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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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GW Law School student is focus of movie “Breach”

Many law students may have aspirations of delivering justice to criminals after graduating, but one alumnus toppled a double-agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation while he was still in school.

“Breach,” which opened in theaters nationwide Feb. 16, is based on the true story of how 2003 GW Law School graduate Eric O’Neill exposed FBI agent Robert Hanssen’s illicit dealings with the Russian government. Hanssen was convicted of selling national secrets to the Soviet Union in 2001. O’Neill, who is played by actor Ryan Phillippe, was taking night courses at GW Law School while pursuing Hanssen at his grueling job at the bureau.

He managed to not only nab the spy but also graduate with honors.

“Going to law school at night and working a full-time job like the FBI is an absolutely miserable experience,” O’Neill said in an interview with The Hatchet.

He added, though, that his professors understood the obligations of an FBI surveillance job that caused him to miss classes. “GW tended to be incredibly understanding,” he said.

Now an associate at the Washington branch of DLA Piper, an international law firm, O’Neill said he has fond memories of his time at GW.

A 1995 graduate of Auburn University in Alabama, O’Neill said he planned to enter law school immediately after graduation. His plans changed when he fell ill and missed his scheduled Law School Admissions Test. O’Neill said he worked as a consultant for a year before accepting a position at the FBI.

“It was one of those things where you’re in (your) 20s, and you’re working a job that you really don’t like, and you’re searching for what you want to do,” O’Neill said. “That’s the time when you go look for those things that in the past you thought were sort of crazy ideas and pull the trigger on them.”

He applied to GW Law School to work toward a special agent position in the FBI. O’Neill said he was attracted to the reputation of the school’s evening program, and declined offers from the law schools at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland.

While working toward his Juris Doctorate at night, the FBI assigned O’Neill to observe Hanssen, whom the bureau had suspected of spying for years. The senior agent had been selling information to the Russians since 1984, and O’Neill helped secure a conviction on 15 counts of espionage against Hanssen.

To promote the film-version of his FBI career, O’Neill appeared on television and radio programs across the country. He also met with Phillippe and the actor portraying Hanssen, Chris Cooper, to assist in the development of the two main characters.

“In a very real way, (the filmmakers) captured the tension that I underwent, and I think Hanssen’s as well,” he said. “Chris Cooper and Ryan (Phillippe) both did excellent jobs.”

Although he has enjoyed his recent celebrity status, O’Neill said the publicity makes it unlikely he will return to the FBI. He left the bureau a few months after the Hanssen case ended, choosing to pursue a calmer, private-sector career in D.C. and to start a family.

O’Neill is not shying away from the spotlight for good. He said he is working on a television pilot called “Ghosts,” a series about a team of FBI surveillance operatives.

At his law firm, O’Neill specializes in government contract law. His government contracts professor, Steven Schooner, said while he enjoyed O’Neill’s enthusiasm in his class, he cannot take credit for the alumnus’ success.

“Obviously we’re immensely proud of him,” Schooner said. “To think about going through all of that and going to law school at the same time, it’s darn impressive.”

Professor Arthur Wilmarth, who also taught O’Neill at GW, remembers him as “someone who was self-assured and confident without being arrogant.” He said the law school alumnus stood out from his night school students because of his liveliness and veracity.

“I’m sure he needed all of those qualities during the events described in the movie,” Wilmarth wrote in an e-mail.

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