“Robert Philip Hanssen was the greatest spy in US history.” So writes cybersecurity expert O’Neill, who, as an FBI agent, helped bring Hanssen down.
Early on in this account of the notorious Soviet spy case, the author relates that he has a special gift: being ordinary, melting into the scenery and not calling attention to himself. “I was trained,” he writes, “to blend into situations, to find cover in plain sight, to look unobtrusive, uninteresting, and unremarkable.” That ability to “be gray,” as he puts it, served him well when he was brought on to the case of Hanssen, who was nursing grievances galore about being passed over for promotion and not paid as much as he felt he deserved, along with resentment that the FBI had “dashed his James Bond dreams by closeting him with analysts and techies.” All of these grievances drove him to sell out to the Soviets—and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to Russian Federation intelligence. An expert in computers, Hanssen delivered the names of American assets, some of whom were then executed. As he recounts, O'Neill helped construct “an extraordinary mousetrap” in the elaborate sequence of events after Hanssen was identified as a Russian agent. “We couldn’t rely solely on surveillance to catch him,” he writes, since Hanssen was so skilled at eluding “ghost teams” and covering up his tracks. The solution was to get close, flatter, record, and “train myself to orient and decide faster than the spy” in figuring out what was going to come next. O’Neill’s narrative sometimes falls into the familiar clichés of espionage, but it is valuable in its exploration of the psychology of the traitor and his motivations as well as how spies like Hanssen so often enjoy success for as long as they do until finally caught: “Amateurs may hack machines, but professionals hack people.”
Fans of spy fiction and true crime will find plenty to enjoy in O’Neill’s account.