AU Alum’s role in capturing spy inspires motion picture “Breach”

AUBURN – An Auburn University graduate’s role in helping capture Russian spy Robert Hanssen had led to production of the motion picture “Breach, ” set to open nationwide Friday.

Eric O’Neill, a 1995 political science and psychology graduate, joined the FBI’s special surveillance group at age 22 and was a key player in the 2001 capture of bureau mole Hanssen, who sold U.S. secrets to Soviet and Russian intelligence organizations for more than two decades.

“He felt more satisfaction from the Russians than from the FBI,” O’Neill said after an advance screening in Auburn last Friday. “Spying made him feel sexy and cool, and he did it without any care for anyone else.”

In July 2001, Hanssen pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy charges. Much of the evidence had been gathered by the then-26-year-old O’Neill, who had been assigned as an assistant to Hanssen for three months. Most notably, he secretly took Hanssen’s handheld organizer, had it copied and returned it.

“To catch the betrayer, I had to betray him,” O’Neill said. “I had to be someone I wasn’t, because I could never show him the fear and tension that I felt outside the office.”

The movie stars Ryan Phillippe as O’Neill and Academy Award winner Chris Cooper as Hanssen. O’Neill, a resident and native of suburban Washington, D.C., visited Auburn last Friday to attend the advance screening for members of the student alumni association.

“We arranged for Eric to appear as part of a membership drive for the student alumni association,” said Betsy Robertson, editor of Auburn Magazine, a publication of the AU Office of Alumni Affairs. “The red carpet was literally rolled out, and we had a drawing in which the winner rode to the screening in a limousine with Eric.”

O’Neill graduated from Auburn with a near-perfect grade-point average in three and a half years. Soon after the arrest of Hanssen, he left the FBI to attend George Washington University law school, earning his degree in 2003. He now practices with the international firm of DLA Piper.

(Contributed by Charles Martin.)

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