GRAY DAY: MY UNDERCOVER MISSION TO EXPOSE AMERICA’S FIRST CYBER SPY
By Eric O’Neill
Crown, $27, 304 pages
I saw the film “Breach” in 2007, which was based on a true story and starred Chris Cooper as the notorious FBI special agent-turned Soviet/Russian spy Robert Hanssen, and Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill, the young FBI investigative specialist assigned as Hanssen’s assistant, but who was in fact spying on Hanssen.
“Breach” was a good film and I enjoyed it. Now Eric O’Neill has written a book about his experiences with Robert Hanssen called “Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy.”
In 2000, Eric O’Neill was a young man working for the FBI as an investigative specialist. Investigative specialists were called “Ghosts,” as they performed undercover surveillance of suspected spies and terrorists, much like the British MI5. Although the investigative specialists were unarmed, and they were not law enforcement officers like the FBI’s special agents, they performed a vital national security function by keeping tabs on our nation’s potential enemies.
“Ghosts are trained to live in the shadows, to not get familiar with our targets. A ghost lives a covert professional life, relying on telephoto lenses, disguises, quick-change outfits, and the ability to disappear into a crowd,” Mr. O’Neill explains. “We think fast on our feet, are always ready with multiple excuses and explanations, and only show our golden FBI shield when all other options have been extinguished. Breaking cover equals failure.”
Eric O’Neill opens “Gray Day” by recounting a Sunday morning in December 2000, when his supervisor called him at home and said he would drive to the investigative specialist’s apartment and wait outside in his car.
In the car, his supervisor told him about his new assignment. He would become the assistant to Robert Hanssen, a veteran special agent and a computer expert who was tasked with heading the Information Assurance Security Team, a two-man division that would modernize the FBI’s woefully inadequate cybersecurity system.
The need for such a team was certainly called for, as the FBI had serious computer issues, but the job and the team were a ruse, as the FBI suspected Hanssen of being a Russian spy.
Previously, the FBI concentrated their investigation for a spy on a CIA officer named Brian Kelley. The intense investigation damaged severely the veteran CIA officer’s career and his family. Later, the FBI suspected the spy was an FBI agent.
The FBI eventually centered on Hanssen, who was working as the FBI’s liaison to the State Department. The FBI called their suspected spy “Gray Day.”
“The only way a spy hunter could possibly catch Hanssen in an act of espionage was to keep him working at the bureau — meaning the FBI needed to woo Hanssen back from his cushy, if boring, job at State,” Eric O’Neill writes. “They needed to coax him back into the fold in a way that would mend his fractured ego, give him access to juicy information, and encourage him to spy. And they needed to do all that without tipping off that he was walking into a mousetrap.”
In January 2001, Eric O’Neill entered FBI headquarters to begin his new undercover assignment as Hanssen’s assistant — and promptly got lost in the massive and confusing building. After asking directions to his new office, he finally found his way to the Information Assurance/Security Team office.
“My new supervisor was tall and lanky in an off-the-rack navy suit over a crisp white shirt. He wore a red tie that I would come to know well: he’d change it once in two months. I placed him in his late fifties, more than twice my age,” Mr. O’Neill writes. “When Hanssen stood up, I saw that he had three or four inches on me. As he came around the desk, the keys in his pocket jingled. He had a slight limp that made each step a lurch. His dour expression bore down with a physical weight, and I could see why he’d received the nicknames ‘Dr. Death’ and ‘The Mortician’ around the FBI.”
Eric O’Neill and the team finally discovered the time and place that Hanssen planned to contact the Russians. On Feb. 18, 2001, Hanssen made his last “dead drop” to the Russians and ended his 22 years of spying. As FBI agents cuffed Hanssen, his only comment was, “What took you so long?”
The book does not go too deeply into Hanssen’s surreptitiously videoing his wife at home or lavishly spending money on a stripper, nor does the book dwell on his motivation other than wanting extra money. (One can read Robert Wise’s “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America” to learn more.)
“Gray Day” is a well-written and suspenseful story about an odd spy and the young man who helped take him down.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.