As FBI True Revisits The Most Damaging Spy In FBI History, Former Agent Opens Up About Believing He'd Die Undercover And His PTSD

 Eric O'Neill in FBI True.
Eric O'Neill in FBI True.
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FBI True arrived on CBS in the 2023 TV schedule to cover some of the FBI's most high-stakes cases, with the agents who risked life and limb telling the story themselves in conversations with fellow former agents. The next episode on November 21 will examine the 2001 investigation into then-FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who is now known as the most damaging spy in the history of the Bureau for selling secrets to the Russians. Former FBI investigative specialist Eric O'Neill, who went undercover at Hanssen's side, spoke with CinemaBlend about his harrowing experience and the PTSD he suffered afterwards.

Eric O'Neill went undercover within the FBI, using his own identity and life to immerse himself alongside Robert Hanssen with the clock ticking to gather irrefutable evidence. Conducting this operation within the walls of the FBI didn't mean that he was safe or that Hanssen wouldn't suspect him if something was off. In an exclusive clip from the new November 21 episode (seen above), O'Neill shares an incident when he had to quite literally run through the building to return the PalmPilot and other devices that he'd taken at a rare opportune moment, racing to beat Hanssen from catching him in the act.

When O'Neill spoke with CinemaBlend for FBI True, I noted that I hadn't realized that an agent could be in mortal peril from another armed agent within the walls of the FBI. I asked how it feels to look back at that harrowing scenario more than two decades later, he shared:

I know the moment when I wasn't certain whether I had gotten not just the PalmPilot, but a data card and a floppy disk, correct in a bag with four identical pockets, knowing [Robert Hanssen] was in a very heightened state of agitation and that he had a violent temper, and sitting at my desk wondering if there's any chance I got it right and trying to do the math in my head and realizing that I don't really have to do math. The odds are bad, and there was a moment there where I thought to myself, Laura, 'I'm going to die.' I just knew it. I knew enough about Hanssen, I knew enough about the situation, and I thought, 'I have to sit here and do everything I can possibly do to keep him in the case even if it means that I lose my life.’

The odds were not in Eric O'Neill's favor when he had to try and keep his cover intact when Robert Hanssen was in a particularly volatile state of mind, regardless of the fact that they were in an FBI office. Despite being convinced at the time that he was not going to survive the undercover operation, he was successful in returning the devices. The former agent continued looking back:

'I owe it to not only myself for the work that I've done, but the work everyone else has done.' It turned out okay, either by the grace of God or blind luck. I got those devices right, otherwise he would have never made that last drop. But I suffered PTSD for years after that. I would wake up, having a nightmare where he shot me right there, and that's the moment you wake up. It took a while to resolve that. I think that writing my book was the biggest catharsis. Making a movie about it and reliving that over and over again, watching actors portray me, that was a little hard.

Eric O'Neill left the FBI after working the Robert Hanssen espionage case, and went on to write a book about his experience called Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America's First Cyber Spy that was published in 2019. The story has also been told on film and television, notably including Ryan Phillippe portraying O'Neill in the 2007 film Breach. For FBI True (which will stream for Paramount+ subscribers following the debut on CBS on November 21), he told the story to fellow former agent Kristy Kottis.

Eric O'Neill showing a photo in FBI True
Eric O'Neill showing a photo in FBI True

The format of FBI True involves agents speaking with other agents openly and candidly, with Kristy Kottis often asking the questions that have never been answered quite this way before. Other FBI True agents previously opened up to CinemaBlend about speaking with Kottis, and Eric O'Neill shared his thoughts on telling his undercover story to her for the upcoming episode:

Here's what was great about talking to Kristy. I learned things about myself and working undercover that I had never realized. She's an expert in this sort of undercover work and I was learning on the job, so let's put it that way. I was a veteran 'ghost,' which means that if I needed to follow you from the moment you wake up to the moment you fell asleep, I could do that and you'd never know I was there. I would know everyone you talked to, how many times you tied your shoes, how many times you checked your watch, every license plate that was around you, where you went, whether you like coffee or tea. All those sorts of things. But I would have never had to speak to you.

FBI True executive producer Craig Turk described the format of agents talking to other agents on camera as the "secret sauce" to make the docuseries work, and Eric O'Neill only had good things to say about working with Kristy Kottis. He continued:

It's a lot different when you have those personal one-on-one undercover investigations, and also what it does to you mentally. That's something she understood very well. Being on set with Kristy was a lot of very good therapy behind the takes because we were talking a lot, not just about the case but about what it's like to be undercover and survive it and come out okay on the other side.

Luckily, Eric O'Neill did indeed come out okay on the other side of the investigation into Robert Hanssen, but he went on to be very clear about how difficult the entire experience was. After I told the former agent that his days in the office with Hanssen sound like some of his scariest times during the operation, he expressed:

It felt more like a prison. I did not want to go into the office. It was one of those things where a lot of people have to do this in their jobs. Well, not as much anymore, as nobody goes into the office, but when people did, you would trudge and you would take this moment at the door and this deep sigh and gather yourself and then put on that happy face and roll right in and act. That's what I was doing. I was acting. I was portraying a role for Hanssen in order to fool him and you had to hold that up. All the lies would grow and grow and you had to hold that mountain on your back. And then of course when you left, that's when you could deflate, fall apart, let yourself feel flooded with all that stress that you were keeping at bay while you were undercover. But it was very difficult.

Be sure to tune in to CBS on Tuesday, November 21 at 10 p.m. ET for the "Hunting Graysuit: America's Deadly Traitor" installment. Unlike other episodes of the docuseries that run for just half an hour, FBI True devotes a whole hour to the complicated and high-stakes mission to catch Robert Hanssen as the most damaging spy in the history of the Bureau.

You can find former episodes of the docuseries streaming via Paramount+, and check out our 2024 TV schedule for when the three scripted FBI shows will return to CBS. FBI True EP Craig Turk is also the creator of FBI, and he addressed the hit show reaching the 100-episode milestone.