Correction to This Article
A Feb. 15 Style article incorrectly said that Robert Hanssen pleaded guilty to espionage in 2002. It was 2001.

A Walk in the Dark

Former FBI surveillance operative Eric O'Neill walks in Fairfax County's Foxstone Park, where Robert Hanssen made
Former FBI surveillance operative Eric O'Neill walks in Fairfax County's Foxstone Park, where Robert Hanssen made "dead drops" intended for Russian handlers. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why did the FBI's top spy hunter -- a Cold War warrior who repeatedly professed his love of God, family, country and J. Edgar Hoover -- sell his nation's most sensitive secrets to the Russians?

It's a question that hangs unanswered over Washington, the city where Robert Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001, for the worst security breach in the FBI's history.

Ever since, it has confounded not only his family, friends and colleagues, but also untold numbers of authors, forensic psychologists, criminologists and intelligence analysts. And that question is further compounded by the enigma of Hanssen himself -- a counterintelligence officer who passed classified materials to the Soviet and Russian governments undetected for 22 years; a devotee of the Catholic order of Opus Dei who encouraged a friend to secretly observe him having sex with his wife; who bought a Mercedes-Benz for a Washington stripper; and who was obsessed with pornography.

Six years, virtually to the day, after Hanssen's capture, a new movie brings that perplexing question back into play with a previously undisclosed story -- that of Eric O'Neill, the 27-year-old surveillance operative whose job it was to closely monitor Hanssen while the FBI maneuvered to ensnare him. O'Neill's story does not appear in any of several books written about Hanssen since his capture because -- until recently -- the FBI forbade him to speak publicly.

Directed by Billy Ray, "Breach" offers no "Rosebud" revelations to explain Hanssen's treason. But it places audiences in the same unnerving situation O'Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe) found himself in in January 2001 -- posing as office assistant to Hanssen (Chris Cooper), securing his trust and reporting his every move until the double agent made the crucial mistake that led to his apprehension. Hanssen was arrested a month later, after stashing a trash bag full of classified materials under a footbridge in Fairfax County's Foxstone Park -- a spy's "dead drop" intended for his Russian handlers.

"There are, I'd say, 500 stories that could be told about Hanssen," Ray acknowledges. "After all, there were 500 officers working on that case. But out of the 500, there was only one who was locked in a room with that guy every day -- Eric."

Hanssen, who turns 63 in April, is spending the rest of his life at the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo. Only after he pleaded guilty in 2002 -- and after most of the half-dozen or so books about the case had been published -- was O'Neill finally cleared to tell his story. He pitched the "Breach" project to Hollywood.

Which is to explain how the real Eric O'Neill and Ray come to be sitting in a lunchroom -- right across the street from FBI headquarters -- and revisiting the baffling conundrum that is Robert Hanssen.

Both acknowledge they are telling only one small corner of the story and both agree that, in terms of explaining Hanssen's motivation, "Breach" can only offer informed conjecture. But that's as close as anyone can expect to evoke the man, insists Ray, who has read all the available research on Hanssen and can reel off the prevailing theories about him.

"His father told him he was a loser," Ray begins. "He didn't want to look bad in front of his wife. He was mad at being passed over for promotion. The Russians treated him like James Bond and that really got him going."

But Ray, whose 2003 film "Shattered Glass" probed the motives of another Washington schemer, journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass, has his own interpretation.

"The truth is, we just don't know him," says Ray, 43, boyish and gentle-voiced. "And ultimately, does it matter why he did what he did? His wife's going to have to think about why he did what he did. But I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I imagine Chris Cooper spent some time thinking about it. Why did Stephen Glass write all those [false] articles? I can give you 50 reasons -- all totally valid. But at the end of the day, he did it. And I think, ultimately, you are what you do."

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