"I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it. Beyond its illegality, I have torn the trust of so many. Worse, I have opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and our children. I hurt them deeply. I have hurt so many deeply." - Robert Hanssen, Sentencing Hearing, May 2002, Virginia
Questioning the Story:
Did Eric first believe he was investigating Hanssen for kinky sexual behavior?
No. In the movie Breach, Eric (Ryan Phillippe) initially believes that he has been assigned to Hanssen to observe his kinky sexual tendencies. Only later does Eric's superior in the movie tell him the full truth about Robert Hanssen the spy. The true story is the other way around. The real Eric O'Neill was told of Hanssen's alleged spying from the beginning. However, O'Neill was unaware of Hanssen's pornographic fantasies until later in the investigation.
What was Eric O'Neill's official title in the FBI?
Eric was not an FBI Agent. He was an FBI operative. His official title was Investigative Specialist. He was part of the SSG (Special Surveillance Group). The scene at the beginning of the movie Breach, where Eric (Ryan Phillippe) is taking surveillance photos, accurately depicts the type of work that he had done prior to being assigned to the Hanssen investigation.
Was Robert Hanssen really a member of Opus Dei like in The Da Vinci Code?
Yes. Although, not all members of Opus Dei practice mortification, which is the infliction of pain upon oneself. This was shown in the fictional movie The Da Vinci Code, and as a result it is now heavily associated with all Opus Dei members. Robert Hanssen and most of his family are at the Supernumerary level of Opus Dei membership. Supernumeraries account for roughly 70 percent of the organization's total membership. They are typically married men and women with families and careers, who devote part of their day to prayer. In addition, they attend regular meetings and retreats, and they make financial contributions to Opus Dei. The Hanssen children also attended Opus Dei affiliated schools.
Supernumeraries like Bob Hanssen do not commonly practice mortification. Members who are at higher levels of devotion, such as Numeraries, Numerary Assistants, and Associates are much more likely to practice mortification. This would include one of Bob and Bonnie's daughters who is an Opus Dei Numerary. This status requires that she maintain a vow of celibacy while remaining a layperson. Also at a higher level in the Opus Dei religion, is Bonnie Hanssen's brother who is an Opus Dei priest in Rome. Individuals like these two often live in special centers run by Opus Dei. They believe that inflicting pain upon themselves helps to remind them of Jesus' suffering on the cross. It should be realized that the majority of Opus Dei members, like FBI spy Robert Hanson and his wife Bonnie, do not regularly inflict pain upon themselves, and there is no evidence to support that Robert Hanssen may have done so.
Did Hanssen really take Eric O'Neill to a church bookstore and then to church?
Yes. Robert and Eric really went to church together, and they did visit a bookstore at the church. Eric believed that Robert had begun a process to bring him into the Opus Dei religion.
Was Robert Hanssen ever at Eric's apartment?
No. Unlike what we see in the movie Breach, Hanssen was never at Eric's apartment. He also never talked to Eric O'Neill's wife, Juliana (pictured left). These scenes in the movie are purely fictional. In regards to the dinner scene in the movie, Eric said in an interview, "My wife and I were supposed to go to dinner with his family the week he was arrested." The filmmakers decided that the dinner scene had to happen in the movie, so they created it. "...I never had that level of contact with his family," Eric said.
Did Eric and his wife ever attend church with Hanssen and his family?
No. The second church scene in the movie, where Eric and his wife go to Mass with Robert Hanssen and his family, never actually happened.
Did Hanssen really have a crucifix hanging on the wall in his office?
Yes. He also had an icon of Mary on his desk. Everyday at four o'clock he said a Novena on his knees beneath the crucifix. He tried to get Eric to do it but Eric resisted.
Did the traffic jam scene really happen?
No. The scene where Eric uses his interest in Hanssen's faith to persuade him back to the SUV never actually happened. However, the real Eric O'Neill admits that he did take advantage of Hanssen's devotion, "I certainly used Hanssen's faith against him. I didn't feel bad about it, because he had already betrayed every aspect of his faith."
Did Robert Hanssen's wife know that he was a spy?
In 1979, more than two decades before Hanssen's capture, Robert's wife Bonnie found 10,000 dollars in cash in their home. Robert told her that he had given up minor and unimportant information for the money. Bonnie told him that he had to confess his crime to a priest. He did. A Roman Catholic priest told him that he should turn himself in. Shortly afterward, the priest phoned him and told him that he didn't have to turn himself in if he gave all the money to a charity. The priest explained that doing so would absolve him of his sin. Robert did as the priest said. However, after he donated the money, he continued to work as an FBI spy for the Russians.
Immediately after Robert's capture in 2001, Bonnie was taken into custody and interrogated for eight hours. She did not want to believe that the allegations were true about her husband, despite her memory of the incident when she found Robert's money over two decades earlier. In her interrogation, she told the FBI that she believed Moscow had blackmailed her husband. In an interview with The New York Times after her husband's capture, Bonnie said that following her husband's arrest, she had taken and passed a polygraph test regarding her knowledge of Robert's illegal activites (not including the events from 1979).
Was Robert Hanssen responsible for the death of 3 KGB agents working as spys for the U.S.?
Yes. First, Hanssen set in motion events that led to the death of KGB double agent Dmitri Polyakov, codenamed TOPHAT. Hanssen exposed Polyakov to the Soviets in 1979, and Polyakov was executed for his crimes against Russia in 1987. Polyakov is pictured to the right. Then on October 4, 1985, Hanssen mailed a letter that would eventually end up in the hands of Victor I. Cherkashin, the head of the Soviet espionage operation in Washington D.C. The letter alerted Cherkashin to documents that would soon follow. The documents named three KGB operativesSergei Motorin, Valeri Martynov and Boris Yuzhinwho were working as double agents for the U.S. Over the course of the next three years, the Russian government executed both Valeri Martynov and Sergei Motorin. Boris Yuzhin was given a long-term prison sentence. Below is a copy of the initial 1985 letter that Robert Hanssen sent to Victor Cherkashin.
Dear Mr. Cherkashin:
Soon, I will send a box of documents to Mr. Degtyar. They are from certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmentalized projects of the U.S. Intelligence community. All are originals to aid verifying their authenticity. Please recognize for our long-term interests that there are a limited number of persons with this array of clearances.
As a collection they point to me. I trust that an officer of your experience will handle them appropriately. I believe they are sufficient to justify a $100,000 payment to me.
How long did Eric work with Hanssen in real life?
The FBI's Eric O'Neill investigated Robert Hanssen for just under two months. Eric was originally told that the investigation could last as long as one to two years, depending on when Hanssen made his next drop.
I heard that Bob Hanssen was supporting a stripper, is that true?
Yes. Her name was Priscilla Galey. Eric addressed this in an interview for the movie by saying, "The stripper, this had already happened and was no longer an issue by the time the movie focused on the investigation. He certainly wasn't cavorting with the stripper...during the two months that I was with him in that office. ...I think Billy Ray, who was the director, made a very wise decision not to bring down the intellectual level of the movie by adding those quite bizarre elements." In reality, Hanssen met Priscilla at Joanna's Strip Club. After watching her perform, he sent a ten-dollar tip to her dressing room, along with a note complimenting her on her grace and beauty. Hanssen showered Priscilla with gifts, a credit card, and a Mercedes. As reported in Daved A. Vise's book The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking..., Hanssen later admitted that he had sex with Priscilla Galey when he took her along on a two-week Bureau trip to Hong Kong. Some time after their return, she misused the credit card that he had given her, and he completely cut her off. Priscilla eventually ended up addicted to crack and involved in prostitution.
Was Hanssen really obsessed with actress Catherine Zeta-Jones?
Yes. In the movie Breach, Hanssen (Chris Cooper) sits at his desk watching a DVD of what appears to be the movie Entrapment starring actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. He invites Eric to watch, asking Eric what he thinks of her. In a Breach interview, the real Eric O'Neill talked about Hanssen's real life obsession with the actress, "It came up that he had this...sort of obsession with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and we would find DVDs and he'd watch the movies...you know, while he was supposed to be working."
Did Hanssen really videotape he and his wife Bonnie having sex?
Yes. Contrary to his seemingly conservative beliefs, Robert Hanssen did videotape himself having sex with his wife. He watched the tape in the family den with his high school buddy and friend Jack Hoschouer. In the movie Breach, the filmmakers don't make clear who he is mailing the tape to, or if he has been selling copies of the tape. The truth is that he likely never mailed a copy of the video to anyone. The filmmakers merged the circumstances of the video with another real life event in Hanssen's life. He had at one point taken nude photos of his wife, and he mailed the photos to his friend Jack Hoschouer.
Does Bonnie Hanssen plan to divorce her husband?
No. When asked this question following her husband Robert's sentencing, Bonnie replied by saying, "I'll never divorce him. I love him and I'll pray for the salvation of his soul everyday for the rest of my life." Bonnie and Robert have six children. Only what appears to be two children (playing in the yard) are shown in the movie Breach. This is because only two of the Hanssen's children, Lisa and Gregg, were still living at home in 2001. The rest were either married or away at college. Robert is allowed to speak to them from prison (other than his immediate family, he is allowed no outside contact).
Did Eric really spill water in order to hurry Hanssen out of the office?
No. Eric never spilled water in Hanssen's office like his character does in the movie. In the movie, Eric does this as Hanssen is leaving to have his 25-year photo taken.
Was the 25-year picture scene real?
No. The fake photo shoot in the movie did not really happen. Thus, the filmmakers made up Hanssen's homophobic comments about the photographer as well. Instead of rushing out of the office to a photo shoot, Hanssen's superiors came to take him to the firing range, and they didn't give him a chance to say no. They hurried him out of his office so that he would forget to grab his Palm Pilot (a Palm III). This real life trip to the firing range is similar to the firing range scene that occurs after the photo shoot in the movie.
Did the Palm Pilot scene really happen?
Yes. Former FBI operative Eric O'Neill talked about this moment in an interview, "I did take his Palm Pilot. ...[I] had forgotten what [pocket] had I pulled it out of. Novice mistake...out of what pocket of his bag, and kneeling down in front of the bag trying to remember what pocket to put it back into. [I] heard him coming through the door. ...I just had to drop it in one of the four, zip up the bag, and run back to my desk." In real life, Eric made it back to his desk when he heard Hanssen at the door. In the movie, Eric (Ryan Phillippe) kneels down on the floor of Hanssen's office and begins to pray beneath the cross. Breach director Billy Ray chose to do this in order to emphasize how Eric used Hanssen's religion against him. After Eric is back at his own desk, the rest of the scene is true. Eric heard Hanssen slam his door and start to unzip the pockets of his bag to check for the Palm Pilot that he mistakenly left behind.
Did Eric really download the Palm Pilot himself?
No. He actually took the Palm Pilot to a tech team located two floors away from Hanssen's office. He received a page saying that Hanssen was "in pocket", meaning that Hanssen was at the range, and it was safe for him to go. As Eric waited for the tech team to finish downloading the Palm Pilot's contents, he received another page saying that Hanssen was "out of pocket." This meant that Hanssen was on his way back. "...it was up to the last minute when I finally got that thing back in my hands," Eric said in an ABC News interview, "and Kate just looked at me and goes, 'run, run, run, go!' And I just ran up the stairs as fast as I could." The information collected from Hanssen's Palm Pilot verified his next drop, and it was a major turning point in the case. Very few agents had been assigned to the case up until this point and hundreds were assigned after.
Did Robert Hanssen really ask Eric if he messed with his bag?
"Yes," Eric O'Neill said in an ABC News interview. "He asked me, 'have you been in my office? You messed with my bag?' And I just looked at him and said, 'No. What are you talking about? No. I don't go in your office.' You just play it off. Unless he can prove it and the only way he could have done that is if I had put it in the wrong pocket."
Was Hanssen's car really bugged by the FBI?
Yes. Like in the movie, Hanssen's suspicion grew after he heard sounds of interference coming from his car radio. In real life, Hanssen's phone was also tapped and an FBI surveillance team purchased a house across the street.
Did Hanssen really shoot a gun at Eric in the woods?
"No, he didn't," Eric said in an interview, "He never shot a gun at me." The tense woods scene in the movie Breach is entirely fictional. It was created by screenwriters Billy Ray (also the director), Adam Mazer, and William Rotko. However, Eric said that Hanssen would sometimes put his gun out on the desk and spin it towards him.
Was a strip of white tape really used to signal the drop?
Yes. The Russians put the strip of white tape on the Foxstone Park sign to signal that they were ready for the drop. This may have also meant that Hanssen's money was in place too. In the two months prior to the drop, FBI surveillance repeatedly observed Robert Hanssen driving past the park sign looking for the strip of tape. These drive bys increased as the drop date neared.
What was in Hanssen's final package for the Russians?
There were seven documents in the package altogether. Some of the documents described the FBI's recent surveillance findings in foreign counterintelligence operations. Also included was Hanssen's farewell letter to his Russian contacts. The letter can be read below. As in the film, Hanssen was first photographed removing the package from his trunk prior to making the drop. He then put the package under the trestle of a footbridge (shown at right) located in Foxstone Park, which was a 14 acre park located less than a mile from his home in Vienna, Virginia.
Did the FBI ever recover Bob Hanssen's payoff money for the final documents?
Yes. Before Hanssen was captured, FBI Agents had already intercepted his $50,000 cash payoff at a nearby nature center. There, his Russian contacts had left him the money in the form of non-sequential $100 bills.
Did Eric really see Hanssen at the elevator like he does at the movie's end?
No. In real life, Eric last spoke with spy Robert Hanssen on the Friday before his arrest (Hanssen was arrested two days later on Sunday). It was their last day in the office together. The last words that Eric said to Hanssen were, "I'll catch you later," as Hanssen left the building. Eric has had no contact with Hanssen since then. At that point, Eric knew that the impending arrest was going to be made on either the upcoming Sunday or Tuesday, depending on whether or not the FBI was going to try to catch the Russian IOs who were supposed to pick up Hanssen's package. Had the arrest happened on Tuesday, Eric probably would have driven Hanssen to his arrest.
Did Eric O'Neill ever become an Agent in the FBI?
No. As shown in the movie Breach, Eric left the FBI before making Agent. He didn't leave right away like in the movie. Instead, he left about six months after Hanssen's arrest. It had always been his intention to become an Agent. However, like in the movie, he decided that it would be best for himself, his wife, and the family that they wanted to start if he pursued his desire to practice law instead. He had even been attending night school at George Washington University while he worked the Hanssen case. Today, Eric O'Neill works as a National Defense and Homeland Security Attorney.
Are Eric and Juliana O'Neill still married today?
Yes. Eric and Juliana are still together. Juliana was born in East Germany as the film implies.
How much did Russia pay double agent Robert Hanssen to spy on the U.S.?
Overall, Russia paid Hanssen an estimated $600,000 (in used $100 dollar bills and diamonds). Another $800,000 was supposedly held in escrow accounts for him. This is a small sum of money when compared to how valuable the secrets were that he was giving up. This may be partially why it took so long for him to be caught. He hid the money very well, and he and his family lived rather poorly on the surface.
I heard that Hanssen's father had been a police officer, is that true?
Yes. Robert's father, Howard Hanssen (pictured right), had been a Chicago police officer for thirty years. He was at one time part of the Chicago Police Department's famous "Red Unit," whose purpose was to sniff out communists and communist sympathizers in the city government.
Not long after Robert and Bonnie were married on August 10, 1968, Robert decided to fill his father Howard's shoes by also becoming a member of the Chicago PD. Robert's MBA degree caught the attention of higher-ups in the department. They pulled him from his training class and invited him into a new secret unit called C-5. Their job was to bust fellow cops who were taking bribes from drug dealers and then looking the other way. In an interview, Robert's C-5 unit boss, John Clarke, remembered, "He was brilliant and he looked like an altar boy, but I always thought he was a spy, a counterspy, when he worked for us. I thought he was working for the police brass who wanted to know what we were doing. I always felt something was wrong, so we held Hanssen on a short leash."
Why did FBI Agent Robert Hanssen spy on his country?
No one knows for sure why Hanssen did it. "I think he sold out for the money," Eric O'Neill says, "and then it became something that made him feel like James Bond." There's little doubt that the James Bond character was an inspiration to Hanssen. He even owned Bond's weapon of choice, the Walther PPK. The FBI recovered a total of fourteen guns from Hanssen's home, including an Uzi semi-automatic rifle.
Several of the books written about Hanssen point to emotional scars from his childhood, as possibly contributing to the motive behind his actions. Specifically, they cite Robert's boyhood relationship with his father, Howard, who often ignored him and treated him coldly. Neighbors say that Robert was a quiet child, but he always said hello. He loved reading Mad magazine, and he continued to subscribe even when he went to college.
Since his capture, how much has the FBI learned about Hanssen's espionage?
Shortly after his capture, Hanssen was polygraphed twice and interviewed for 200 hours over 75 different days. "I have a poor memory," Hanssen would respond when pressed for better answers. A government assessment of Hanssen's cooperation concluded that, "His claim of a poor memory was an excuse for not engaging fully in the debriefing or was a means to hide facets of his activity. Hanssen's answers were often contradictory, inconsistent, or illogical. His cooperation concerning his finances, the significance of his espionage and his motives were problematic." His lack of cooperation is why he was moved to a Supermax prison facility, which keeps him isolated from the general population.
Robert Hanssen's Farewell Letter to the Russians:
Shown below is the farewell letter that Hanssen wrote to his Russian contacts, which was read word for word in the movie Breach. He included the letter, along with six other documents, in his final package to the Russians. In the letter, he expresses his suspicion that he may be under surveillance. He pens the letter under the name Ramon Garcia, which was one of his code names.
I thank you for your assistance these many years. It seems, however, that my greatest utility to you has come to an end, and it is time to seclude myself from active service.
I have been promoted to a higher do-nothing Senior Executive job outside of regular access to information (sic) within the counterintelligence program. I am being isolated. Further, I believe I have detected repeated bursting radio signal emanations from my vehicle. The knowledge of their existence is sufficient. Amusing the games children play.
Something has aroused the sleeping tiger. Perhaps you know better than I.
Life is full of its ups and downs.
I will be in contact next year, same time, same place. Perhaps the correlation of forces and circumstance then will have improved.
Eric O'Neill Video & Audio Interviews:
Listed below are several interviews with the real life Eric O'Neill, the former FBI Operative who aided in the capture of spy Robert Hanssen. The first interview is a 43-minute C-SPAN interview that features Eric and the host taking phone calls from viewers. In the second interview from the ABC News program Nightline, Eric dissects some of the movie's scenes as he and the host watch on a monitor. Last is an NPR radio interview in which Eric and Breach director Billy Ray discuss the movie and double agent Robert Hanssen.
Robert Hanssen Documentary - 13:33
Eric O'Neill ABC Nightline Interview - Windows Media, 10:41
Director Billy Ray and Eric O'Neill Discuss Breach - Windows Media, 25:16
Federal Criminal Complaint Filed Against Hanssen, February 2007
Eric O'Neill ABC News Interview Transcript, February 2007
Robert Hanssen - FBI Agent Who Spied For the Russians - Court TV's CrimeLibrary
Breach Production Notes - Universal Pictures
Opus Dei Official Website
Breach Official Movie Website
Watch the Breach Movie Trailer:
When John le Carré appropriated a nursery rhyme for his 1974 book about spies and spy-catchers, he borrowed just three words, “tinker, tailor, soldier,” then sexed up the whole thing by adding a fourth word, “spy.” The new film “Breach,” about the F.B.I. counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who sold secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia for more than two decades, suggests that it’s time to dust off the rest of that same rhyme: “rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.” Now in prison, where he’s serving a life sentence, Mr. Hanssen was a little of each; he was also greedy, pathetic, malevolent — a creep’s creep.
In the spring of 2002, an assistant director at the F.B.I. explained Mr. Hanssen’s success as a spy this way: “Succinctly put, security, other than physical security, was not inculcated into the culture as a priority that must be practiced, observed and improved upon every day.” No kidding. For many of the 25 years he worked at the F.B.I., he covertly thrived in that culture, like a stealth malignancy. On the February 2001 morning of his arrest, he attended Mass at a Roman Catholic church where the services were in Latin and many in the congregation belonged to Opus Dei. Later that day, he dropped a garbage bag stuffed with intelligence secrets in a Virginia park not far from his home.
One of the strengths of “Breach,” a thriller that manages to excite and unnerve despite our knowing the ending, is how well it captures the utter banality of this man and his world. Unlike Kim Philby, an aristocratic figure who swanned across the world while passing classified British and American information to the Soviets, Mr. Hanssen, played by the stellar Chris Cooper, comes across as a middle manager type, a drone in a suit. The real double agent practiced his tradecraft in Washington and New York, not Cairo and Istanbul, and delivered the goods — more than 6,000 pages — in garbage bags secured with tape. With his weekend casuals and Ford Taurus, he might have been just another suburban dad bagging leaves.
The director Billy Ray, who wrote the screenplay with Adam Mazer and William Rotko, uses a young agent-in-training, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), to jimmy his way into the story. (The real Mr. O’Neill, now a lawyer, served as a consultant on the film, which helps explains why it feels true in tone and texture.) Shortly before Mr. Hanssen was caught, the bureau assigned Mr. O’Neill to work for him. The younger man had been told only that Mr. Hanssen was a sexual deviant (he had some freaky habits), not that he was a turncoat. This lack of knowledge about the assignment and its dangers suits Mr. Phillippe well, largely because he always looks as if he were hiding something behind those nervous eyes of his.
Mr. Ray last directed the 2003 drama “Shattered Glass,” about that artful dodger Stephen Glass’s tarnished tenure at The New Republic. Like the earlier film, “Breach” is about secrets and lies, and smart, arrogant men waylaid by their own pride and pathologies. “Shattered Glass” has its moments, if not enough of them; as in “Breach,” Mr. Ray’s unapologetic seriousness is one of the film’s strongest assets. Even so, only a filmmaker with a naïve, blinkered view both of journalism and human nature, and with so little grasp of what can happen when youthful ambition meets institutional self-importance, could have been surprised by a Stephen Glass or reached such dizzying heights of outrage.Continue reading the main story