Robert Hanssen did not play nicely with others. At the time the FBI started its investigation of Hanssen, he had been transferred to the State Department. That bureaucratic shuffle came after a female coworker gently challenged Hanssen on something he said. He responded by picking her up and throwing her to the ground. He also was known to carry two firearms on him at all times. This was the man 26-year-old Eric O’Neill would be locked in a SCIF with until the FBI could bust him for espionage.
Speaking last night at the International Spy Museum’s new location, O’Neill discussed his new book, Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy. The book’s title refers to Hanssen’s code name, a fact that the FBI had kept classified. It wasn’t until it approved O’Neill’s manuscript that the FBI allowed the name to become public knowledge.
How a Ghost Found Himself Tailing Dr. Death
After a stint as a “ghost”- a super-secret FBI surveillance expert – O’Neill had been sidelined after marrying his wife Juliana, born in East Germany. When the FBI found out about his engagement, they grilled O’Neill for not asking permission to marry an “East German National.”
Except this was the year 2000. “Haven’t you heard of reunification? There is no more East Germany,” argued O’Neill. “Not to us,” replied the FBI. In spite of his superior surveillance skills, he was relegated to desk work while the FBI investigated his German in-laws.
But one freezing Sunday morning in December 2000, O’Neill got called back to the FBI’s starting lineup for the assignment of a lifetime. An FBI supervisor abruptly drove up to his basement apartment, called him out of bed, and told him he would be following Robert Hanssen, a longtime FBI employee and computer expert. O’Neill had never heard of him – which meant Hanssen had never heard of O’Neill, either. This made him the perfect mole to sit beside Hanssen.
This daunting assignment also had a firm expiration date. The government already had plenty of circumstantial evidence against Hanssen, but they needed to catch him in the act. He hadn’t contacted the Russians for years – and Hanssen was set to retire in April. It was already December. If the FBI was going to catch Hanssen before he retired, they needed to coax him into one last exchange with the Russians – and fast.
O’Neill had his marching orders. For the next few months, he would become the subordinate of Robert Hanssen, the brilliant, eccentric, violent, and intimidating man that FBI colleagues had once nicknamed “Dr. Death.”
Robert hanssen: the fox guarding the henhouse
Joining the FBI in the height of the Cold War, Robert Hanssen dreamed of the exciting life of a spy. As O’Neill explained to the audience and often mentions in his book, Hanssen was ahead of his time. While other spies were still chasing after paper files, Hanssen had entered the digital world. In fact, Hanssen had many times argued to the FBI brass that the future of espionage was cyber. He urged the FBI to shore up their computer systems, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The FBI was resistant to change.
What’s more, the FBI didn’t like Hanssen. He was demeaning to coworkers, resented authority, and thought he was smarter than everyone around him. So instead of rising up the ranks of the FBI, Hanssen was often relegated to places where he could be easily ignored – like his post at the State Department.
However, in order to coax Hanssen into contacting the Russians one last time, the FBI had to bring him back. So they gave him his dream job: Section Chief of the newly-formed Information Assurance division of the FBI. Information assurance, O’Neill pointed out to the audience, was the predecessor of cybersecurity. So the man who had been selling American secrets to the Russians for over two decades was put in charge of protecting the FBI’s computer system from insider threats like himself.
“Gray Day” offers an excellent profile of an insider threat
Apart from sharing a fascinating, nail-biting first-person account of Hanssen’s capture, O’Neill does an excellent job explaining Hanssen as a man. He shares deeply personal conversations with Hanssen about his love for his family and his strict Catholic faith. When Hanssen first started spying, it was to support his growing family and to send his kids to private Catholic schools.
O’Neill shared with the audience that Hanssen only made a little less than $2 million; not a whole lot for over 20 years of espionage. “He never took so much money that he would get caught,” explained O’Neill. “He was very careful about how much he took and what he spent it on so he wouldn’t get caught.”
Though practical needs may have started Hanssen’s turn, his bitterness at the FBI’s treatment of him, his self-righteous conviction that he was smarter than his superiors, and his resentment for authority kept it going. As the years progressed and Hanssen was never caught, Hanssen became addicted to his own mastery.
What Motivated Hanssen to Betray Everything He believed In?
Hanssen himself never admitted his motivations for betraying his family, country, and all that he claimed to stand for. But having known and worked so closely with him, O’Neill thinks he knows what drove Hanssen – and it wasn’t the money.
“In the beginning he needed money. Now, it wasn’t only that. He also could have been revolutionary for the FBI because of the way he thought. He was one of these people going around pounding a drum saying we were going to get beat by a spy because we aren’t investing the time and the money into computerization….and everybody in the FBI thought he was a nerd…and they called him ‘Dr. Death’ and they called him ‘The Mortician’ and they told him to go away and they called him a joke and he got angry.”
That anger and need for money made it easy to justify his actions. O’Neill was quick to point out that Hanssen was never recruited by the Russians – he volunteered. He gave up the names of two American assets in the USSR as his bona fides, knowing those assets would be tortured and executed by the KGB.
“At some point he made enough money, and then I don’t think he wanted to stop. For Hanssen, it was doing that thing that made him more special than anyone else – that thing that he was better at than anyone else. He was the greatest spy. He was the greatest spy in FBI history and probably one of the greatest spies in U.S. history. Why would you stop? That’s a hard thing to give up, when you’re the greatest at something.”