69: Breach

Spies and espionage between Russia and the USA. It almost seems like it could be a subject in today’s headlines, but on this week’s episode we’ll look at one of the most damaging cases of espionage inside the FBI.

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Episode Transcript

Last year, one of the films we covered here on the podcast was the story of Captain Richard Phillips. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the lead character in Captain Phillips was a thrilling story of piracy on the high seas.

One of the people who worked on the screenplay for that movie was Billy Ray. Billy has written a number of hit movies, including The Hunger Games, Hart’s War, Volcano and the movie we’re going to be looking at today, Breach.

In fact there were three people who teamed up to write the screenplay, including Adam Mazer, who wrote another movie based on a true story with 2013’s Empire State, the movie with Liam Hemsworth and The Rock about an armored car robbery.

Another writer on Breach was William Rotko, who happened to be a producer on the amazing 2001 comedy Super Troopers.

Along with Adam and William, Billy worked on the screenplay and directed Breach, which was released in 2007. With a budget of about $12 million, Breach wasn’t a massive film, but it did pretty well at the box office, ending up with almost three times that amount at about $33 million in the U.S. box office alone.

Russian and American relations. Despite being released almost ten years ago, as of this recording, the topics in Breach are something that are relevant even today.

So let’s dive into the underworld of spies and espionage as we compare history with Breach.

The true story behind Breach

After hearing the subtle sounds of cameras clicking and shuffling of papers, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft fills the screen. It’s February 20th, 2001, and the Attorney General begins by explaining that on Sunday they’ve concluded an investigation into FBI Agent Robert Hanssen.

In the movie, this opening scene seems to be pretty grainy and adds to that level of realism. That’s for a reason. It is very real.

That footage is the actual footage of the then-Attorney General John Ashcroft during his briefing with the FBI Director Louis Freeh. That briefing took place on the same day the movie says, February 20th, 2001. That was a Tuesday, so the Sunday mentioned by the Attorney General would’ve been just a couple days prior. If you want to see that whole press briefing, I’ll include a link to the C-SPAN archive over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.

After this little bit of historical footage in the movie, we jump back into the dramatization as we see Chris Cooper’s character, Robert Hanssen, leaving a church. After he blends into the crowd on the side walk, we see those five little words we’re so used to seeing—based on a true story.

Robert Hanssen indeed was a real person, and throughout the movie we learn about him in bits and pieces. For the sake of our story today, let’s combine those together right up front so we can get to know who Robert is and then we can focus on the rest of the story.

Robert was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. His venture into law enforcement came after he graduated from Knox College with a bachelor’s in chemistry in 1966.

For the next few years, Robert bounced around as he apparently tried different things. It started right after graduating from Knox when he tried to get a job outside his degree. His application to the NSA to work as a cryptographer was denied, but not because of his different college education but mostly because the NSA was undergoing strict budget cuts. It was mostly just bad timing on Robert’s part.

With a career at the NSA apparently not in the cards, Robert went back to school. He spent three years just outside Chicago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. There he studied dentistry for three years before switching to the school of business.

As a little side note here, the dentistry school at Northwestern closed in 2001 after being open for 107 years. Robert didn’t have anything to do with that closing though; he went there in the 1960s and early 70s.

Anyway, after graduating from Northwestern, Robert worked for one year at an accounting firm before yet again switching careers. For the next five years, he worked at the Chicago P.D. as an internal affairs investigator.

Then, on January 12th 1976, all of Robert’s bouncing around stopped when he joined the FBI.

Well, his bouncing around in career-choices, that is. He went from Chicago to being assigned to the Gary, Indiana field office immediately upon joining the FBI. Then two years later he was reassigned to New York City. The next year, 1979, Robert Hanssen was reassigned yet again. He stayed in New York City, but instead shifted roles as he moved into counter-intelligence.

His primary project was working on compiling all of the intelligence he could on the Soviet Union. It was just a massive database of…well, data.

While no one knew it at the time, it was then—in 1979—when Robert Hanssen made his first contact with the Soviet’s largest foreign intelligence agency, the GRU.

Two years later, in 1981, Robert was reassigned to the FBI’s headquarters in Washington D.C. and he settled into nearby Vienna, Virginia with his family.

One little tidbit that we see throughout the movie, is the sense we get that Robert was known as the go-to computer expert in the Bureau. That’s true, and his reputation started in 1981 after transferring to his new role at the FBI HQ. He was in charge of pretty much any of the budgets relating to wiretapping and computer or electronic surveillance.

Four years later, Robert was transferred to a Soviet analytical unit within the FBI. Basically, instead of being focused on any surveillance across the FBI, he was focused on identifying and finding Soviet spies in the U.S.

As you can imagine, this gave him access to plenty of information that’d be helpful to the Soviets—and his espionage career continued.

Robert moved around a few more times within the Bureau. Back to New York for a time, then back to D.C. While his roles changed each time, for the most part he stayed in a similar counter-intelligence role against Soviet spies.

So now that we have a better idea of what happened before the movie took place, jumping forward to the movie’s timeline, from a bit of text on screen we find out that the news footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft is about two months prior. So if that footage was February 20th, 2001, that’d mean the main storyline for the movie starts in December.

According to the movie, Robert Hanssen is being brought back to FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. to head up a new division, the Information Assurance Division. Meanwhile, he’s given a new assistant, Eric O’Neill. He’s been tasked with watching Robert because, as his boss says, Robert is a bit of a sexual deviant.

Eric is played by Ryan Phillippe while his boss, Kate Burroughs, is played by Laura Linney.

The basic gist of this is pretty accurate—but not completely.

As we already learned, like many FBI agents, Robert Hanssen was used to moving around as he’s reassigned to different roles in different places. So it probably didn’t come as much of a surprise when he was reassigned to the new role.

Although there’s something a bit off with the timeline here. Let me explain.

We know from Attorney General John Ashcroft’s press briefing that the timeline of early 2001 we saw in the movie was correct there. So it’d stand to reason that if Robert Hanssen was assigned to lead the Information Assurance Section, that it must’ve been set up at some point in 2000, right?

Well, according to a public report the FBI gave in 2004 to the 9/11 Commission, they mentioned the Information Assurance Section was created in the summer of 2002 as a result of the terrorist attacks in September of 2001.

There seems to be some conflicting reports about the details of when the Information Assurance Section was set up.

Despite this, I think we can give the movie the benefit of the doubt because we know from speeches that the real Eric O’Neill has given that Robert Hanssen was officially he was the Section Chief of the Information Assurance Section.

As is often the case, the government likes to turn things into acronyms; Information Assurance becomes IA.

While we might not know everything that’s classified, recapping what we can gather from public information:

We know that Eric O’Neill, the real man that Ryan Phillipe’s character is based on, has verified that Robert Hanssen was the Section Chief of the IA section in the FBI.

That must’ve been before February of 2001 because that’s when Robert was captured.

We also know that FBI reports point to the IA Section being set up in the summer of 2002.

So this is purely my speculation, but maybe in the year 2000 the Information Assurance Section was indeed a dummy section in the FBI—something set up just to try to capture Robert Hanssen like the movie implies. But that’s just my speculation. If you’ve got more information on that, I’d love to hear about it! You can join the Based on a True Story Facebook group to clarify that.

Something else we know is that even today the Information Assurance Section is still around and very active in cyber security for the FBI.

Oh, but timeline aside, one thing we know for sure that’s not true is that Eric O’Neill thought he was keeping an eye on Robert Hanssen because he was, as the movie says, a sexual deviant. The movie makes it seem like Eric is watching Robert because of his sexual behavior and stumbles upon the internal FBI investigation into espionage.

In fact, the true story is quite the exact opposite of what we saw on screen.

From the beginning, Eric was briefed about Robert Hanssen’s espionage and was in on the investigation. His role was, just like the movie shows, to make Robert Hanssen feel comfortable in his new role as Section Chief of the Information Assurance Section. To befriend him and gather any information he could that could be used to build a case against him.

As a part of that information gathering, Eric stumbled upon the pornographic fantasies of Robert Hanssen.

While we don’t know the full extent of what this included, there were a few mentions of them in the movie. Remember the part where Eric walks in on Robert Hanssen watching Entrapment in his office? That’s the 1999 movie with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones and in the movie Breach we see Chris Cooper’s version of Robert Hanssen rather creepily talk about how beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones is.

While that specific scene was dramatized, it was included in the film to add a bit of realism. The real Robert Hanssen did, in fact, have a crush on the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. Maybe more a bit of an unhealthy obsession.

The real Eric O’Neill would later recall that Robert had a lot of DVDs of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ movies that he’d watch during work hours. So the filmmakers got permission from the actress to include this little bit in the movie to get that across.

Oh, and that sex tape that Chris Cooper’s version of Robert made of him and his wife? While that wasn’t really true, that part in the movie was added because the real Robert Hanssen did take nude photos of his wife that he then mailed to a friend. So not really a sex tape, but those are the kinds of things that Eric O’Neill started to uncover during his investigation about Robert being, as the real Eric would later use the exact term the movie does, a sexual deviant.

Going back to the movie, the moment when Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric O’Neill meets Chris Cooper’s Robert Hanssen for the first time, Hanssen asks O’Neill to tell him five things—four of them true. It’s an extra edition of the two truths and a lie game we play on this podcast. In fact, that’s why I decided to make the game a little bigger for this episode.

But sadly, that’s not entirely accurate. In reality, the first thing Robert Hanssen told Eric O’Neill when the two met was much more chilling. He ordered Eric to give him the names, addresses and birthdays of his immediate family.

It had to have been intimidating. Not only that, but since Eric knew the real reason he was there was to gather information on his “boss”, he also knew that his immediate family could easily be put in harm’s way if things went awry.

After this, in the movie, Eric and Robert start to slowly earn each other’s respect. They actually start to become friends—something that Laura Linney’s character steps in to change when she reveals the whole setup is to try to catch Robert Hanssen’s espionage.

We already know that bit isn’t true, but according to the real Eric O’Neill, Chris Cooper’s version of Robert Hanssen is pretty spot on throughout the movie Breach.

According to an interview with Eric, he said the real Robert Hanssen had a way about him that made people feel like they were dirt. They’re nothing to him, and he was superior to them.

Another little bit the movie mentions very quickly is when Laura Linney’s version of Agent Kate Burroughs explains to Eric O’Neill that Robert Hanssen began his espionage in 1985.
Laura Linney’s character of Kate Burroughs is a fictional character, but as we already learned, what she explained to Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric O’Neill is true. But there’s more to the story.

On August 14th, 2003, the FBI released A Review of the FBI’s Performance in Deterring, Detecting, and Investigating the Espionage Activities of Robert Philip Hanssen.

That’s the title of an unclassified executive summary of the FBI’s investigation into Robert Hanssen. You can read the full report on the Department of Justice’s website, or if you’d prefer to listen to it, I’ve recorded the full thing (~1h 45m) for my patrons at patreon.com/basedonatruestorypodcast.

In that report, which is really just a shortened version of the top secret and classified reports that…well, we just don’t have…the FBI explained that Robert Hanssen began his espionage not in 1985 like the movie says, but in 1979 like we learned about earlier.

In truth, there were three different time periods that Robert Hanssen was involved in espionage.

None of this is really mentioned in the movie, but from 1979 to 1981, Robert Hanssen spied for the Soviet Union’s counter-intelligence agency, the GRU. That ended during the spring of 1981.

There’s two stories about why Robert stopped this time.

According to some interviews with sources who prefer to remain anonymous, there are some claims that Bonnie found $10,000 in cash in their home in 1979.

In the movie, Robert’s wife, Bonnie Hanssen, is played by Kathleen Quinlan.

Anyway, according to this version of the story, Robert had told her that he shared very minor information, and she told him that he needed to confess to a priest. When he did, the priest told Robert he needed to either turn himself in or he could absolve himself of the sin by donating the money to charity. Robert chose the latter, and gave the money away.
That’s one version of the story. According to the FBI’s official report, Bonnie accidently found a GRU communication in their home’s basement.

Despite finding this communication, it’d seem like the real Bonnie Hanssen didn’t know about Robert’s espionage. He was, after all, legitimately working for the FBI’s counter-Soviet intelligence. So while the public reports don’t say exactly what happened after Bonnie stumbled upon the Soviet’s communication, it’d seem like Robert was able to somewhat easily convince her it was something work-related. She didn’t suspect anything.

Oh, and if you remember, the movie mentions Robert Hanssen being a part of the Opus Dei, a Catholic institution. That part of the movie is true.

In fact, just a few days after Bonnie found the GRU communication in the basement, Robert confessed his espionage to an Opus Dei priest. Interestingly, the official FBI report also mentions the priest saying that Robert would be granted absolution if he donated the money from the GRU to charity.

So, according to the report, Robert Hanssen made multiple $1,000 donations to a Catholic charity “Little Sisters of the Poor”, and broke off contact with the GRU.

That lasted four years.

He picked up again in 1985 until 1991. Then, when the Soviet Union fell on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1991, Robert Hanssen was afraid that with the fall of the Soviet Union a lot of formerly top secret documents would become known to the public. While that’s true—after all, if you remember from the Bitter Harvest episode it was the fall of the Soviet Union that led to the world knowing the truth about Holodomor—it’d seem that Robert’s spying wasn’t something that made its way public.

Eight years later, Robert assumed it was safe to begin spying again. This time not for the Soviet Union but for the Russian Federation. That lasted from 1999 until he was captured in 2001.

Hopefully that’s not a spoiler to the end of the movie. After all, the movie begins by telling you what’ll happen at the end.

Speaking of which, back in the movie, according to the FBI, Robert Hanssen has named some KGB agents who have been turned by the United States. They are Boris Yuzhin, Sergei Motorin and Valeriy Martynov. The movie claims these three were ordered back to Moscow where they were promptly murdered.

Sadly, this is true. Well, most of it.

In fact, the movie even seems to be quoting the actual letter that Robert sent. Released publicly in the official affidavit for Robert Hanssen was a letter that Robert wrote to the Soviet Union. It reads:

Dear Mr. Cherkashin:
Soon, I will send a box of documents to Mr. Degtyar. They are from certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmented projects of the U.S. intelligence community. All are originals to aid in 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.

I must warn of certain risks to my security of which you may not be aware. Your service has recently suffered some setbacks. I warn that Mr. Boris Yuzhin (Line PR, SF), Mr. Sergey Motorin, (Line PR, Wash.) and Mr. Valeriy Martynov (Line X, Wash.) have been recruited by our “Special Services.”

Like Robert’s letter said, Valeriy Martynov was a KGB Line X officer working at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Washington D.C. from October of 1980 to November of 1985. He was actually compromised by another spy the movie mentions, Aldrich Ames.

After both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen pointed to his being turned, Moscow ordered Valeriy back home. We don’t know the exact date, but it was likely around November 7th, 1985 when Valeriy Martynov was arrested and executed after a short trial.

Another agent outed by both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen was Boris Yuzhin. He was a KGB Line PR officer working undercover as a student in San Francisco in 1975 and 1976. The FBI had recruited him to work as an agent for them.

Boris’ fate was better than Valeriy’s. He was sent back to Moscow and convicted of espionage, serving about 15 years in prison before being released under a general grand of amnesty to political prisoners after the fall of the Soviet Union. He ended up moving back to the United States in 1992.

But then there was Sergey Motorin, another KGB Line PR officer. Like Valeriy, Sergey was working at the Soviet Embassy in D.C. and ended up being compromised by both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

While the movie mentions him briefly, Aldrich Ames was a 31-year veteran working for the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, when he was arrested for espionage on February 21st, 1994. At the time, the uncovering of the U.S. turning people like Boris, Sergey and Valeriy was thought to have been only Aldrich’s doing.

But as we’d find out later, Aldrich wasn’t the only one who had turned them in.

Back in the movie, another major plot point happens when Eric has to try to download data from Robert’s Palm Pilot. While Robert is getting his 25-year photo taken downstairs, Eric is trying to copy the data from the handheld device.

In true Hollywood fashion, Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric just barely manages to get the information copied off in time before Robert walks in.

That’s actually true.

In fact, in an interview afterward, the real Eric O’Neill pointed to this scene as probably the most accurate scene in the movie. He went on to explain it was a critical part of the investigation, and something he’d told the Special Agents working the case as being something that would hold clues to catch Robert red-handed.

So, just like we saw in the movie, they went to work devising a plan to separate Robert from his Palm Pilot.

And it worked.

According to the official affidavit, one of the pieces of information they got on the Palm Pilot was the date February 18th and the time 8:00 A.M. A date and time that would end up being Robert’s last drop.

Back in the movie, the investigation for Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric O’Neill starts to take its toll on his home life when Robert Hanssen starts showing up at his home randomly and making Eric’s wife, Juliana, rather uncomfortable.

That’s not true.

The real Robert Hanssen never randomly showed up at Eric O’Neill’s home, although the movie does have her name right.

In the movie Juliana O’Neill is played by Caroline Dhavernas, and she’s based on Eric’s real wife, also named Juliana.

It’s also not true that Eric and Juliana went to church with Robert and Bonnie like the movie shows.

In the movie, there’s a moment where Robert and Bonnie Hanssen come over to have dinner with Eric and Juliana. That never happened, but it was a dinner that was scheduled to happen.

According to the real Eric O’Neill, the first time he and Juliana were going to meet with Robert’s family was a dinner they had scheduled for the week he was captured. Of course, when they scheduled the dinner they didn’t know he was going to be captured. And since he was, that dinner didn’t happen.

But it was something the filmmakers wanted to make happen anyway, so they added it into the movie.

Oh, and as a side note there, speaking of Robert Hanssen’s family, the movie doesn’t really mention this but the real Robert Hanssen had six children.

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a moment where Eric O’Neill and Robert Hanssen are in the car stuck in traffic. Eric knows the FBI is breaking down Robert’s car trying to find anything they can to use in their case against him. There’s a tense few minutes when Robert gets out of the car to get back to the office faster than they’d be able to put the car back together.

Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric O’Neill manages to talk Chris Cooper’s Robert Hanssen back into the car by using his Catholic faith against him. He says Juliana is questioning Catholicism, and tries to convince Robert to stop by the church to pick up some books that she might be able to read.

That never happened.

But, as the real Eric O’Neill explained in one of the many interviews he’s done since the investigation ended, he didn’t hold back on using Robert’s Catholic faith against him. According to Eric, he felt Robert had already betrayed his faith by committing espionage, so it didn’t bother Eric to use that faith against Robert.

We just don’t really know the specifics of how he managed to do that—it’s still classified.

Oh, but one thing we do know is that the movie is correct when it shows the letters written from Robert Hanssen being signed with the name Ramon. The real Robert Hanssen used either the name Ramon or Ramon Garcia in his communications with the Soviet Union and Russia.

The movie comes to a close with two scenes in two different parks. The first happens at Rock Creek Park, and a distraught Robert Hanssen is suspecting he’s under investigation. He takes Eric out to the park and pulls his gun, shooting off randomly as he grills Eric.

That’s not true.

In fact, the real Eric O’Neill says not only did Robert never shoot at him, but this whole scene is the most unrealistic scene in the movie.

After that scene, though, the next major plot point in the movie happens when Robert Hanssen performs what would ultimately be his final drop. The text on screen says it’s Sunday, February 18th, 2001 when we see Chris Cooper’s version of Robert walk into a park.

The sign out front says it’s Foxstone Park. Robert walks along a path in the park. It’s incredibly quiet. He calmly walks down under a bridge and puts his package there.

Then, he gets back up and walks outside of the park, marking the sign to indicate the drop was done. That’s when the FBI teams move in and arrest him.

That scene is true.

According to the official affidavit of Robert Hanssen, the drop site at Foxstone Park was under a footbridge over Wolftrap Creek. You can find pictures of it online, and it looks exactly like what we saw in the movie.

Codenamed “ELLIS”, the drop site at Foxstone Park was one the KGB had suggested to Robert as early as 1987 because of its convenience to him. It was about one mile from Robert’s house in Vienna, Virginia, making it within walking distance.

And just like the movie shows, the signal of a drop was on the Foxstone Park sign leading into the park.

So while the “ELLIS” drop site wasn’t something he used for the first time in 2001, it was the drop site he used last when, on February 18th, 2001, Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged with committing espionage on behalf of the intelligence services of the former Soviet Union and its successors.

When the movie ends, Ryan Phillipe’s version of Eric O’Neill says he’s quitting the FBI. Despite his boss, Laura Linney’s character, saying he’ll make agent for sure now, Eric has decided against it. The movie is implying here that the home pressures it’s putting on his wife just isn’t worth it.

That’s sort of true, although the movie sped it up quite a bit. And while the movie ends here, there’s more to the story.

On July 6th, 2001, Robert Hanssen pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage. For more than two decades, Robert Hanssen’s espionage earned him about $1.4 million dollars in cash and diamonds.

As a result of Robert Hanssen’s arrest, the FBI has made significant overhauls to its security. While we obviously don’t know the extent of those changes since that’s literally national security, according to the FBI’s public report on the case, we can get an idea of some of the recommended changes.

For example, before Robert was arrested, the FBI’s security program was based mostly on trust. By that, the FBI simply just assumed their employees would be loyal throughout their careers. Once you got in, you were trusted. That’s not the case anymore.

Something else the FBI report mentions is that Robert Hanssen was never asked to take a polygraph test in his 25-year career in the FBI. While you can’t put 100% certainty on a lie detector test, that’s something the FBI obviously thinks could’ve helped been a piece in the puzzle to identifying a potential mole.

That’s why, now, a polygraph test is part of the standard five-year background reinvestigation in the FBI.

Robert Hanssen never had to disclose his finances, either. In fact, in interviews he conducted with authorities after being arrested, he admitted that he felt perfectly comfortable taking the cash the KGB had given him and putting it into a savings account in his own name in a bank just a block away from the FBI headquarters.

Now, the FBI monitors their personnel’s finances since that’s often a big reason for espionage.

That’s not everything, of course, but that gives you an idea of some of the changes that have come about as a result of Robert Hanssen’s case. There were a lot of holes that Robert was able to work around. According to one statement Robert told his captors after the fact: “If I had thought that the risk of detection was very great, I would never have done it.”

When all was said and done, the FBI described his case as, “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.”

Today, Robert Hanssen is serving life without the possibility for parole at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility. That’s a federal supermax prison located about 110 miles, or 177 kilometers, to the south of Denver near Florence, Colorado.

As for Eric O’Neill, he didn’t leave the FBI right away like the movie shows.

Although the movie is correct in stating that Eric was never a Special Agent. His official role was as an Investigative Specialist with the Special Surveillance Group, or SSG.

In an interview after the fact, Eric was asked why he left the FBI.

While the movie doesn’t show this, as all of that was going on with the investigation into Robert Hanssen, Eric O’Neill would go from a full day at the FBI’s headquarters working on the investigation to spending two or three hours at night school at the nearby George Washington University Law School.

As Eric explained, it was a tough decision but ultimately, he decided he wanted to focus on a career in law. So while it wasn’t as fast as the movie makes it seem, Eric did end up leaving the FBI and, in 2003, he graduated with honors from GW Law.

In fact, Eric helped work with the filmmakers to help make sure the movie was accurate. Since the movie has been released, Eric explained that Breach has been a great film to help with recruiting for the FBI. That’s one reason, according to him, that the FBI was willing to supply so many details about the case with the filmmakers.

And even though Robert Hanssen is currently locked up in a supermax prison where he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, Eric says he wouldn’t put it past the FBI to roll in a TV in front of his cell so he could watch the movie.

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