The GW Law Student Who Caught a Spy in the FBI

November 6, 2023
Professor Dan Richard and Eric O'Neill talking in front of a room of listeners

GW Law's National Security, Cybersecurity, and Foreign Relations Law Program along with the National Security Law Association had the pleasure of hosting a discussion with Eric O'Neill, JD '03, a former FBI counter-terrorism and counterintelligence operative who helped catch notorious Russian spy, Robert Hanssen, while O'Neill was a GW Law evening student. O'Neill's book about his experience, Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America's First Cyber Spy, was published in the Spring of 2019. O'Neill shared insights with students about his time at the FBI, as well as his subsequent legal and cybersecurity career as a Senior Associate in the Government Contracts Group at DLA Piper US LLP; the General Counsel of Global Communities, a global humanitarian relief non-profit organization; and the co-founder of two companies, The Georgetown Group and the Schiltron Group.

Professorial Lecturer in Law Daniel L. Richard who specializes in Intelligence Law, led the discussion, focusing on O'Neill's involvement in the Hanssen investigation, what it was like being the subject of a major Hollywood production (the 2007 film Breach depicts O'Neill's story), and the realities of intelligence work in the field. Students learned that Robert Hanssen was one of the most damaging spies in US history, having sold secrets to Russia for more than 22 years while he was an FBI special agent. Eric O'Neill, a young operative who usually worked to "ghost" (or follow) spies in DC, was tasked to connect with and learn about Hanssen while serving as his direct subordinate at the FBI's newly established Information Assurance Section. Under intense time pressure, O'Neill obtained Hanssen's digital assistant (a formerly common handheld mobile electronic device used for storing calendars, contact information, etc.), delivered it to technical staff to copy and decrypt its contents, and returned it to Hanssen's bag before he returned to his office. The information obtained from Hanssen's device led the FBI to Hanssen's final "drop" for the Russians, which connected Hanssen to more than 20 years of spying and resulted in his subsequent arrest, trial, conviction, and sentence to life imprisonment.

At the end of the event, students were able to directly ask Eric O'Neill questions. In light of Robert Hanssen's recent death in the Summer of 2023, students asked O'Neill reflective questions about Hanssen's motives and impact on the intelligence world. O'Neill also fielded student questions about Artificial Intelligence's (AI) application to intelligence and counterintelligence. O'Neill also discussed the mutually beneficial relationship between his intelligence and legal training, explaining that his intelligence training taught him how to observe and remember key factual details, while his legal training at GW Law taught him to argue effectively and analyze information. O'Neill encouraged students to choose meaningful careers, carve out their unique paths, and take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Professor Dan Richard listening to Eric O'Neill talk