April 15, 2004

During the next six years, O'Neill became the bureau's most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists as they struck against American interests around the world.

How could the 9/11 Commission fail to explore the
story of John O'Neill in the context of its
investigation of pre-9/11 activities of the US DoJ,
the FBI and the CIA? What is happening in this
country? What is in those 28 blacked out pages from
the congressional 9/11 report? Even the Saudis have
requested that the incredible shrinking _resident
declassify them? But most people don't remember
that...CONTEXT, my friends, CONTEXT and
CONTINUITY...The LNS distributed this story when it
first came out, here it is again, if the "US
mainstream news media" refuses to provide you the
CONTEXT and the CONTINUITY you need, the LNS will, if
the 9/11 Commission is incapable of opening up this
file, the LNS will..."Out, out damn spot!"

Lawrence Wright, New Yorker: During the next six years, O'Neill became the bureau's most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists as they struck against American interests around the world. Brash, ambitious, often full of
himself, O'Neill had a confrontational personality
that brought him powerful enemies. Even so, he was too
valuable to ignore. He was the point man in the
investigation of the terrorist attacks in Saudi
Arabia, East Africa, and Yemen. At a time when the
Clinton Administration was struggling to decide how to
respond to the terrorist threat, O'Neill, along with
others in the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., realized that Al
Qaeda was relentless and resourceful and that its
ultimate target was America itself. In the last days
of his life, after he had taken a new job as the chief
of security for the World Trade Center, he was warning
friends, "We're due."

Repudiate the 9/11 Cover-Up and the Iraq War Lies,
Show Up for Democracy in 2004: Defeat Bush (again!)


John O'Neill was an F.B.I. agent with an obsession: the growing threat of Al Qaeda.
Issue of 2002-01-14
Posted 2002-01-14
The legend of John P. O'Neill, who lost his life at
the World Trade Center on September 11th, begins with
a story by Richard A. Clarke, the national coördinator
for counter-terrorism in the White House from the
first Bush Administration until last year. On a Sunday
morning in February, 1995, Clarke went to his office
to review intelligence cables that had come in over
the weekend. One of the cables reported that Ramzi
Yousef, the suspected mastermind behind the first
World Trade Center bombing, two years earlier, had
been spotted in Pakistan. Clarke immediately called
the F.B.I. A man whose voice was unfamiliar to him
answered the phone. "O'Neill," he growled.

"Who are you?" Clarke said.

"I'm John O'Neill," the man replied. "Who the hell are

O'Neill had just been appointed chief of the F.B.I.'s
counter-terrorism section, in Washington. He was
forty-two years old, and had been transferred from the
bureau's Chicago office. After driving all night, he
had gone directly to headquarters that Sunday morning
without dropping off his bags. When he heard Clarke's
report about Yousef, O'Neill entered the F.B.I.'s
Strategic Information Operations Center (SIOC) and
telephoned Thomas Pickard, the head of the bureau's
National Security Division in New York. Pickard then
called Mary Jo White, the United States Attorney for
the Southern District of New York, who had indicted
Yousef in the bombing case.

One of O'Neill's new responsibilities was to put
together a team to bring the suspect home. It was
composed of agents who were working on the case, a
State Department representative, a medical doctor, a
hostage-rescue team, and a fingerprint expert whose
job was to make sure that the suspect was, in fact,
Ramzi Yousef. Under ordinary circumstances, the host
country would be asked to detain the suspect until
extradition paperwork had been signed and the F.B.I.
could place the man in custody. There was no time for
that. Yousef was reportedly preparing to board a bus
for Peshawar. Unless he was apprehended, he would soon
cross the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, where he would
be out of reach. There was only one F.B.I. agent in
Pakistan at the time, along with several agents from
the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State
Department's diplomatic-security bureau. "Our
Ambassador had to get in his car and go ripping across
town to get the head of the local military
intelligence," Clarke recalled. "The chief gave him
his own personal aides, and this ragtag bunch of
American law-enforcement officials and a couple of
Pakistani soldiers set off to catch Yousef before he
got on the bus." O'Neill, working around the clock for
the next three days, coördinated the entire effort. At
10 A.M. Pakistan time, on Tuesday, February 7th, SIOC
was informed that the World Trade Center bomber was in

During the next six years, O'Neill became the bureau's
most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his Al
Qaeda network of terrorists as they struck against
American interests around the world. Brash, ambitious,
often full of himself, O'Neill had a confrontational
personality that brought him powerful enemies. Even
so, he was too valuable to ignore. He was the point
man in the investigation of the terrorist attacks in
Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and Yemen. At a time when
the Clinton Administration was struggling to decide
how to respond to the terrorist threat, O'Neill, along
with others in the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., realized
that Al Qaeda was relentless and resourceful and that
its ultimate target was America itself. In the last
days of his life, after he had taken a new job as the
chief of security for the World Trade Center, he was
warning friends, "We're due."

"I am the F.B.I.," John O'Neill liked to boast. He had
wanted to work for the bureau since boyhood, when he
watched Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as the buttoned-down
Inspector Lewis Erskine in the TV series "The F.B.I."
O'Neill was born in 1952 and brought up in Atlantic
City, where his mother drove a cab for a small taxi
business that she and his father owned. After
graduating from Holy Spirit High School, he got a job
as a fingerprint clerk with the F.B.I. During his
first semester in college, he married his high-school
sweetheart, Christine, and when he was twenty their
son, John P. O'Neill, Jr., was born. O'Neill put
himself through a master's program in forensics at
George Washington University by serving as a tour
guide at the F.B.I. headquarters. In 1976, he became a
full-time agent in the bureau's office in Baltimore;
ten years later, he returned to headquarters and
served as an inspector. In 1991, he was named
assistant special agent in charge in the Chicago
office. In 1994, he received the additional assignment
of supervising VAPCON, a national investigation into
violence against abortion providers. The following
year, he transferred to headquarters to become the
counter-terrorism chief.

John Lipka, an agent who met O'Neill during the VAPCON
probe, marvelled at his ability to move so easily from
investigating organized crime and official corruption
to the thornier field of counter-terrorism. "He was a
very quick study," Lipka told me. "I'd been working
terrorism since '86, but he'd walk out of the Hoover
building, flag a cab, and I'd brief him on the way to
the White House. Then he'd give a presentation, and
I'd be shocked that he grasped everything I had been
working on for weeks."

O'Neill entered the bureau in the J. Edgar Hoover era,
and throughout his career he had something of the
old-time G-man about him. He talked tough, in a New
Jersey accent that many loved to imitate. He was
darkly handsome, with black eyes and slicked-back
hair. In a culture that favors discreet anonymity, he
cut a memorable figure. He favored fine cigars and
Chivas Regal and water with a twist, and carried a
nine-millimetre automatic strapped to his ankle. His
manner was bluff and dominating, but he was always
immaculately, even fussily, dressed. One of his
colleagues in Washington took note of O'Neill's
"night-club wardrobe"—black double-breasted suits,
semitransparent black socks, and ballet-slipper shoes.
"He had very delicate feet and hands, and, with his
polished fingernails, he made quite an impression."

In Washington, O'Neill became part of a close-knit
group of counter-terrorism experts which formed around
Richard Clarke. In the web of federal agencies
concerned with terrorism, Clarke was the spider.
Everything that touched the web eventually came to his
attention. The members of this inner circle, which was
known as the Counter-terrorism Security Group
(C.S.G.), were drawn mainly from the C.I.A., the
National Security Council, and the upper tiers of the
Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the
State Department. They met every week in the White
House Situation Room. "John could lead a discussion at
that level," R. P. Eddy, who was an N.S.C. director at
the time, told me. "He was not just the guy you turned
to for a situation report. He was the guy who would
say the thing that everybody in the room wishes he had

In July of 1996, when T.W.A. Flight 800 crashed off
the coast of Long Island, there was widespread
speculation in the C.S.G. that it had been shot down
by a shoulder-fired missile from the shore. Dozens of
witnesses reported having seen an ascending flare that
culminated in an explosion. According to Clarke,
O'Neill, working with the Defense Department,
determined the height of the aircraft and its distance
from shore at the time of the explosion, and
demonstrated that it was out of the range of a Stinger
missile. He proposed that the flare could have been
caused by the ignition of leaking fuel from the
aircraft, and he persuaded the C.I.A. to do a video
simulation of this scenario, which proved to be
strikingly similar to the witnesses' accounts. It is
now generally agreed that mechanical failure, not
terrorism, caused the explosion of T.W.A. Flight 800.

Clarke immediately spotted in O'Neill an obsessiveness
about the dangers of terrorism which mirrored his own.
"John had the same problems with the bureaucracy that
I had," Clarke told me. "Prior to September 11th, a
lot of people who were working full time on terrorism
thought it was no more than a nuisance. They didn't
understand that Al Qaeda was enormously powerful and
insidious and that it was not going to stop until it
really hurt us. John and some other senior officials
knew that. The impatience really grew in us as we
dealt with the dolts who didn't understand."

Osama bin Laden had been linked to terrorism since the
first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993. His name
had turned up on a list of donors to an Islamic
charity that helped finance the bombing, and
defendants in the case referred to a "Sheikh Osama" in
a recorded conversation. "We started looking at who
was involved in these events, and it seemed like an
odd group of people getting together," Clarke
recalled. "They clearly had money. We'd see C.I.A.
reports that referred to 'financier Osama bin Laden,'
and we'd ask ourselves, 'Who the hell is he?' The more
we drilled down, the more we realized that he was not
just a financier—he was the leader. John said, 'We've
got to get this guy. He's building a network.
Everything leads back to him.' Gradually, the C.I.A.
came along with us."

O'Neill worked with Clarke to establish clear lines of
responsibility among the intelligence agencies, and in
1995 their efforts resulted in a Presidential
directive giving the F.B.I. the lead authority both in
investigating and in preventing acts of terrorism
wherever Americans or American interests were
threatened. After the April, 1995, bombing in Oklahoma
City, O'Neill formed a separate section for domestic
terrorism, but he concentrated on redesigning and
expanding the foreign-terrorism branch. He organized a
swap of deputies between his office and the C.I.A.'s
counter-terrorism center, despite resistance from both

"John told me that if you put the resources and
talents of the C.I.A.'s counter-terrorism center and
the F.B.I.'s counter-terrorism section together on any
issue, we can solve it—but we need both," Lipka
recalled. In January, 1996, O'Neill helped create a
C.I.A. station, code-named Alex, with a single-minded
purpose. "Its mission was not just tracking down bin
Laden but focussing on his infrastructure, his
capabilities, where he got his funding, where were his
bases of operation and his training centers," Lipka
said. "Many of the same things we are doing now, that
station was already doing then."

The coöperation that O'Neill achieved between the
bureau and the C.I.A. was all the more remarkable
because opinions about him were sharply polarized.
O'Neill could be brutal, not only with underlings but
also with superiors when they failed to meet his
expectations. An agent in the Chicago office who felt
his disapproval told me, "He was smarter than
everybody else, and he would use that fine mind to
absolutely humiliate people."

In Washington, there was one terrorist-related crisis
after another. "We worked a bomb a month," Lipka
recalled. Often, O'Neill would break for dinner and be
back in the office at ten. "Most people couldn't keep
up with his passion and intensity," Lipka said. "He
was able to identify those people who shared his work
ethic, and then he tasked the living shit out of them,
with E-mails and status briefings and phones and
pagers going off all the time, to the point that I
asked him, 'When do you sleep?' " O'Neill began
acquiring nicknames that testified to his
relentlessness, among them the Count, the Prince of
Darkness, and Satan.

But many in the bureau who disliked O'Neill eventually
became devoted followers. He went to extraordinary
lengths to help when they faced health problems or
financial difficulty. "He was our Elvis—you knew when
he was in the house," Kevin Giblin, the F.B.I.'s head
of terrorist warning, recalled.

O'Neill's tenure in the F.B.I. coincided with the
internationalization of crime and law enforcement.
Prior to his appointment as the bureau's
counter-terrorism chief, the F.B.I. had limited its
involvement to operations in which Americans had been
killed. "O'Neill came in with a much more global
approach," Lipka told me. One of his innovations was
to catalogue all the explosives used by terrorists
worldwide. "He thought, When a bomb goes off in the
Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, even though no
Americans were killed, why don't we offer our
assistance, so that we can put that information on a
global forensic database," Lipka said. Since 1984, the
F.B.I. had had the authority to investigate crimes
against Americans abroad, but that mandate had been
handicapped by a lack of coöperation with foreign
police agencies. O'Neill made a habit of entertaining
every foreign cop or intelligence agent who entered
his orbit. He called it his "night job."

"John's approach to law enforcement was that of the
old Irish ward boss to governance: you collect
friendships and debts and obligations, because you
never know when you're going to need them," Clarke
told me. He was constantly on the phone, doing favors,
massaging contacts. By the time he died, he had become
one of the best-known policemen in the world. "You'd
be in Moscow at some bilateral exchange," Giblin
recalled, "and you'd see three or four men approach
and say, in broken English, 'Do you know John
O'Neill?' "

The need to improve relationships with foreign police
agencies became apparent in November, 1995, when five
Americans and two Indians died in the bombing of an
American-run military-training center in Riyadh, Saudi
Arabia. The F.B.I. sent over a small squad to
investigate, but the agents had scarcely arrived when
the Saudis arrested four suspects and beheaded them,
foreclosing any opportunity to learn who was behind
the operation.

In the spring of 1996, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who had
supported a plot by Al Qaeda against American soldiers
in Somalia four years earlier, arrived at the American
Embassy in Asmara, Eritrea. The C.I.A. debriefed him
for six months, then turned him over to the F.B.I.,
which put him in the witness-protection program. Fadl
provided the first extensive road map of the bin Laden
terrorist empire. "Fadl was a gold mine," an
intelligence source who was present during some of the
interviews told me. "He described the network, bin
Laden's companies, his farms, his operations in the
ports." Fadl also talked about bin Laden's desire to
attack Americans, including his ambition to obtain
uranium. The news was widely circulated among members
of the intelligence community, including O'Neill, and
yet the State Department refused to list Al Qaeda as a
terrorist organization.

On June 25, 1996, O'Neill arranged a retreat for
F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents at the bureau's training
center in Quantico, Virginia. "We had hot dogs and
hamburgers, and John let the C.I.A. guys on the firing
range, because they never get to shoot," Giblin
recalled. "Then everyone's beeper went off." Another
explosion in Saudi Arabia, at the Khobar Towers, a
military-housing complex in Dhahran, had killed
nineteen American soldiers and injured more than five
hundred other people, including Saudis. O'Neill
assembled a team of nearly a hundred agents, support
personnel, and members of various police agencies. The
next day, they were on an Air Force transport plane to
Saudi Arabia. A few weeks later, they were joined by
O'Neill and the F.B.I. director, Louis Freeh.

It was evening when the two men arrived in Dhahran.
The disaster site was a vast crater illuminated by
lights on high stanchions; nearby lay charred
automobiles and upended Humvees. Looming above the
debris were the ruins of the housing complex. This was
the largest bomb that the F.B.I. had ever
investigated, even more powerful than the explosives
that had killed a hundred and sixty-eight people in
Oklahoma City in 1995. O'Neill walked through the
rubble, greeting exhausted agents who were sifting the
sand for evidence. Under a tarp nearby, investigators
were gradually reconstructing fragments of the truck
that had carried the bomb.

In the Khobar Towers case, neither the Saudis nor the
State Department seemed eager to pursue a trail of
evidence that pointed to Iranian terrorists as the
likeliest perpetrators. The Clinton Administration did
not relish the prospect of military retaliation
against a country that seemed to be moderating its
anti-Western policies, and, according to Clarke, the
Saudis impeded the F.B.I. investigation because they
were worried about the American response. "They were
afraid that we would have to bomb Iran," I was told by
a Clinton Administration official, who added that that
would have been a likely course of action.

Freeh was initially optimistic that the Saudis would
coöperate, but O'Neill became increasingly frustrated,
and eventually a rift seems to have developed between
the two men. "John started telling Louis things Louis
didn't want to hear," Clarke said. "John told me that,
after one of the many trips he and Freeh took to the
Mideast to get better coöperation from the Saudis,
they boarded the Gulfstream to come home and Freeh
says, 'Wasn't that a great trip? I think they're
really going to help us.' And John says, 'You've got
to be kidding. They didn't give us anything. They were
just shining sunshine up your ass.' For the next
twelve hours, Freeh didn't say another word to him."

Freeh denies that this conversation took place. "Of
course, John and I discussed the results of every trip
at that time," he wrote to me in an E-mail. "However,
John never made that statement to me. . . . John and I
had an excellent relationship based on trust and

O'Neill longed to get out of Washington so that he
could "go operational," as he told John Lipka, and
supervise cases again. In January, 1997, he became
special agent in charge of the National Security
Division in New York, the bureau's largest and most
prestigious field office. When he arrived, he dumped
four boxes of Rolodex cards on the desk of his new
secretary, Lorraine di Taranto. Then he handed her a
list of everyone he wanted to meet—"the mayor, the
police commissioner, the deputy police commissioners,
the heads of the federal agencies, religious and
ethnic leaders," di Taranto recalled. Within six
months, O'Neill had met everyone on the list.

"Everybody knew John," R. P. Eddy, who left Washington
in 1999 for a job at the United Nations, told me. "You
would walk into Elaine's or Bruno's with him, and
everyone from the owner to the waiters to the guy who
cleaned the floor would look up. And the amazing thing
is they would all have a private discussion with him
at some point. The waitress wanted tickets to a
Michael Jackson concert. One of the wait staff was
applying for a job with the bureau, and John would be
helping him with that. After a night of this, I
remember saying, 'John, you've got this town wired.'
And he said, 'What's the point of being sheriff if you
can't act like one?' "

O'Neill was soon on intimate terms with movie stars,
politicians, and journalists—what some of his
detractors called "the Elaine's crowd." In the spring
of 1998, one of O'Neill's New York friends, a producer
at ABC News named Christopher Isham, arranged an
interview for a network reporter, John Miller, with
Osama bin Laden. Miller's narration contained
information to the effect that one of bin Laden's
aides was coöperating with the F.B.I. The leak of that
detail created, in Isham's words, "a firestorm in the
bureau." O'Neill, because of his friendship with Isham
and Miller, was suspected of providing the
information, and an internal investigation was
launched. The matter died down after the newsmen
denied that O'Neill was their informant and
volunteered to take polygraphs.

In New York, O'Neill created a special Al Qaeda desk,
and when the bombings of the American embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania occurred, in August, 1998, he was
sure that bin Laden was behind them. "He was pissed,
he was beside himself," Robert M. Blitzer, who was
head of the F.B.I.'s domestic-terrorism section at the
time, remembered. "He was calling me every day. He
wanted control of that investigation." O'Neill
persuaded Freeh to let the New York office handle the
case, and he eventually dispatched nearly five hundred
investigators to Africa. Mary Jo White, whose
prosecuting team subsequently convicted five
defendants in the case, told me, "John O'Neill, in the
investigation of the bombings of our embassies in East
Africa, created the template for successful
investigations of international terrorism around the

The counter-terrorist community was stunned by the
level of coördination required to pull off the
simultaneous bombings. Even more troubling was the
escalation of violence against civilians. According to
Steven Simon, then a terrorist expert at the N.S.C.,
as many as five American embassies had been
targeted—luck and better intelligence had saved the
others. It was discouraging to learn that, nearly a
year before, a member of Al Qaeda had walked into the
American Embassy in Nairobi and told the C.I.A. of the
bombing plot. The agency had dismissed this
intelligence as unreliable. "The guy was a bullshit
artist, completely off the map," an intelligence
source said. But his warnings about the impending
attacks proved accurate.

Moreover, key members of the Al Qaeda cell that
planned the operation had been living in one of the
most difficult places in the Western world to gain
intelligence: the United States. The F.B.I. is
constrained from spying on American citizens and
visitors without probable cause. Lacking evidence that
potential conspirators were actively committing a
crime, the bureau could do little to gather
information on the domestic front. O'Neill felt that
his hands were tied. "John was never satisfied," one
of his friends in the bureau recalled. "He said we
were fighting a war, but we were not able to fight
back. He thought we never had the tools in place to do
the job."

O'Neill never presumed that killing bin Laden alone
would be sufficient. In speeches, he identified five
tools to combat terrorism: diplomacy, military action,
covert operations, economic sanctions, and law
enforcement. So far, the tool that had worked most
effectively against Al Qaeda was the last one—the
slow, difficult work of gathering evidence, getting
indictments, hunting down the perpetrators, and
gaining convictions.

O'Neill was worried that terrorists had established a
beachhead in America. In a June, 1997, speech in
Chicago, he warned, "Almost all of the groups today,
if they chose to, have the ability to strike us here
in the United States." He was particularly concerned
that, as the millennium approached, Al Qaeda would
seize the moment to dramatize its war with America.
The intelligence to support that hypothesis was
frustratingly absent, however.

On December 14, 1999, a border guard in Port Angeles,
Washington, stopped an Algerian man, Ahmed Ressam, who
then bolted from his car. He was captured as he tried
to hijack another automobile. In the trunk of his car
were four timers, more than a hundred pounds of urea,
and fourteen pounds of sulfate—the makings of an
Oklahoma City-type bomb. It turned out that Ressam's
target was Los Angeles International Airport. The
following day, Jordanian authorities arrested thirteen
suspected terrorists who were believed to be planning
to blow up a Radisson Hotel in Amman and a number of
tourist sites frequented by Westerners. The Jordanians
also discovered an Al Qaeda training manual on CD-ROM.

What followed was, according to Clarke, the most
comprehensive investigation ever conducted before
September 11th. O'Neill's job was to supervise the
operation in New York. Authorities had found several
phone numbers on Ressam when he was arrested. There
was also a name, Ghani, which belonged to Abdel Ghani
Meskini, an Algerian, who lived in Brooklyn and who
had travelled to Seattle to meet with Ressam. O'Neill
oversaw the stakeout of Meskini's residence and spent
much of his time in the Brooklyn command post. "I
doubt he slept the whole month," David N. Kelley, an
assistant United States Attorney and chief of
organized crime and terrorism for the Southern
District, recalled. A wiretap picked up a call that
Meskini had made to Algeria in which he spoke about
Ressam and a suspected terrorist in Montreal. On
December 30th, O'Neill arrested Meskini on conspiracy
charges and a number of other suspected terrorists on
immigration violations. (Meskini and Ressam eventually
became coöperating witnesses and are both assisting
the F.B.I.'s investigation of the September 11th

O'Neill was proud of the efforts of the F.B.I. and the
New York Joint Terrorism Task Force to avert
catastrophe. On New Year's Eve, he and his friend
Joseph Dunne, then the Chief of Department for the New
York City Police, went to Times Square, which they
believed was a highly likely target. At midnight,
O'Neill called friends at SIOC and boasted that he was
standing directly under the giant crystal ball.

After the millennium roundup, O'Neill suspected that
Al Qaeda had sleeper cells buried in America. "He
started pulling the strings in Jordan and in Canada,
and in the end they all led back to the United
States," Clarke said. "There was a general disbelief
in the F.B.I. that Al Qaeda had much of a presence
here. It just hadn't sunk through to the organization,
beyond O'Neill and Dale Watson"—the assistant director
of the counter-terrorism division. Clarke's
discussions with O'Neill and Watson over the next few
months led to a strategic plan called the Millennium
After-Action Review, which specified a number of
policy changes designed to root out Al Qaeda cells in
the United States. They included increasing the number
of Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country;
assigning more agents from the Internal Revenue
Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service
to monitor the flow of money and personnel; and
creating a streamlined process for analyzing
information obtained from wiretaps.

Many in the F.B.I. point to the millennium
investigation as one of the bureau's great recent
successes. A year earlier, O'Neill had been passed
over when the position of assistant director in charge
of national security became available. When the post
of chief of the New York office opened up, in early
2000, O'Neill lobbied fiercely for it. The job went to
Barry Mawn, a former special agent in charge of the
Boston office. As it happened, the two men met at a
seminar just after the decision was announced. "I got
a knock on the door, and there was John holding two
beers," Mawn recalled. O'Neill promised complete
loyalty in return for Mawn's support of his work on
counter-terrorism. "It turns out that supporting him
was a full-time job," Mawn said.

O'Neill had many detractors and very few defenders
left in Washington. Despite occasional disagreements,
Louis Freeh had always supported O'Neill, but Freeh
had announced that he would retire in June, 2001. A
friend of O'Neill's, Jerry Hauer, of the New
York-based security firm Kroll, told me that Thomas
Pickard, who had become the bureau's deputy director
in 1999, was "an institutional roadblock." Hauer
added, "It was very clear to John that Pickard was
never going to let him get promoted." Others felt that
O'Neill was his own worst enemy. "He was always trying
to leverage himself to the next job," Dale Watson
said. John Lipka, who considers himself a close friend
of O'Neill, attributes some of O'Neill's problems to
his flamboyant image. "The bureau doesn't like
high-profile people," he said. "It's a very
conservative culture."

The World Trade Center had become a symbol of
America's success in fighting terrorism, and in
September, 2000, the New York Joint Terrorism Task
Force celebrated its twentieth anniversary in the
Windows on the World restaurant. The event was
attended by representatives of seventeen
law-enforcement agencies, including agents from the
F.B.I. and the C.I.A., New York City and Port
Authority policemen, United States marshals, and
members of the Secret Service. Mary Jo White praised
the task force for a "close to absolutely perfect
record of successful investigations and convictions."
White had served eight years as the United States
Attorney for the Southern District, and she had
convicted twenty-five Islamic terrorists, including
Yousef, six other World Trade Center bombers, the
blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, and nine of
Rahman's followers, who had planned to blow up the
Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the United Nations
headquarters, and the F.B.I. offices.

O'Neill seemed at ease that night. Few of his
colleagues knew of a troubling incident that had
occurred two months earlier at an F.B.I.
pre-retirement conference in Orlando. During a
meeting, O'Neill had been paged. He left the room to
return the call, and when he came back, a few minutes
later, the other agents had broken for lunch. His
briefcase, which contained classified material, was
missing. O'Neill immediately called the local police,
and they found the briefcase a couple of hours later,
in another hotel. A Montblanc pen had been stolen,
along with a silver cigar cutter and a lighter. The
papers were intact; fingerprint analysis soon
established that they had not been touched.

"He phoned me and said, 'I gotta tell you something,'
" Barry Mawn recalled. O'Neill told Mawn that the
briefcase contained some classified E-mails and one
highly sensitive document, the Annual Field Office
Report, which is an overview of every
counter-terrorist and counter-espionage case in New
York. Mawn reported the incident to Neil Gallagher,
the bureau's assistant director in charge of national
security. "John understood the seriousness of what he
had done, and if he were alive today he'd tell you he
made a stupid mistake," Gallagher told me. Even though
none of the information had been compromised, the
Justice Department ordered a criminal inquiry.

Mawn said that, as O'Neill's supervisor, he would have
recommended an oral reprimand or, at worst, a letter
of censure. Despite their competition for the top job
in New York, Mawn had become one of O'Neill's
staunchest defenders. "He demanded perfection, which
was a large part of why the New York office is so
terrific," Mawn said. "But underneath his manner, deep
down, he was very insecure."

On October 12, 2000, a small boat filled with C4
explosives motored alongside a U.S. destroyer, the
Cole, which was fuelling up off the coast of Yemen.
Two men aboard the small craft waved at the larger
vessel, then blew themselves to pieces. Seventeen
American sailors died, and thirty-nine others were
seriously wounded.

O'Neill knew that Yemen was going to be an extremely
difficult place in which to conduct an investigation.
In 1992, bin Laden's network had bombed a hotel in
Aden, hoping to kill a number of American soldiers.
The country was filled with spies and with jihadis and
was reeling from a 1994 civil war. "Yemen is a country
of eighteen million citizens and 50 million machine
guns," O'Neill reported. On the day the investigators
arrived in Yemen, O'Neill warned them, "This may be
the most hostile environment the F.B.I. has ever
operated in."

The American Ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, saw
things differently. In her eyes, Yemen was the poor
and guileless cousin of the swaggering
petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Unlike other
countries in the region, it was a constitutional
democracy—however fragile—in which women were allowed
to vote. Bodine had had extensive experience in Arab
countries. During the Iraqi invasion and occupation of
Kuwait, she had been the deputy chief of mission in
Kuwait City, and she had stayed through the
hundred-and-thirty-seven-day siege of the American
Embassy by Iraqi troops until all the Americans were

Bodine, who is on assignment from the State Department
as diplomat-in-residence at the University of
California at Santa Barbara, contends that she and
O'Neill had agreed that he would bring in a team of no
more than fifty. She was furious when three hundred
investigators, support staff, and marines arrived,
many carrying automatic weapons. "Try to imagine if a
military plane from another country landed in Des
Moines, and three hundred heavily armed people took
over," she told me recently. Bodine recalled that she
pleaded with O'Neill to consider the delicate
diplomatic environment he was entering. She quoted him
as responding, "We don't care about the environment.
We're just here to investigate a crime."

"There was the F.B.I. way, and that was it," she said
to me. "O'Neill wasn't unique. He was simply extreme."
According to Michael Sheehan, who was the State
Department's coördinator for counter-terrorism at the
time, such conflicts between ambassadors and the
bureau are not unusual, given their differing
perspectives; however, Bodine had been given clear
instructions from the outset of the investigation. "I
drafted a cable under [then Secretary of State]
Madeleine Albright's signature saying that there were
three guiding principles," Sheehan said. "The highest
priorities were the immediate safety of American
personnel and the investigation of the attack. No. 3
was maintaining a relationship with the government of
Yemen— but only to support those objectives."

O'Neill's investigators were billeted three or four to
a room in an Aden hotel. "Forty-five F.B.I. personnel
slept on mats on the ballroom floor," he later
reported. He set up a command post on the eighth
floor, which was surrounded by sandbags and protected
by a company of fifty marines.

O'Neill spent much of his time coaxing the Yemeni
authorities to coöperate. To build a case that would
hold up in American courts, he wanted his agents
present during interrogations by local authorities, in
part to insure that none of the suspects were
tortured. He also wanted to gather eyewitness
testimony from residents who had seen the explosion.
Both the Yemeni authorities and Bodine resisted these
requests. "You want a bunch of six-foot-two
Irish-Americans to go door-to-door?" Bodine remembers
saying to O'Neill. "And, excuse me, but how many of
your guys speak Arabic?"

There were only half a dozen Arabic speakers in the
F.B.I. contingent, and even O'Neill acknowledged that
their competence was sometimes in question. On one
occasion, he complained to a Yemeni intelligence
officer, "Getting information out of you is like
pulling teeth." When his comment was translated, the
Yemeni's eyes widened. The translator had told him,
"If you don't give me the information I want, I'm
going to pull out your teeth."

When O'Neill expressed his frustration to Washington,
President Clinton sent a note to President Ali
Abdullah Saleh. It had little effect. According to
agents on the scene, O'Neill's people were never given
the authority they needed for a proper investigation.
Much of their time was spent on board the Cole,
interviewing sailors, or lounging around the
sweltering hotel. Some of O'Neill's requests for
evidence mystified the Yemenis. They couldn't
understand, for instance, why he was demanding a hat
worn by one of the conspirators, which O'Neill wanted
to examine for DNA evidence. Even the harbor sludge,
which contained residue from the bomb, was off limits
until the bureau paid the Yemeni government a million
dollars to dredge it.

There were so many perceived threats that the agents
often slept in their clothes and with their guns at
their sides. Bodine thought that much of this fear was
overblown. "They were deeply suspicious of everyone,
including the hotel staff," she told me. She assured
O'Neill that gunfire outside the hotel was probably
not directed at the investigators but was simply the
noise of wedding celebrations. Still, she added that,
for the investigators' own safety, she wanted to lower
the bureau's profile by reducing the number of agents
and stripping them of heavy weapons. Upon receiving a
bomb threat, the investigators evacuated the hotel and
moved to an American vessel, the U.S.S. Duluth. After
that, they had to request permission just to come

Relations between Bodine and O'Neill deteriorated to
the point that Barry Mawn flew to Yemen to assess the
situation. "She represented that John was insulting,
and not getting along well with the Yemenis," he
recalled. Mawn talked to members of the F.B.I. team
and American military officers, and he observed
O'Neill's interactions with Yemeni authorities. He
told O'Neill that he was doing "an outstanding job."
On Mawn's return, he reported favorably on O'Neill to
Freeh, adding that Bodine was his "only detractor."

An ambassador, however, has authority over which
Americans are allowed to stay in a foreign country. A
month after the investigation began, Assistant
Director Dale Watson told the Washington Post,
"Sustained cooperation" with the Yemenis "has enabled
the F.B.I. to further reduce its in-country presence.
. . . The F.B.I. will soon be able to bring home the
F.B.I.'s senior on-scene commander, John O'Neill." It
appeared to be a very public surrender. The same day,
the Yemeni Prime Minister told the Post that no link
had been discovered between the Cole bombers and Al

The statement was premature, to say the least. In
fact, it is possible that some of the planning for the
Cole bombing and the September 11th attacks took place
simultaneously. It is now believed that at least two
of the suspected conspirators in the Cole bombing had
attended a meeting of alleged bin Laden associates in
Malaysia, in January, 2000. Under C.I.A. pressure,
Malaysian authorities had conducted a surveillance of
the gathering, turning up a number of faces but, in
the absence of wiretaps, nothing of what was said. "It
didn't seem like much at the time," a Clinton
Administration official told me. "None of the faces
showed up in our own files." Early last year, the
F.B.I. targeted the men who were present at the
Malaysia meeting as potential terrorists. Two of them
were subsequently identified as hijackers in the
September 11th attacks.

After two months in Yemen, O'Neill came home feeling
that he was fighting the counter-terrorism battle
without support from his own government. He had made
some progress in gaining access to evidence, but so
far the investigation had been a failure. Concerned
about continuing threats against the remaining F.B.I.
investigators, he tried to return in January of 2001.
Bodine denied his application to reënter the country.
She refuses to discuss that decision. "Too much is
being made of John O'Neill's being in Yemen or not,"
she told me. "John O'Neill did not discover Al Qaeda.
He did not discover Osama bin Laden. So the idea that
John or his people or the F.B.I. were somehow barred
from doing their job is insulting to the U.S.
government, which was working on Al Qaeda before John
ever showed up. This is all my embassy did for ten
months. The fact that not every single thing John
O'Neill asked for was appropriate or possible does not
mean that we did not support the investigation."

After O'Neill's departure, the remaining agents,
feeling increasingly vulnerable, retreated to the
American Embassy in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. In
June, the Yemeni authorities arrested eight men who
they said were part of a plot to blow up the Embassy.
New threats against the F.B.I. followed, and Freeh,
acting upon O'Neill's recommendation, withdrew the
team entirely. Its members were, he told me, "the
highest target during this period." Bodine calls the
pullout "unconscionable." In her opinion, there was
never a specific, credible threat against the bureau.
The American Embassy, Bodine points out, stayed open.
But within days American military forces in the Middle
East were put on top alert.

Few people in the bureau knew that O'Neill had a wife
and two children (John, Jr., and his younger sister,
Carol) in New Jersey, who did not join him when he
moved to Chicago, in 1991. In his New York office, the
most prominent pictures were not family photographs
but French Impressionist prints. On his coffee table
was a book about tulips, and his office was always
filled with flowers. He was a terrific dancer, and he
boasted that he had been on "American Bandstand" when
he was a teen-ager. Some women found him irresistibly
sexy. Others thought him a cad.

Shortly after he arrived in Chicago, O'Neill met
Valerie James, a fashion sales director, who was
divorced and was raising two children. Four years
later, when he transferred to headquarters, in
Washington, he also began seeing Anna DiBattista, who
worked for a travel agency. Then, when he moved to New
York, Valerie James joined him. In 1999, DiBattista
moved to New York to take a new job, complicating his
life considerably. His friends in Chicago and New York
knew Valerie, and his friends in Washington knew Anna.
If his friends happened to see him in the company of
the "wrong" woman, he pledged them to secrecy.

On holidays, O'Neill went home to New Jersey to visit
his parents and to see his children. Only John P.
O'Neill, Jr., who is a computer expert for the
credit-card company M.B.N.A., in Wilmington, Delaware,
agreed to speak to me about his father. His remarks
were guarded. He described a close relationship—"We
talked a few times a week"—but there are parts of his
father's past that he refuses to discuss. "My father
liked to keep his private life private," he said.

Both James and DiBattista remember how O'Neill would
beg for forgiveness and then promise better times.
James told me, "He'd say, 'I just want to be loved,
just love me,' but you couldn't really trust him, so
he never got the love he asked for."

The stress of O'Neill's tangled personal life began to
affect his professional behavior. One night, he left
his Palm Pilot in Yankee Stadium; it was filled with
his police contacts all around the world. On another
occasion, he left his cell phone in a cab. In the
summer of 1999, he and James were driving to the
Jersey shore when his Buick broke down near the
Meadowlands. As it happened, his bureau car was parked
nearby, at a secret office location, and O'Neill
switched cars. One of the most frequently violated
rules in the bureau is the use of an official vehicle
for personal reasons, and O'Neill's infraction might
have been overlooked had he not let James enter the
building to use the bathroom. "I had no idea what it
was," she told me. Still, when the F.B.I. learned
about the violation, apparently from an agent who had
been caught using the site as an auto-repair shop,
O'Neill was reprimanded and docked fifteen days' pay.
He regarded the bureau's action as part of a pattern.
"The last two years of his life, he got very
paranoid," James told me. "He was convinced there were
people out to get him."

In March, 2001, Richard Clarke asked the
national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, for a job
change; he wanted to concentrate on computer security.
"I was told, 'You've got to recommend somebody similar
to be your replacement,' " Clarke recalled. "I said,
'Well, there's only one person who would fit that
bill.' " For months, Clarke tried to persuade O'Neill
to become a candidate as his successor.

O'Neill had always harbored two aspirations—to become
a deputy director of the bureau in Washington or to
take over the New York office. Freeh was retiring in
June, so there were likely to be some vacancies at the
top, but the investigation into the briefcase incident
would likely block any promotion in the bureau.
O'Neill viewed Clarke's job as, in many ways, a
perfect fit for him. But he was financially pressed,
and Clarke's job paid no more than he was making at
the F.B.I. Throughout the summer, O'Neill refused to
commit himself to Clarke's offer. He talked about it
with a number of friends but became alarmed when he
thought that headquarters might hear of it. "He called
me in a worked-up state," Clarke recalled. "He said
that people in the C.I.A. and elsewhere know you are
considering recommending me for your job. You have to
tell them it's not true." Clarke dutifully called a
friend in the agency, even though O'Neill still wanted
to be a candidate for the position.

In July, O'Neill heard of a job opening in the private
sector which would pay more than twice his government
salary—that of chief of security for the World Trade
Center. Although the Justice Department dropped its
inquiry into the briefcase incident, the bureau was
conducting an internal investigation of its own.
O'Neill was aware that the Times was preparing a story
about the affair, and he learned that the reporters
also knew about the incident in New Jersey involving
James and had classified information that probably
came from the bureau's investigative files.The leak
seemed to be timed to destroy O'Neill's chance of
being confirmed for the N.S.C. job. He decided to

O'Neill suspected that the source of the information
was either Tom Pickard or Dale Watson. The antagonism
between him and Pickard was well known. "I've got a
pretty good Irish temper and so did John," Pickard,
who retired last November, told me. But he insisted
that their differences were professional, not
personal. The leak was "somebody being pretty vicious
to John," but Pickard maintained that he did not do
it. "I'd take a polygraph to it," he said. Watson told
me, "If you're asking me who leaks F.B.I. information,
I have no idea. I know I don't, and I know that Tom
Pickard doesn't, and I know that the director
doesn't." For all the talk about polygraphs, the
bureau ruled out an investigation into the source of
the leak, despite an official request by Barry Mawn,
in New York.

Meanwhile, intelligence had been streaming in
concerning a likely Al Qaeda attack. "It all came
together in the third week in June," Clarke said. "The
C.I.A.'s view was that a major terrorist attack was
coming in the next several weeks." On July 5th, Clarke
summoned all the domestic security agencies—the
Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard,
Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service,
and the F.B.I.—and told them to increase their
security in light of an impending attack.

On August 19th, the Times ran an article about the
briefcase incident and O'Neill's forthcoming
retirement, which was to take place three days later.
There was a little gathering for coffee as he packed
up his office.

When O'Neill told ABC's Isham of his decision to work
at the Trade Center, Isham had said jokingly, "At
least they're not going to bomb it again." O'Neill had
replied, "They'll probably try to finish the job." On
the day he started at the Trade Center—August 23rd—the
C.I.A. sent a cable to the F.B.I. saying that two
suspected Al Qaeda terrorists were already in the
country. The bureau tried to track them down, but the
addresses they had given when they entered the country
proved to be false, and the men were never located.

When he was growing up in Atlantic City, O'Neill was
an altar boy at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church. On
September 28th, a week after his body was found in the
rubble of the World Trade Center, a thousand mourners
gathered at St. Nicholas to say farewell. Many of them
were agents and policemen and members of foreign
intelligence services who had followed O'Neill into
the war against terrorism long before it became a
rallying cry for the nation. The hierarchy of the
F.B.I. attended, including the now retired director
Louis Freeh. Richard Clarke, who says that he had not
shed a tear since September 11th, suddenly broke down
when the bagpipes played and the casket passed by.

O'Neill's last weeks had been happy ones. The moment
he left the F.B.I., his spirits had lifted. He talked
about getting a new Mercedes to replace his old Buick.
He told Anna that they could now afford to get
married. On the last Saturday night of his life, he
attended a wedding with Valerie, and they danced
nearly every number. He told a friend within Valerie's
hearing, "I'm gonna get her a ring."

On September 10th, O'Neill called Robert Tucker, a
friend and security-company executive, and arranged to
get together that evening to talk about security
issues at the Trade Center. Tucker met O'Neill in the
lobby of the north tower, and the two men rode the
elevator up to O'Neill's new office, on the
thirty-fourth floor. "He was incredibly proud of what
he was doing," Tucker told me. Then they went to a bar
at the top of the tower for a drink. Afterward, they
headed uptown to Elaine's, where they were joined by
their friend Jerry Hauer. Around midnight, the three
men dropped in on the China Club, a night spot in
midtown. "John made the statement that he thought
something big was going to happen," Hauer recalled.

Valerie James waited up for O'Neill. He didn't come in
until 2:30 A.M. "The next morning, I was frosty," she
recalled. "He came into my bathroom and put his arms
around me. He said, 'Please forgive me.' " He offered
to drive her to work, and dropped her off at
eight-thirteen in the flower district, where she had
an appointment, and headed to the Trade Center.

At 8:46 A.M., when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed
into the north tower, John P. O'Neill, Jr., was on a
train to New York, to install some computer equipment
and visit his father's new office. From the window of
the train he saw smoke coming from the Trade Center.
He called his father on his cell phone. "He said he
was O.K. He was on his way out to assess the damage,"
John, Jr., recalled.

Valerie James was arranging flowers in her office when
"the phones started ringing off the hook." A second
airliner had just hit the south tower. "At
nine-seventeen, John calls," James remembered. He
said, "Honey, I want you to know I'm O.K. My God, Val,
it's terrible. There are body parts everywhere. Are
you crying?" he asked. She was. Then he said, "Val, I
think my employers are dead. I can't lose this job."

"They're going to need you more than ever," she told

At nine-twenty-five, Anna DiBattista, who was driving
to Philadelphia on business, received a call from
O'Neill. "The connection was good at the beginning,"
she recalled. "He was safe and outside. He said he was
O.K. I said, 'Are you sure you're out of the
building?' He told me he loved me. I knew he was going
to go back in."

Wesley Wong, an F.B.I. agent who had known O'Neill for
more than twenty years, raced over to the north tower
to help set up a command center. "John arrived on the
scene," Wong recalled. "He asked me if there was any
information I could divulge. I knew he was now
basically an outsider. One of the questions he asked
was 'Is it true the Pentagon has been hit?' I said,
'Gee, John, I don't know. Let me try to find out.' At
one point, he was on his cell phone and he was having
trouble with the reception and started walking away. I
said, 'I'll catch up with you later.' "

Wong last saw O'Neill walking toward the tunnel
leading to the second tower.

Posted by richard at April 15, 2004 10:09 AM