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Review: Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy, Eric O’Neill, 2019.
Since I followed the Robert Hanssen espionage case when it broke and have seen Breach (where O’Neill is played by actor Ryan Phillippe), I was hoping to learn something new about Hanssen the man and the details of the secrets he passed.
This book succeeds on those accounts.
The secrets Hanssen passed, starting in November 1979 and continuing through 1999, included FBI and CIA assets in Soviet and Russian intelligence, nuclear weapon information (though how he got a hold of those is not revealed), continuity-of-government plans by the US government (essentially plans to prevent a “decapitation” of leadership in a nuclear war), methods and operations, and the existence of a secret FBI and NSA tunnel under the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.
Hanssen, a CPA and holder of an MBA, joined the FBI in 1976. He had a life-long interest in spying. But, though “smart, technically proficient, and analytical” and good with computers, the FBI bureaucracy shunted him aside. As O’Neil says, Hanssen joined the FBI to become a spy. They made him a librarian.
But, as O’Neil notes, career resentment is not what turned Hanssen into a spy. Indeed, in the massive interrogations he submitted to in exchange for his life and his family keeping his government pension, “why” was the one question he has never answered though O’Neil offers a theory.
Hanssen was contemptuous of authority, cunning, observant, and manipulative. But he also made some mistakes, mistakes that a classified FBI Inspector General’s report of almost 700 pages says should have brought his treachery to an end far sooner.
O’Neil’s account is written in what seems to be the formula for modern spy memoirs: a chronological narrative broken up by backfilling details of the author’s life, a lot of talk about the author’s emotions and personal angst and some mention of events, past and future, thematically related to the main story. Here there is also the slight, perhaps unavoidable, whiff of self-promotion and justifiable bragging. The cynic in me suspects this formula is calculated to appeal to males in technical details and females in its emotions and to pad out a 300 page book of large print.
There are other problems as well.
O’Neill, a “cybersecurity expert”, has a long chapter, “There Are No Hackers, Only Spies”, that puts forth his notions of cybersecurity. It offers a justification for how John Podesta, a man who had written on cybersecurity, got his email hacked and why it was the Russians who did it. Oddly, in discussing securing “endpoints” of access to computer networks, there is absolutely no reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton using an illegal private server for email. Perhaps the editor or publishers simply didn’t want to get into that controversy.
O’Neill is writing an account of his own life that rearranges, as he notes at the end, chronologies and compresses conversations. Evidently, he or his agent seems to have thought he was doing a screenplay rather than a memoir.
Those are the negatives, but there are plenty of positives too.
For those unfamiliar with the case, the structuring of events works as O’Neill reveals things as he learns them. In December 2000, O’Neill, a “ghost” — one of the FBI investigators in the Special Surveillance Group that specializes in following and surveilling persons of interest — is tapped for an odd job. He is to become an undercover agent assigned to Robert Hanssen, a man known to assault subordinates – when he’s not denigrating their IQ – and always armed.
Eventually, O’Neill learns, during his mission which lasts until February 18, 2001, that he is part of a decades long mole hunt. Its target is Hanssen, a man only to be referred to in FBI records as Gray Day.
At first, all the details about O’Neill’s meeting and marry his wife Julianna are somewhat annoying, but they become more important when Hanssen starts blurring the line between O’Neill’s private and work life. You don’t want a potential Russian agent chatting to your wife over the phone. The memoir also shows the strain even a short stint as an undercover agent, especially when suddenly recruited, can place on relationships and career plans. O’Neill finds himself putting in a full day at the FBI, writing up his notes on everything Gray Day did that day, and going to law school at night.
Those familiar with the case will appreciate the many bits of tradecraft whether it is O’Neill’s ghosting days, the psychological manipulation necessary to get a PDA away from Hanssen, the many resources and methods brought to bear on the Gray Day case, quoted letters Hanssen wrote the KGB and GRU, and why O’Neill dubs Hanssen as not only the most dangerous spy in the FBI’s history but America’s first cyber traitor.
And, in case you’re interested, no, O’Neill doesn’t cover in any detail the odder aspects of Hanssen – the explicit sexual stories about his wife he posted to Internet bulletin boards, taping their sex life and showing it to a friend, and consorting with strippers. O’Neill didn’t have a clue about those in his time with Hanssen though he does go into Gray Day trying to recruit him for Opus Dei.
O’Neill’s final judgement of Hanssen the man is complex and seems fair. He had good qualities and bad, and his treachery forced some very needed reforms in not only the information infrastructure of the FBI but its internal security as well.
All in all, this is worth reading for the tradecraft and an up close perspective on Hanssen the traitor.
More reviews of spy history are at indexed at the espionage page.