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Auburn graduate's espionage tale earns Hollywood spotlight

AUBURN (AP) — Auburn University alumnus Eric O'Neill went from working with agents to needing one.

After graduating with a dual major in psychology and political science in 1995, O'Neill joined the FBI, where he was a key player in the 2001 capture of bureau mole Robert Hanssen, who was selling U.S. secrets to Soviet and Russian intelligence organizations.

His story can now be seen in theatres nationwide in the movie "Breach," which opened last weekend and stars Ryan Phillippe as O'Neill.

"People ask me what it's like and I tell them, 'get a movie made about yourself,' " O'Neill joked during a recent screening in Auburn. "It's the only way you can get an idea."

The then 22-year-old was considered too young to be hired as a special agent with the FBI, but he did get a spot with a special surveillance group known as the "G's," which is tasked with gathering information on suspected spies and terrorists in the U.S.

After a yearlong training period, he was given the codename "Werewolf" and was assigned to investigate Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who was suspected of being a mole for both Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies.

Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper plays the role of Hanssen, who joined the FBI in 1976.

O'Neill found that during the next 20 years, Hanssen had compromised the U.S. government's contingency plans for nuclear war, revealed the existence of a spy tunnel built under the Russian embassy and betrayed three Russian agents recruited by the United States. His work led to Hanssen's arrest in 2001.

Shortly after Hanssen's conviction, O'Neill finished law school, left the FBI and started trying to sell his adventures to publishers and movie producers. He finally got an offer from Universal Pictures.

O'Neill was made the technical consultant and co-producer of the film and worked extensively with Phillippe and Cooper.

"I had a lot of time to work with him (Phillippe) on interpretations, and we became friends," O'Neill said. "It was important to establish a rapport, and Ryan made it easy."

He's currently a lawyer in Washington, D.C., with an international law firm, but he's also making sure "Breach" is not his last foray into the entertainment industry.

O'Neill recently sold the rights to CW Network for a TV show that chronicles what he did in the FBI before the Hanssen case.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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