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January 28, 2022

Famed spy-hunter talks counterintelligence

By NATHAN BICK | October 31, 2013

As part of the 2013 Hopkins Department of Military Science Symposium, former FBI counter-terrorism and counterintelligence operative Eric O’Neill spoke to Hopkins students on Wednesday in the Great Hall of Levering Hall. This was the first such event sponsored by the Department of Military Science.

The event focused on O’Neill’s work and integral role in the capture of Robert Hanssen, considered by many to be one of the most damaging spies in American history. Hanssen sold information and intelligence to members of the Soviet and later Russian intelligence communities. Working undercover for several months in Hanssen’s office as his assistant, O’Neill attempted to discern whether Hanssen was a spy and to reveal the extent of the damage to the American counterintelligence system in 2001.

O’Neill graduated from Auburn University with honors and earned a law degree from The George Washington University in addition to pursuing a career with the FBI.

“Eric is an accomplished public speaker and security expert that lectures internationally about espionage and national security, cybersecurity, fraud, corporate diligence and defense, hacking, pursuing one’s dreams and surviving Hollywood,” reads his personal website.

Audience members were challenged to consider the varying definitions of national security and analyze the differences between ‘capability’ and ‘application’ with respect to the government’s intelligence programs.

The unauthorized disclosure of classified information has made headlines recently. Former government contractor Edward Snowden, who made international waves by revealing many of the data collection activities undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA), and the leaks themselves were topics of conversation.

“I think that this is very germane to the discussion of Snowden. I ask you to go back and go through articles, go to whatever and however you find your news, just google it. I ask you to look at what has been released and reported on application and what has been released on capability. I think what you’ll find is everything goes to capability and nothing goes to application,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul L. Carroll, the Department of Military Science’s director, said.

“I ask you to find out who’s been hurt. I challenge you to go find an open-source report that shows where the NSA has intercepted your email. Find me one person. One. Now you know the difference between capability and application. The United States military can shoot and drop nuclear bombs. We could destroy western Europe with a thought. We have that capability. . .but we didn’t,” Carroll added.

With a sizable audience in attendance, technical difficulties with the audio system marred the beginning of the event by preventing a screening of a scene from the Hollywood movie Breach (2007), a film based on the story between Hanssen and O’Neill for which O’Neill served as a consultant. Breach was directed by Billy Ray and starred Ryan Phillippe as O’Neill and Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Immediately after the film, O’Neill recounted the story of his undercover operation.

O’Neill spoke about Hanssen’s methods for giving info to the Russians through drop-offs and pick-ups and detailed his unusual personality and odd character traits, including references to sexual deviance and paranoia.

In particular, the chance capture of Hanssen’s Palm Pilot by O’Neill proved to be the smoking gun needed to incriminate him. It led to Hanssen’s capture, forced cooperation with the authorities and eventual life imprisonment in a maximum security prison. Hanssen cut a deal to avoid the death penalty in exchange for cooperating.

O’Neill emphasized the difficulties associated with being undercover. He described how it is all-encompassing and consuming, how one never gets a day off, and how one’s never able to be sick. Significantly, due to ‘compartmentalization,’ agents rarely know more than their superiors think they need to in order to execute each mission. Real operations, O’Neill asserted, are rarely executed as smoothly as those in the movies or on television.

“You still have to work the case, you have to be smart, you have to think about all the angles, and you have to build a case that’s going to get the guy,” O’Neill said. “[In film], you see these long, thought-out plans where people are working at a target, come up with these plans, schematics, but many of the investigations that I’ve worked are last-minute; you’re on your way to the office, someone calls you, you’re rerouted and you basically have five minutes of briefing behind a 7-Eleven somewhere. And it’s a very rapid assessment protocol.”

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