College of Liberal Arts alumnus
Shortly after graduating from Auburn University in 1995 with bachelor's degrees in psychology and political science, Eric O'Neill joined the FBI and then helped catch one of the most notorious spies in United States history, Robert Hanssen. As an investigative specialist within the FBI, O'Neill was planted in the Information Assurance Section working directly under Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran whom officials suspected of spying for Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union. O'Neill was able to draw Hanssen out of deep cover and help steal files off his Palm Pilot, which ultimately led to Hanssen's arrest and conviction on espionage charges. O'Neill's exploits were brought to the big screen in 2007 as part of the motion picture "Breach," starring Ryan Phillippe. After leaving the FBI in 2001, O'Neill went on to earn a law degree at the George Washington University Law School. He is the founding partner of The Georgetown Group, a Washington-based investigative and security services firm.
O'Neill will deliver the Graduate School's 2014 New Horizons Lecture on Friday, March 28. His lecture is titled "The World is Not Enough: Lessons in Courage, Confidence and Determination From a Spy Hunter." On Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m., the Graduate School will host a screening of "Breach" to complement the lecture. Both events will be held in the Foy Hall Ballroom and are free and open to the public.
1. How did your undergraduate education at Auburn help prepare you for your position at the FBI?
The most critical skill for a covert operative is the ability to rapidly adapt to changing situations. This requires rapid decision-making (thinking fast) because cover must be maintained. My time at Auburn threw me into numerous situations - both professional and interpersonal - that became experiences I could draw from to quickly invent cover stories and use social engineering to get myself out of dicey situations. While at Auburn I studied engineering, architecture, psychology, political science and law. I also pledged a fraternity, played midfield for the lacrosse team and spent a year in AFROTC. I did all this when I wasn't working nights at Baskin Robbins! The college experience is excellent preparation for the professional world. In my case, it helped me work covertly as an operative and think analytically as an investigator. The rigorous experiences I learned at Auburn, both academic and social, made me a better spy hunter.
2. What was the most challenging part about your task of building a case against Robert Hanssen?
Initially I found it difficult to get Hanssen to talk. A clever spy holds their secrets close to the vest, and Hanssen was one of the best. In our game of spy versus spy, I needed to pull information out of Hanssen that would confirm to our team that he was the spy we sought. I also needed to determine when he would make his next drop to the Russians. I managed both tasks by gaining his trust; in essence playing the role of a devoted protégé and allowing him to lead me to the information we needed. A good spy needs to know how to play the psychology of others. My psychology training at Auburn certainly helped with insights into Hanssen's particular psychopathology.
3. You served as a technical consultant when "Breach" was being produced. What was it like being able to help shape how your story appeared in the film?
I sold my life rights (a technical term for the exclusive movie rights to my story) to Universal and assisted with all aspects of the project – from writing the initial screenplay, to working with Billy Ray on the re-draft, to selecting the actors and working with Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper on their roles. I also assisted with the prop, set and wardrobe departments. The firsthand experience in developing a major motion picture was extraordinary. The opportunity to turn Ryan into a covert operative and Chris Cooper into a master spy was priceless.
4. Your firm, The Georgetown Group, specializes in investigative and security services, including cyber security. How important are programs like the Auburn University Cyber Initiative in helping develop new ways to keep cyberspace secure?
The AUCI program and programs like it across the country are important to protecting the nation's critical infrastructure. Nations are already involved in a global cyber war. Currently the cyber infrastructure of the United States is deficient and vulnerable to numerous kinds of attacks. Put a bit more simply, the bad guys are trying to turn off our power and institutions like AUCI can help keep the lights on. A large number of groups, both government and private sector, have asked me to provide keynotes on the cyber threat to our critical infrastructure. I typically start with a doomsday scenario: imagine a catastrophic attack on our power grid. What would it be like to have no power for a month? It's a question we all need to start asking ourselves, both in public and private forums.
5. What are some of your fondest memories of attending Auburn?
I have so many great memories from Auburn that it is hard to choose specifics. I made lasting friendships that have survived the distance between Auburn and Washington, D.C. I experienced the camaraderie and family as a member of the Auburn Lacrosse Team and Theta Xi fraternities. I attended Auburn Football games in a jacket and tie with a beautiful girl on my arm and felt the dignity and history of decades of school pride. More than any one thing, I grew into myself at Auburn. I discovered an interest in law that eventually led me to law school, I learned a sense of patriotism and duty to country that sent me to the FBI, and I recognized that limitations are nothing more than challenges to overcome. I owe a lot to Auburn, and I am happy to be giving back as the 2014 New Horizons Speaker.