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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
'Breach' Draws a Fresh Angle on the Story of the FBI Mole, But the Mystery of Why He Did It Endures Six Years Later

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."

For Ray, the bottom line was this: Hanssen "had an absence of a moral rudder. He didn't have that part of the gut that says: 'Don't do this. It's illegal, immoral, dangerous and wrong.' "

"I believe that moral rudder was there, but it was just ignored," counters O'Neill, a clean-cut, bright-eyed man of 33, now a government contracts lawyer in Washington. "He knew the right things to do but he made excuses for himself. And because his religion was so central to his life -- and he knew he was doing immoral things, hurting people -- he believed himself evil and doomed."

"Breach" is also fascinating, ironically, for what it doesn't tell, and how those stories -- found in numerous articles and such nonfiction books as David Wise's "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America" and David A. Vise's "The Bureau and the Mole" -- yield even more perplexing questions about Hanssen.

"Ultimately, who knows the heart of a double agent?" asks "Spy" author Wise. "Does a spy even know what drives him to betray everything -- his wife, his country, himself? It's a complicated business."

In the case of Hanssen, the more that these writers uncover, it seems, the darker and more elusive he becomes.

In a 2001 article, intelligence affairs author James Bamford, who came to know Hanssen personally, remembered that Hanssen "would much rather talk about the immorality of abortion and the dangers of Planned Parenthood than the latest draft picks." And when Bamford finally agreed, at Hanssen's request, to attend one of his Opus Dei meetings, the FBI man "reveled in that closed society of true believers, like a fraternity brother exchanging a secret handshake."

But "hidden deep behind that pious, anti-Communist facade," Bamford wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "was a disturbing, bifurcated psyche. A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hanssen."

A tall, brooding loner -- nicknamed "the mortician" for the dark suits and clothes he always wore -- Hanssen pursued a shadowy double role in virtually every facet of his life. As the head of the Soviet unit at the FBI, he was in charge of catching enemy spies but, according to court documents, books and published reports, received an estimated $1.4 million over 22 years for passing classified materials to the Soviet and Russian regimes.

(Those materials included details of the U.S. government's contingency plan for surviving a nuclear attack, identities of Soviet agents working for Washington and the existence of a multimillion-dollar spy tunnel built under the Soviet embassy here.)

Hanssen would duck out of work early so he could attend antiabortion rallies, yet had no compunction about sending three young men to their deaths -- Russian double agents whose identities he sold to Moscow. And according to Vise's book, Hanssen was never too busy working for his country's enemies to feed the media damning information about the Clinton administration's purported cover-up of financial contributions from communist China.

"You have to understand he was a compartmentalizer," Vise says. "How else could he be married and a father and go to church every day and, at the same time, commit treason?"

According to Wise and Vise's books and others, Hanssen spent his share of secular time at "gentleman's clubs" in downtown Washington. He befriended several strippers, including Priscilla Sue Galey, on whom he lavished several thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry. (She was the one for whom he bought the Mercedes -- used.)

On one occasion, he took Galey on a free trip to Hong Kong, while he attended an FBI conference there. Yet to her surprise, Hanssen never attempted to have sex with her. He was, he told her, trying to bring her closer to God. He neglected, however, to inform his wife, Bonnie, of his missionary work.

As the movie only alludes to, but most Hanssen books recount, Hanssen reserved the worst betrayal of all for his wife, Bonnie -- who, by the terms of her pension arrangement, cannot comment about her husband to the media. He ostensibly revered her, yet disseminated material about their sexual relationship on the Internet, and even rigged a secret surveillance camera in their bedroom -- unbeknown to her -- so a childhood friend could watch their lovemaking when he came to visit.

This highly secretive man also wanted to be discovered, maintains Vise; "otherwise, in his eyes, the world would never have had the chance to see how devilishly clever he was -- eluding detection for two decades."

That seemed clear to O'Neill on that January day in 2001 when he moved into Hanssen's office to begin his clandestine assignment. As the movie shows, his new boss immediately lectured him on the kind of spies to be on the lookout for: They would be in "the worst possible place," trying to do the most possible damage and for the best financial gain.

"There he was," O'Neill says. "Across the desk, sitting in that worst possible place, with access to everything. So we began our relationship with me thinking, 'Is it cat and mouse? Who's the cat and who's the mouse? Is he just being a mentor or is he saying: 'I know what's going on. See if you can catch me. You can't because you're a stupid, low-level clerk.' "

But O'Neill had the last word in that crucible of a relationship. On the day of Hanssen's impending arrest, knowing he'd never see Hanssen free again, O'Neill had a special farewell to make.

"I said 'Boss?' He turned and said, 'Yeah?' I said, 'I'll catch you later.' "

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