the state you were born in and create an entire fake identity, get you driver’s license, your name, and commit a crime and you don’t know it until you’re arrested, or file a fraudulent tax return, which everyone should be very careful of this year. Those are the criminal element to this.
On the other hand, spies can use that information. If you have the information of government employees that are FBI employees, you can use that to do a number of things. One, you can use that to exploit them, to find people who might go corrupt, become trusted insiders like Hanssen, and help you. If you have their backgrounds, you can also use it to find out the foreign contacts that they met with or had to reveal. In the case of people who work undercover or working in intelligence for the FBI, those foreign contacts might have been Chinese nationals. China stole that information from us and might be able to link that up to some of our spies, which can cause significant damage.
You don’t think this goes on when you’re living in the regular everyday world? You’ve seen behind the curtain, and you can’t unsee what you have seen. You use a lot of stories when you talk on stage. Do you get a lot of them from your experience? What if we haven’t had your exciting life of the FBI? How do we learn to share interesting stories?
I often talk to people about this. I’m a particular public speaker. I’ve started to categorize speakers as I watched more and more speakers. You have your standard PowerPoint, statistics type speakers, which bore me to tears and I decided a long time ago I never want to be. For that reason, I got away from PowerPoint. I don’t use PowerPoint when I speak, I don’t use props. I stand up on a stage with the lapel ear, no notes. I walk around a lot. I’m pacing as I’m talking to you because I never can stand still. I’ve got a lot of energy in the way I tell stories. The important thing is you have to tell good stories and they have to connect together into a central theme that provides an impact to your audience.
Your audience has to be entertained by your stories, but also walk away from your keynote feeling that they’ve learned something, feeling that their lives have been impacted, and feeling like there is something that they want to do that will make a change for them for the better. That doesn’t mean that you’re always a motivational speaker, I tend to speak more about espionage and cyber security because that’s where the need is, but I make people leave and think about security in new and innovative ways. Hopefully, I can do my part to improve our security, especially in our country, from the overwhelming number of cyber-attacks.
There’s so much that we have to worry about now. Do you have any concern about children, the next generation? Are we going to get any better at protecting ourselves or is it getting harder?
It’s getting harder. The reason that it’s getting harder is because technology is a double-edged sword, particularly in the sense that the younger generation has fully embraced social media in a way that my generation and my parents’ generation certainly has not. When you grow up in that situation, you are always connected. You’re never apart. If you have a phone, then no matter where you are, you can talk to anyone in the entire world if you know them or not. Your information is out there. I think of this in terms of someone who conducts background investigations. I have a company called the Georgetown Group; we do that.
The first place I always look, and this might be a CEO that a client is looking to hire, is in their social media accounts. That gives me a very rapid sense of their level of judgment, in what they post and how cautious they are about their personal information. We’re pouring everything about ourselves into the world, and that can cause huge amounts of problem when it’s in the public. People will exploit that and take advantage of it and fool people by using social media that people tend to trust. A great example is what Russia did during their election, not only in attacking the email systems of the DNC and the Hillary campaign directly, but also their information campaign where they created fake social media accounts and tried to influence the way people think in United States. I do worry about that. As we become more connected and as technology advances, we need to also advance our thought in security and protecting ourselves. Otherwise, we’re leaving ourselves way open to attack.
You mentioned Russia and China. Is there one powerhouse that you think we should be most concerned about? Who’s the best spy?
Our concern right now is Russia, North Korea, China in that order. Over the years, it’s flipped. It used to just be China, then it was China and Russia, and then it was Russia and China. North Korea rears its ugly head some number of years ago as a cyber-attack power, and they certainly are a world threat. They’re trying to give Russia a run for their money. Russia’s so good at it, it’s hard to beat them.
I’ve had the FBI called me once, which was wild. When I was about eighteen, I worked for this guy that was a secret service agent for Reagan at one point. He was my boss and I have been working there for a month, and they wanted to know all these questions about him. Do you have tips that you think we should be doing to catch more of the spies to make us more safe?
After the Hanssen investigation, the FBI was thrown under the microscope and thrown into the fire. There were a number of different committees that were put together to review the FBI and how it was possible that the worst spy in US history was sitting right in the center of an FBI counter intelligence. The Inspector General did a very exhaustive investigation. Some of that investigation had been redacted and put in the public so you can see under the curtain at what they were looking at. They found 22 issues that the FBI needed to get better, including background investigations.
Robert Hanssen only had one background investigation when he joined the FBI. In 22 years, he was never reinvestigated, which is for the level of access was very poor. A polygraph measures physiological responses to questions so an examiner can determine whether you are a being honest or not. The only polygraph he ever received in his career was after he had been arrested. The good news for Hanssen and his career is that he will remain the worst spy in FBI history. No one is ever going to beat him because the FBI improved itself and made it impossible for a Hanssen to ever a spy for that long again.
When you look at companies that survive a cyber-attack, they tend to come out much better. They are attacked, they’re breached, then they really focus on security. They focus way more in security than most of their competitors in the industry who haven’t been attacked. I often say that, “Just because a company has been breached doesn’t mean that you should never use them again.” In fact, they might even be stronger if they come out after the breach, out at that fire, that crucible, a more well-honed sword than they were before they were attacked.
With the credit reporting a situation, do you feel confident that they’ve solved that problem?
I’m shocked by the fact that Equifax was breached to that degree, and the way they were breached is embarrassing. Our financial industry does a good job at protecting itself. The reason that these breaches occur is that there’s a small degree for lack of security and sloppiness, but there’s a much higher degree of breaches that occur because criminals, cyber attackers and cyber spies are getting much better at their job. They’re innovative. They’re disrupting an industry by truly being clever in how they’re attacking, and attacking in ways that last generation technology cannot defeat. On the other side of the aisle, the cyber security companies are all working to develop new generation technologies that can counter the new cyber space and cyber attackers, and it goes on and on. The game is who’s better, security or the attack?
I used to watch CSI, and I’ve watched some of these CSI-type of shows. Are we giving bad guys ideas? Are we opening up the debate for how to catch people? “Don’t try this because we know how to catch you” thing?
Some of those shows do better than others. Some of them are so fantastical that it doesn’t matter. The best attacks, while they are clever, they are idiot proof. It’s a lot easier for me to get into your system by getting you to click on a link in an email you trust, but then you are loading the malicious software onto your computer that I am then going to use to breach you than to try some roundabout ways to get at your data. That’s why I like to say, “There are no hackers, there are only spies.”Espionage has evolved, and it had to. The new hackers are spies. They’re the ones that are stealing information where the information is on computer system. They’re using traditional espionage trade craft. In a cyber-attack method, fooling people into giving them access to information, and essentially turning you into a mole and you don’t even know it.
At the end of the movie with Robert Hanssen, he gives some possible reasons why. What do you think his reason was? What do you think do they hope to gain?
That’s the million-dollar question. In all these years, and it has been some years since he was arrested in 2001, he has steadfastly refused to answer why he did it. I like to think that that is his last scrap of power, his last scrap on his self that he has held on to. Everything else has been put under a microscope. We spoke a lot when we were locked together in that room, Room 9930 FBI Headquarters on the ninth floor. We did have the job of trying to figure out cyber security for the FBI, but most of the time, we talked about a wide variety of things. When you put two people in a room and you bore them, they’re going to eventually start speaking to each other. I have a good sense of why he did it.
In the beginning, he was a new agent who got himself to the New York Field Office to start working in a counter intelligence. Before that he was working in crime. He had joined the FBI because he was a huge James Bond aficionado. At one point, he had bought a Walther PPK and he had a Leica camera, and he’d like to think of himself as Bond. He joined the FBI to be James Bond, and he wanted to go catch spies. He got the New York Field Office and was assigned to a squad. They quickly realized that this guy doesn’t have the personality to lead. He is not a good manager, he’s not very good at operations, but what he was is a wizard at computer systems, which no one in the FBI understood at all back then, and analysis.
He was an analyst, and he was an incredible analyst. He was very good. He learned a lot about Russia and he learned a lot about analyzing Russians and helping that squad catch them. The problem for Hanssen is he had joined the FBI to be a James Bond, and they had turned them into a librarian. That did not sit well for him. At the same time, he needed money. He married a bit above his station; his wife came from a wealthier family. He was having children that he needed to send to private schools. Instead of asking friends and family for help and being a bit angry at the FBI for how he perceived they were treating him, he decided to spy. He did what he knew best. He understood the Russians, he understood the Soviets, he understood how they operated, how he could commit the perfect crime, and he did.
He made a good deal of money off of that. At some point during his career, he made enough money that he didn’t have to spy. He even went dormant for a time, which was very wise. During the fall of the Soviet Union and the reformation into the Russian Federation, which was supposed to be more democratic. That was a time when the KGB was excised and many of those intelligence officers were fired and it was reformed into two new services. He wisely stopped spying for a few years, and then restarted again. A good part of the reason he restarted again is because he missed it. It’s the one thing that made him feel like he belonged to something greater than he was, powerful, strong, part of something bigger, but also the best in the world at something. That’s pretty hard to turn your back on.
When he was trying to decide whether to make that final drop or not, they portrayed him as very conflicted. Was that conflict and his emotion based on him not trusting you or was it based on him not wanting to give it up? What was that supposed to be?
I don’t 100% know what was going through his head because I wasn’t there with him when he made the drop. He was a somber guy. He laughed rarely. He did laugh sometimes, he would crack a joke. If you look at his letters, he was ending something that has spanned two decades. This was going to be his last drop. He was going to leave the FBI; he was going to take a job for a beltway contractor doing cyber security. There was some sorrow and longing in ending this great thing that in his mind he had created and gotten away with all this time. Maybe even the thought that he was going to carry this with him the rest of his life. No one was going to understand his genius or how he managed to do it. Those are hard things to swallow. I feel like he almost wants to get caught just so he can tell everybody how great this thing that he created is.
You thought it was him, you just couldn’t prove it. Did he completely trust you or not? That last scene where you’re shooting at you, did that happen?
That didn’t happen. That shooting scene is the most fictitious scene. Billy Ray, who is one of the writers, the director, and I struggled on that scene. It was a scene that they wanted us to put in. They said, “You can’t have an FBI movie where the bad guy and the good guy don’t have a shoot-out.” There was an issue we had. There was this difficulty in showing in a very quick, visceral way how I got him back into the case. The real important part of that scene is not that he’s shooting, but when in the movie Eric says, “You don’t matter. None of this is real. No one’s after you. We had a real job. You’ve been pushing me. Stop looking at shadows, there’s nothing to find there, just go about your life.” To say, “You’re safe, no one’s investigating you. Go make the drop.”
In real life, this was a long, subtle number of conversations where I made him feel comfortable and made him feel that this was a real job, that I was a real employee. I made all the stupid mistakes that real employee would make, including forgetting my security badge one day, which I’d like to say I did on purpose, but actually forgot it at home. I had to call up to Robert Hanssen and ask him to come down and get me through security. If you’re Hanssen, you got to be thinking, “Somebody who was working undercover to catch me couldn’t be this stupid.”Little things like that help, but part of it is that when you work undercover, and you do it effectively, you get into the role so much that you start thinking, “I’m an FBI employee working in cybersecurity. I like turning out memos and doing analysis and looking at the FBI systems and trying to figure out how we can make them better.”We were doing that job too.
Did you have any sense of fear for your life or your wife? I don’t know if he actually went to the house when you weren’t there, but was there a sense that you were ever in danger or she was ever in danger?
I never worried for my wife. The connections between the families were nowhere near in real life as what they were made in the movie. Juliana never met Hanssen’s family and never actually met Hanssen. He talked to her on the phone a few times because he had this quirk where he would pick up my phone all the time when it rang in the office, whether I was there or not. I remember once, I come into the office a little bit late, I was harried, I was rushed. I came in and there was Hanssen on my phone standing next to my desk and apparently, he’s talking to Juliana, chatting with her.
That concerned me because I often would speak to Kate Alleman who was a special agent that was responsible for making sure I didn’t screw up too badly. I’d be talking to her, and Hanssen will walk in the office and will say, “Who is that? Who are you talking to?” He was very suspicious person. I would say, “It’s just Juliana. I’ll get off the phone. I’m sorry I shouldn’t be on the phone with her in the office.” All it would take is him to be speaking to Jul and say, “When you’re talking to Eric yesterday, I’m sorry if I rushed him off the call.” She’ll say, “I wasn’t talking to him yesterday.” That could blow the whole case, so there was a lot of that that concerned me.
Personally, I was afraid for my life a few times when I really pushed him to make him angry on purpose. Another time, when he came into the office and I was absolutely sure that I had taken his PalmPilot, a floppy disk, and a data card. I couldn’t remember the pocket I was supposed to put them in. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie and also a fan favorite when I’m speaking and tell the story. I was sure that after he went through his bag, he was going to come out of his office and put a bullet in my head, but it turned out that I got the pockets right.
You were locked into a very small space with a very dangerous person and you can’t tell your family, you can’t tell anybody, and they threw this at you. You didn’t get a chance to pick this. You didn’t even know what you were looking at him for it at the beginning, right?
No, I didn’t. I don’t blame the FBI for that. When you have someone work undercover like that, particularly with someone who is as sophisticated in counter intelligence as Robert Hanssen, you tell them only what you need to tell them. It’s the definition of ‘need to know’ or ‘for your eyes only’. The more they tell me, the more that I could make a mistake and inadvertently reveal. If they told me everything about Hanssen from the start, I would’ve acted toward him differently than if they told me little.
In real life, I knew that he was under investigation for espionage, but I didn’t know much more than that. The movie version of Eric is told that he’s being investigated for some sexual issues, which is a big topic. The big surprise in the middle is he’s a spy. That was perfect with audiences. It was more shocking to me to know that he’s a potential spy and find out in my midpoint of my life in the investigation that he has all these sexual issues too. I’m used to hunting spies and terrorists, that’s what I did, but this is something that’s way out of my wheelhouse.
He was sending videos in the movie of his wife when she didn’t even know it. Did that happen?
Yes, he would do that. He would send some videos to his friends. At one point, he had his friend watch from a closed-circuit TV in the neighboring guest room. I always separated that out. That was not important to me. That wasn’t part of my investigation. I didn’t want that to bias. I think a lot about bias, and I think about how a bias is causing so many problems, particularly in how we view politics. I say that because in the world of investigations, even the smallest bit of bias can destroy and undermine an investigation. You have to go into these things clean with no preconceived notions. Otherwise, you will start to make those preconceived notions true.
I pushed all that stuff out of my head because my job was to find out whether this guy was a spy, that was it. Anything that might have biased whether I thought he was a spy or not wasn’t going to help me. I had to go in clean. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they picked me because I knew nothing about him at all, absolutely nothing about Hanssen. The first time I heard his name was when I was asked to join the case. I had no bias in going in, so that I can conduct the little part of the broader investigation that I had.
They were trying to get it, so he could get the death penalty, but he’s in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for the rest of his life?
There were multiple ways that he could have gotten the death penalty. His actions had people killed. He gave up nuclear secrets related to our nuclear arsenal, and also some very critically classified state secrets. There were a number of ways where the Federal Prosecutor could have sought the death penalty. I like to explain to people that that wasn’t the goal. The goal in arresting him wasn’t to punish him. That was a very visceral and important part to many people, especially those whose careers he had ruined. There was an overwhelming goal to get him to talk honestly and tell us everything that he had done. Without knowing that, we couldn’t start putting the FBI and the entire intelligence community back together.
To everyone’s shock and horror as he started talking to four different commissions who interrogated him for years, we learned that he had completely undermined the intelligence community from top to bottom. The Russians for years had known everything we were going to do before we did it. It was very important for him to tell us what he’d done so we can fix it, that was the goal. We don’t want to punish the family, so part of the deal is his family gets to keep his pension. They had no part in this, this was not their fault, their house and cars, which could’ve all been seized, and in return, he goes away for life.
They showed him putting money under the floor. Did you find the money that he had made?
He admitted to what he stole. They’re not sure whether that’s entirely accurate. They can go down through all his drops historically and find that he made this much that time, this much that drop. By drop, I mean hiding secrets under a bridge so that he can leave and set a signal, which means he would put a thumb tack on a telephone pole or a strip of tape on a sign, and then the Russians would randomly go by and say, ”There’s a thumb tack on that pole. That means that there are secrets waiting for me” and they would go pick them up. That’s the drop in signal, and then they would leave money somewhere else. They can figure out a good sense of how much he made. They’re relying in part on what he’s revealing during his debriefs, but they don’t know how much he got. Diamonds are other ways that the Russians were known to leave rewards for espionage. Diamonds are very easy to hide somewhere, while $50,000 in cash is a little bit more difficult.
You said his family didn’t know, and I’m curious what their reaction was. I’m curious if you think that the punishment is appropriate, what they gave him?
If it were me, I would probably take the firing line. Where he is, is worse. Solitary confinement destroys the mind. There have been a number of studies that have a proof of that, and he’s been in solitary for a long time. He doesn’t get to talk to people or have any interaction with people. I’d rather not live that way.
It’s a really strong punishment and I’m curious what his wife, what her reaction was to all this.
I don’t know. She’s done one interview, I believe. She was questioned by the FBI and has submitted to a polygraph to clear her, and the FBI did clear her. For a long time, they were married. I don’t know if they’re still married. I never had contact with the family, and I’m sure they certainly have no interest in having any contact with me at all and I understand that.
Did you have a final scene like they do in the movie where he looks at you and says, “Pray for me” and he’s all sad? Is that Hollywood or did you have to face him one more time?
No, that was Hollywood. I’ll tell you the final moment I have with Hanssen. Right after the case and after he had pled guilty, I asked for permission to go see him because I wanted to get that closure that I didn’t get in real life. The FBI thought about it for awhile because it was a good request. They understood the reasons I wanted to have that last confrontation with him where I didn’t have to be in character. They thought about that and said, “He doesn’t know that you had any role in this. We’re afraid that he will rattle the bars in his cage and immediately get a lawyer and not say another word to us if they find out that it was you.”They denied my request and I never had an opportunity to speak with him. In the book, I made another request to speak to him. I haven’t gained any ground there, but I really would because the one question that I want to ask him is, “Why did you do it?” I have a pretty good idea, but no one knows for sure.
The last contact I had with him was the Friday before he was arrested. He was arrested on Sunday, February 18, 2001. That Friday was his last day of work, and he was in good spirits. His best friend was in town, he was about to go make as last drop to the Russians, he’s going to get his next big payday. Life was very good for Hanssen. He was jovial and smiling. On his way out the door, coat in hand, he opens the door to our office, he looks back at me and he says, “Have a good holiday weekend, and I will see you on Tuesday.” I knew that there was 90 % chance he was going to be arrested on Sunday. As he turns to go, I said, “I’ll catch you later.” That was the last words I spoke to Hanssen. He gave me this weird look and he said, “All right, Eric” and then he left. I put my head in my hands and I was like, “Why did I do that? Have I blown the whole case?”
Is that the name of your book? Tell me about your book.
It’s coming in early 2019. It’s going to be published by Random House. It is a book that uses the narrative of the Hanssen Investigation from my eyes. The true story of what it was like to be in that investigation, to tell a broader story about the rise of Russia, and the need for cybersecurity. I’m using the conversations I had for Robert Hanssen, which were all about Russia and cybersecurity to talk about the tensions and the problems we’re facing. It’s interesting that those conversations we had marry up with everything that is happening today. What I was looking for was a very innovative way to tell a cybersecurity story by wrapping it within a very thrilling spy story, which has been very good for me and keynotes. I thought, “I can do this in a book.” I wish I could take all the credit for coming up with the idea, but it was my agent, Becky Sweren of Aevitas Agency in New York. She heard me speak and convinced me to write a book. She was persuasive enough that I decided to give it a try, and it’s exceeded all my expectations.
Why do you think you waited?
In the beginning, I never planned to make a movie at all. It hadn’t crossed my mind. I wanted to write a book out of the FBI, starting law school, thinking I was far more of a writer than I was, which is easy to do when you’re way too young. I asked the FBI for permission because the one thing that was never declassified was my role in the investigation. If you read through the affidavit for arrest or any of the other documents surrounding the case, they never mentioned what happened in room 9930, because it was classified and is never going to be put in a public document. That is how we found all that important information. I asked the FBI and I sent letters and that was denied. Finally, he pled guilty and I appealed the denial and they reconsidered. They said, “You can tell your story.”Not quite in those terms, but enough for a lawyer to say okay.
I went around to all of the different publishing houses and a number of agents to try to get an agent who would a champion my book. I had a proposal, and everyone loved it. The problem was, by the time I got permission, there were already six books in publications on the Hanssen story because every investigative reporter and some that had no idea what they were talking about rushed the book out. I was frustrated, and on a lonely evening on my couch, my brother was a visiting from LA where he was an actor and writer, I was telling him the story. I couldn’t tell him everything, but I could tell him about what it was like to work for this horrible boss who turns out was the worst spy in US history. He looked at me like, “There is a movie there.” I said, “There was no movie, that’s ridiculous.”It turns out there was. He championed it in Hollywood and with all his contacts there. It snowballed from there.
With a massive amount of work to sell it, in particular, walking around LA at the height of summer in a dark suit with an FBI haircut to try to look the part. I’m the only one in LA wearing a tie. We sold a movie, and it was pretty amazing. Everything I learned in that three months of an investigation absolutely changed my life. When a movie is made about you, it changes your life, sometimes for the worst, sometimes for the better. For me, it was all extremely positive. It opened up a huge number of doors. The best thing about the movie is I knew to walk through them. There was a point where I had to say, ”This is an extraordinary moment in my life. I’ve got to own the fact that people are very interested in it. This will always be a part of my life. That’s one thing that happened when I was 26, and that’s okay.” I can continue to talk about it, but I can continue to innovate how I talk about it.
After a career as an attorney, a career in cyber security, and as an investigator running my own company, I finally know enough to write a book, and to write a book that matters and will mean something to those that read it. In many ways, it’s a blessing in disguise that none of those agents wanted to champion my book until a year ago because now I can write a book that will be much better than what I would’ve done some sixteen years ago or so.
Did you ever think you’d be up on stage? It’s hard enough to be the FBI, to get to that point to get that opportunity, but the odds that they picked you. In the movie, they indicated there’s different reasons why they picked you. Are you glad that you were chosen? Has this been a positive impact on your life even though you had to go through this horrible experience with this guy?
Yes, an absolutely positive experience and changed my life. At the same time, I can’t tell you who I would be if this didn’t happen. This changes you so much, not just going through the case and how that fortifies you and makes you a different and stronger individual. Anyone who goes through adversity or massive amounts of stress is going to come out for the better or worse, but they’re going to come out different. You layer on that the limited amount of fame that came to me by having a movie made about me and having someone like Ryan Philippe play me in the movie, that doesn’t hurt at all.
That changes you, but I chose to see it all as a positive. You have to take the bad with the good, you just have to focus on the good. I don’t know who I’d be if this hadn’t happened. Maybe I would be a big firm lawyer, and I don’t know if that would’ve made me happy. I’m pretty happy where I am right now. Soon, I will be a published author, which has been one of my dreams for my entire life, and accomplishing your dreams is what it’s all about.
I think that’s a great place to end our conversation because I agree with that. A lot of people are going to want to know how they could reach you if they want you to speak or find out more about you. Can you share your website and how they can contact you?
I have a website for my public speaking, and that is EricOneill.net. You can always reach me on Twitter @EOneill. While I really dislike social media, I do use Twitter responsibly to answer questions when someone was to ask me something. My feed is filled with interesting things in the world of cyber-security, espionage, and attacks. If you’re interested in that, it might be a good for you to give me a follow. Those are the easiest ways of getting in touch with me. There’s plenty of links on my website if you want to hear me speak or to bring me out to speak or even ask me a question. There’s a forum on there as well.
I imagine you are an interesting guy to speak because I was watching some of your talks and you do have compelling stories. It’s great to see that you’ve turned this into something so positive. I enjoyed having you on the show. Thank you so much, Eric.
Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed this as well.
I’d really like to thank Eric for being my guest. What an interesting story he has and that’s such a great movie. If you have seen it or even if you have seen it recently, see it again because it was so fun to go back to watch the movie now that I know him. Just think, “What he went through.” Sometimes you think of these movies and you forget that some of them are based on true stories. What he’s done with all of the things he does now with speaking and consulting is pretty impressive. I get so many impressive people on the show. Every day is new and exciting. If you’ve missed any of our past episodes, you can go to DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com. If you just go to DrDianeHamilton.com and go to the Radio Show site, you can also sign up to get new episodes as they come out. Now, we’re taking our episodes and turning them into blog so you can read the content of each episodes. We’re doing a lot of things on the site. You can also take a personality assessments now. I got DISC assessments and emotional intelligence assessments. There are so much content on the site. I hope you take some time to just go to DrDianeHamilton.com and I hope you come back for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
About Eric O’Neill
In 2001, Eric O’Neill helped capture the most notorious spy in United States history: Robert Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI. The remarkable true events of his life are the inspiration behind the critically acclaimed dramatic thriller Breach, starring Ryan Philippe as O’Neill. The film set inside the FBI – the gatekeeper of the nation’s most sensitive and potentially volatile secrets – is the story of the greatest security breach in US history.