Q&A with Eric O’Neill

PBI caught up with former FBI operative Eric O’Neill ahead of his keynote address at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium's The Science of Espionage Gala on November 5

Like many events this year, the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium’s annual gala will take place virtually. The Science of Espionage, slotted for November 5, will celebrate the intrigue, excitement, and mystery that surrounds intelligence and espionage. This year’s keynote speaker, Eric O’Neill, spent five years as an investigative specialist and counterintelligence operative with the FBI and played an instrumental role in the investigation of Robert Hanssen, one of the United States’ most notorious double agents. O’Neill now runs The Georgetown Group, an investigative and security firm, and is a national security strategist for VMware.

PBI caught up with O’Neill to discuss COVID’s impact on intelligence, his path through the FBI, his new book Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy, and what it was like to have Ryan Phillippe play him in a movie.


PBI: How do you embody the “Science of Espionage”?

O’Neill: One big aspect of today’s espionage is cyberattacks. Quite a bit of espionage—and really the theme of my book, Gray Day—is about how espionage has evolved and how hackers became spies. Now that [computer] data is the currency of our lives, that’s what spies are after.

My “The Science of Espionage” lecture will touch on some of that, but we’ll go through the trade craft that still occurs, [which has] probably been suppressed a little in the world of COVID. We’re going to discuss traditional espionage, its origins, and the cloak-and-dagger actions that happen under everybody’s noses—all the fun stuff that shows how espionage occurs and the science behind taking secrets from someone who doesn’t want them stolen and getting them to the person who can pay the most for them or the country you owe your allegiance to.

You bring up an interesting point about how intelligence work has been suppressed by COVID. How have intelligence organizations across the world been impacted by the pandemic?   

One of the major impacts that COVID has had on the government has been workforce distribution. All of the problems that private industry has in dealing with distributive workforce (i.e. people using different computer systems and technology to access company data) can be magnified tenfold for the government. This has allowed espionage to catapult itself into the government realm and private industry.

That is an unexpected side effect of the pandemic.

They never waste a crisis. When people and organizations are stressed and dealing with a crisis that diverts attention, spies and criminals are the most active.

What first intrigued you about the world of intelligence and national security?  

I joined the FBI in 1996 right out of college. I had worked for one year as a litigation consultant in DC and realized quickly that sitting and staring at Excel spreadsheets was not the career for me. I needed to be out there doing something, and I wanted to serve my country, give back, and do meaningful work.

I applied to all of the agencies, and the FBI called me first with a training slot. I joined as an investigative specialist—a.k.a. a “ghost”—and I was a highly trained surveillance and undercover operative. I spent my entire five-year FBI career undercover. My last case was the Robert Hanssen investigation—the strangest investigation the FBI had ever run—and I was undercover as myself.

I grew up into intelligence. My foundational years were learning how to be a spy hunter and how to be a spy. I started law school at George Washington University while I was in the FBI because I had always wanted to go to law school (I was raised by a lawyer which makes you a lawyer by default) and I had hit the ceiling in the GS (the General Schedule is the pay scale for federal employees) scale until I got a higher degree. I chose to go to law school at night while I continued to work in the FBI.

After the Hanssen case, I was pretty burnt out. I chose to leave the FBI and see what I could do with this law degree. I employed everything I learned at the FBI to become a government affairs and national security attorney. I practiced that for another five years before I started my company, The Georgetown Group. I am also a cybersecurity thought leader and expert and the national security strategist for VMware.

What qualities in you did this line of work appeal to?

I’ve always thought of myself as an investigator. I’m fascinated by issues, mysteries, and problems, and I excel at finding facts within all of the noise. The world is full of gray and it’s very hard to sort through it and find the facts that can lead you to “actionable intelligence.” The science of learning in the FBI is to teach you to be an investigator and to suppress your bias, seek out facts that you can identify and confirm, and to move past the he-said-she-said nonsense that permeates every investigation.

You mentioned seeing through the gray, is that what inspired the title of your book, Gray Day?

Yes, it’s sort of a double title. I do talk about trying to peer through the gloom and cut through the gray to find the facts in investigations. Gray Day was also Robert Hanssen’s codename when we investigated him. I got the FBI to agree to declassify his codename (nobody had ever done it before), and I put it on the cover of my book.

You’ve gone through quite the evolution in your career. What has been the highlight of it?

As an attorney, I was conducting an internal investigation of a company that had been accused of defrauding the government. They bought and sold stocks during a blackout period; the insiders all knew that something was happening, and the company misstated their income, which inflated their share price. I caught the president of the company in a lie. It was the first time I’d taken what I learned at the FBI and used it as an attorney in a very direct way. Through interviews and reviewing documents, I was able to prove it. I felt really justified in being an attorney and that link between my two different careers.

What are some of the other highlights of your public life?

The two easy ones are the movie Breach, which is a story about me and is actually taught at intelligence academies all over the world. Then, of course, publishing my first book, which has been a dream of mine since I was in seventh grade when I wrote my first story. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted to do. Once I publish my second [fiction] book, I will have crossed off the No. 1 thing my bucket list.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

My process is I sit down and outline the book. It comes through a lot of introspection, walking around, thinking, and dreaming. Then I chapter out a few sentences or paragraphs for each chapter and now I have a framework: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The best part is sitting down and then writing the story. I love thinking about the one word that is going to make a chapter sing or the one turn of phrase that’s going to say so much with just four words. That’s fun.

Do you think Ryan Phillippe do a good job portraying you in Breach?  

He did. I’m not just saying that because we’re still good friends. It was odd for him to be playing a real person just a year older than him. We went out for drinks after the first [film crew and cast] dinner in Toronto and we ended up talking in different bars until the sun came up. It turns out we have a lot in common and became friends.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was studying me! He was building the character that you see in Breach around the time we spent together. My wife even approached him after a scene and said, “What you did there wasn’t in the script, but you adlibbed something that was ‘so Eric’… did he tell you to do that?” He said, “No. I’m just that good.”

What is the most surprising thing to know about an FBI operative?

That is has nothing to do with what you see in James Bond movies. The FBI is not all guns and chasing down the bad guy.

Click here to purchase tickets for the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium’s The Science of Espionage Gala. 

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