From the President

Spy vs. spy

Here’s the situation. You’re a new FBI undercover field operative. But the bureau has called you into headquarters, put a suit and tie on you, and ordered you to take a desk job as the assistant to a longtime FBI special agent and computer systems expert. You’ll be locked in a soundproof, two-office vault to do one thing: covertly surveil this man suspected of being a master spy for the Russians.

That’s where Eric O’Neill found himself in 2001. He became a loyal assistant to Robert Hanssen — an intimidating, demanding and suspicious boss. The FBI had its eye on Hanssen, but they just needed a smoking gun.

O’Neill, who will be a keynote speaker at the 28th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference, June 18-23 in Nashville, watched Hanssen for months, but couldn’t find anything incriminating.

Finally, O’Neill was able to get to Hanssen’s Palm Pilot. O’Neill rushed it to the FBI techies on another floor who decrypted it and found Hanssen’s drop date and location of classified material to the Russians. They had him.

Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001, at Foxstone Park, near his home in Vienna, Virginia, where he’d made his last drop. He was charged with selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation for more than $1.4 million in cash and diamonds in 22 years.

He pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and was sentenced to 15 life terms without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Department of Justice described his spying as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.”

I’m impressed that O’Neill was able to gather information on Hanssen, who prided himself on being able to detect any hint of deception.

The story was so dramatic that Hollywood transformed it into the 2007 movie, “Breach,” starring Ryan Phillipe as O’Neill, Chris Cooper as Hanssen and Laura Linney as “Kate Burroughs,” O’Neill’s handler. O’Neill was an onsite advisor for the film.

During the 28th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference, O’Neill — who now runs an investigative and security consulting firm, and works for a security protection software company — will be addressing recent changes in fraud and cyberespionage through the eyes of sophisticated attackers.

“I will use elements of the Hanssen investigation as a framework and also to tell an entertaining story,” O’Neill says. “The audience will understand why I say that there are no hackers; there are only spies.”

James D. Ratley, CFE, President of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, can be reached at: