He headed the FBI’S New York office from 2000 to 2002. In this interview Mawn sums up the O’Neill he knew and discusses the battles they both encountered in the USS Cole and East Africa embassy bombing investigations. He also talks about the controversy over his statements at O’Neill’s memorial service. This interview was conducted on May 17, 2002
Can you describe the younger John O’Neill who you knew back then?
I’d go back to 1990 when I became an inspector. John was essentially one of a handful of guys that were inspectors’ aides on audits that you would look to if you came across a tough situation in a field office. Say, if we did an audit of the White Collar Crime Program and there was some possible difficulty, or it was not a good program and you needed to analyze what was wrong and then tell the office what recommendations, John was very good to put on that type of assignment.
He was bright. He was articulate. He had excellent experience, and he seemed to identify issues very quickly. So he was just good. He usually had a major assignment on any of the trips that I went on.
A tough guy?
John was always, I guess in my view, very blunt. He pretty much said what he felt. He did not sugarcoat things much. I would even say that that sometimes would rub other people the wrong way. I personally would rather a guy tell me straight out what he thinks, as opposed to somebody that is trying to sugarcoat it and do it end run around.
In an agency with thousands of agents, was John O’Neill one of those you would describe as a fast-track guy who was going to go places inside the FBI?
Yes, and I think he actually did. I think John moved pretty well through the system and got promotions on a fairly regular basis.
What does it take to move “fairly well through the system,” as you say?
Again, you have to good solid investigative experience. You need to have worked on major, complex investigations when you are a young agent, so you understood how to getting a wiretap or you knew how to run an undercover operation or you knew how to deal very effectively with informants. You could also be assigned a case and you knew how to get to the heart of the matter without a lot of wasted motions….
Is terrorism the right place to be at the right time for O’Neill when he lands in Washington?
Terrorism is perhaps the highest profile area of investigation that we have. It can be very quiet and kind of regular and steady and not a lot happens. But then if you have a major incident occur, everybody from the president of the United States on down is looking at the FBI and the terrorism and who is involved and what do you have and what are you doing. So it is definitely a place to be when things occur.
John liked to be in the spotlight, and he did well in the spotlight. He sometimes would irritate some of his superiors, because he was very straightforward and wanted to get things done. I think some of his superiors — he made them uneasy, actually. I think if they were not very confident or had the experience that either John did or some of the other agents, they’d get a little nervous.
But even if O’Neill didn’t have a particularly diplomatic side — that is really what you are saying — his expertise probably outweighed his lack of diplomacy at times in answering questions?
I think so. I’d say John knew how to be diplomatic if he needed to be. I would say that he saved that for people outside the agency as opposed to those inside the FBI. I think his method of operation is, again, to be very straightforward: “This is my thoughts. This is my opinion. Watch what you are asking for, I will give it to you straight.” He never particularly sugarcoated anything. I mean, he obviously didn’t do it in an insulting manner. He didn’t necessarily try to show people up. It was just his style.
You know, John, to me, on the one hand, could be both very secure, as far as analyzing a situation. But like all of us, he also had some of insecurities as to how he was doing. John would frequently ask me if things were good, if I was doing what he wanted, if I had any problems with him — which I never did, but he regularly asked that.
In a way that conveyed that he really was unsure?
Yes, Sometimes … we would have a briefing, and a lot of times, I didn’t realize I was doing it; I may have frowned or raised my eyebrows. After the general meeting, John would always come back, “[Are] we all right? Are you mad about something?” I would say, “No, John, why?” And he would say, “I thought you were giving me body language that you were not happy.”
So he was always concerned. But our relationship, I think, was perhaps unique. We basically supported one another.
So why would O’Neill have left Washington?
His promotion to being the special agent in charge of the counterintelligence, kind of terrorism division… There are four divisions in New York, all headed by a special agent in charge. There is the criminal division, there is a special operations division, there is the administrative division, and then there is the counterintelligence/counterterrorism. Essentially, counterintelligence is the spy business, and the counterterrorism of course is responsible for both domestic as well as international terrorism.
In that kind of job, how does he know about somebody like Al Qaeda?
As a section chief, he would have a couple of different units under him that were dealing with the various international terrorism groups. So there were probably a unit that looked at Hamas, looked at Hezbollah. I am sure there was a unit that looking at Al Qaeda. Then what he would also be getting is reporting from the various field offices, as far as what they were seeing, if anything. Those would probably be the larger offices, New York, Washington D.C, L.A, Chicago, maybe some of the Florida offices, Texas offices.
He would have a lot of analysts that information would be going to, and trying to be pulling information from all over as well as outside agencies as to, “What are our concerns? What do we need to be careful of? Where should we be going investigatively?” Then he would be interacting with the field offices in that regard….
… I am sure he was going to briefings by the NSC, the CIA, State Department. Probably a lot of agencies were providing information. He obviously had some of that information and he was looking at it, because that all came together to a certain extent with the  embassy bombings, which was when he was in New York.
What did John O’Neill do about the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings? What does it have to do with the New York FBI about this?
We [New York] had responsibility for the Al Qaeda investigation. So he correctly speculated when it first happened that it was probably Al Qaeda. Initially, the Washington field office went to Africa. The New York office at the time was able to convince Washington that this was Al Qaeda, and we should be conducting the investigation.
So there was a swap-off between the Washington field office and the New York office. Again, not being there but knowing how John worked, I am sure that he was viewing that as, “Here is an incident where we can really get into the investigation, try to identify the players, how they did that” and hopefully bring that back to bin Laden himself.
Short story being, they were successful on that. That is the incident that bin Laden was indicted by the southern district of New York, because they were able to make those ties and connections. So John would have used that as we later did on the Cole or anything else.
You take an incident to learn as much as you can about your enemy or your opponent. Africa [the embassy bombings] was very successful. We got tremendous cooperation from the African authorities, which was important. … We worked hand and glove with them, and we learned an awful lot of information about the Al Qaeda.
By Washington going there for the first couple of weeks without O’Neill, did the 1998 embassy bombings investigation lose anything?
I don’t think so. There was probably just along the lines of the administrative handling of a case. If Washington goes and they start to gather evidence, then they are going to be marking under their office and their field office number. Then the New York team comes over after a couple of weeks. There has been a good deal of investigation already conducted. So it is just an administrative thing that you have to go through.
It is just obviously smoother if the first responders there are going to be the ones that are responsible. But it is not an impossible task. And they worked through that fine, as evidenced by the convictions that have been realized to date.
You knew John O’Neill well enough to probably imagine how angry he was when he heard that Washington was going, and how he was probably acting around the office at around that moment.
Yes, I would imagine it was like happened on the USS Cole which, when John came to me and I had felt that it was probably Al Qaeda, but John was banging down my door that we can’t duplicate the embassy bombings matter. It just goes smoother if we are there from the beginning and it is Al Qaeda, and I totally agreed with him. He said, “You have got to get to the director. We have got to get the New York office response initially.” I said, “I agree with you.” I went to the director, and the director agreed with us.
After the East African experience?
“Ambitious” is the code word for this guy, and he wants the directorship. He wants to be the assistant director in charge in New York, right? And so do you.
How do you get the job and he doesn’t?
I was actually approached by the director and the deputy director as to whether I would have an interest. I said yes, because for me, it was the culmination of my career. I had started in New York 30 years previous, and it is our premier office, so I viewed that as a nice way to end my career. Plus, I had done 10 years in the New York office as a young agent, so I thought I could bring a lot to the office. New York is our largest. It has over 1,000 agents.
And you run up against NYPD, which is the 800-pound gorilla with 40,000 police officers. So you need to know what they are about, how they operate. You need to know some people there. I knew people there that had grown up with me through the years and now were in key spots in NYPD. I knew Mary Jo White, who is a U.S. attorney. She worked with me on domestic terrorism back in the 1980s.
I said that I definitely would have an interest. It didn’t happen immediately. I had heard that … John was lobbying to become the assistant director. I understood that. I think he obviously was promoting himself. I didn’t have any particular problems and not aware of him badmouthing me to any great extent. I think he was more of the opinion that he was there, he had done a good job, and he ought to get it, as opposed to myself.
… I guess I didn’t feel that way. I thought I was the man. I had, perhaps, more experience than John did, as far as running offices. … I think if I was not interested, that John would have been a real good possibility.
There is a high-ranking person who said that O’Neill was never going to get this job. His elbows were too sharp. He partied too hard. He dressed too slick. He ticked off all the wrong people, and none of that matches deputy director, assistant director. True?
Yes. That is true. He had supporters and he had non-supporters at the executive management ranks of the FBI. He had a number of people that probably did not want him to have that job, and I am sure they spoke against him.
John’s personality. I think he, being aggressive, had probably ticked some people off along the way. I think some of them were of the opinion that they didn’t want John to be an equal, which he would have been as an assistant director in New York. There, the assistant director is the highest you go, except for deputy director and director. So it would have put him on equal footing with a lot of people.
I just think it was his demeanor, his style. He could make people feel uncomfortable, and by that, I mean people in the executive ranks that probably did not have his background and his understanding.
John knew his topic or subject matter. He was probably our most learned expert when it came to Al Qaeda. He had been following them. He knew them. He was concentrating on them both within the agency as well as outside with his liaison contacts, the international. So John had a very good handle on it. He would sometimes speak up, “This is what we need to do,” and sometimes that would embarrass higher-ups.
So in the end, it was his style which hurt him? Was O’Neill just way too James Bond for anybody’s taste inside the FBI?
Probably it would be his James Bond-type style, as opposed to the substance. The sharp elbows and being abrasive, this didn’t particularly bother me. But I think it bothered some people. John liked to be viewed as the guy in charge. I had heard stories, probably before I got there, that he was “Mr. New York.” He was the FBI in New York. If you needed anything or wanted anything, you had to go through John. I think he also enjoyed having the contacts, liaison, being a power broker, the Elaine’s.
I think some people were a little bit uncomfortable with that, and to a certain extent, I understand that. If you get a guy that becomes a little bit too flashy or too full of himself, then sometimes he will promote himself at the expense of the agency. By that, usually what happens is that an individual starts giving out information, or he starts doing favors that he shouldn’t be doing — he’s compromising himself, as far as being an FBI agent. So I think there was, sometimes, concern and worry about that with John.
Were you [worried]?
No. I may have initially when I first went in. I essentially took a wait and see, or a wait and evaluate. When I first went in, essentially I offered to help John move and get his own office, because I knew and was aware of his wanting to be the assistant director. I thought he might have harbored bad feelings that I got it. So I offered to help him get out and get his own office. I think a New Jersey office was open at the time, or anyplace that he wanted to go, I told him.
I guess the one story I should tell you about John, to me, sums up John in a good way, not a bad way, as far as I’m concerned. We were at Quantico together, I believe, at a SAC conference or some in-service. I went, and I had just been named the assistant director. I had come down from Boston. John was there from New York. At the end of the day, I went to my room. There was a knock on the door, and John was at the door. I invited him in. He’s holding two beers. He said, “I understand you’re an Irishman, and you like to drink beer. These are for you.”
So I laughed and said, “You got that correct.” He said, “Well, where are we at?” referring to the relationship between us. At that time, I said, “I know you wanted the position that I just got. It’s a big job. I need to have deputies that are going to be loyal to me and assist me.” I say, “I’m not sure you can do that, having just lost out the position to me.” That’s when I said, “I will help you get to another field office, if that’s what you desire.”
At that time, he essentially said that, no, he did, in fact, want it. He was disappointed that he didn’t get it. He thought he should get it. But that hadn’t been done, and [with] me getting it, he wanted to stay in New York. He said that he would be most loyal to me. Essentially, he said, “I will be your most loyal supporter. All I ask in return is that you be supportive of me in my efforts.”
I said, “We got a deal, and we’ll go forward.” So we went forward. Essentially, he lived up to his agreement, and I believe I lived up to my agreement.
Why does he stay in the job, do you figure?
I think he believed that there were several options that would become available. Even though he didn’t get it when I was appointed, he knew that I would only be there for two years before I became mandatory. I think he felt that maybe he could stay on. He was younger than I am by about five years, so he had seven years left to go if he wanted to. So I think he felt there was a possibility that, if he stayed, maybe he’d get it next time.
Again, it was a key spot that he had as the SAC in charge of counterterrorism and counterintelligence. I think he viewed that as a potential springboard to an assistant director job down at headquarters.
He also had personal reasons. The family was nearby in New Jersey, and his son and daughter, he wanted to be in a position to support them. And the New York community is important, very influential people.
Probably last is that he enjoyed New York. He was a big city type of guy. He liked, to a certain extent, the glitter. The New York office is an international office. We’re all over the world at any given time on various cases, whether they’re terrorism, whether they’re white collar, or whether they’re organized crime. So it’s a key spot.
How good was he? How do you evaluate what he really knew about Al Qaeda — what he really knew from that job, and its importance?
For me, what he did is that he was very informed on Al Qaeda. He followed the investigations. Again, he had a very good background. He had conducted good investigations coming up. He knew how investigations ran. So his benefit, to me, was that he oversaw the investigations. He quizzed his supervisors and his deputies on a regular basis as to, “Where are we? Where are we going?” and he would brief me on that.
Frequently, he would come or either recommend that we go in another particular direction, that we need to go and identify potentially, maybe there’s a cell here, or we need to go to Jordan, and talk to Jordan authorities. He was very, very good at running and overseeing an investigation. He had good agents that worked for him that were also very good. But John kept on top of it.
I think that, once he got into the New York position, he clearly knew the significance of Al Qaeda. When I first reported to New York, he came straight out, and essentially said, “That’s the terrorist organization that we need to be concerned with.” I had heard something; I was familiar with Al Qaeda. But it was the New York office that was running the investigations. … They had conducted and were pretty far along as far as the embassy bombings. So he briefed me on some of the ties and connections, and the fact that, out of that investigation, that they had been able to indict bin Laden. … Ultimately, it turned out to be correct when they were responsible for, or we’ve tied him somewhat to the bombing of the USS Cole.
The 2000 bombing of the naval destroyer, the USS Cole, happens in Yemen. Take me through the story.
It was Oct. 12, 2000. I was at work. My best recollection is we were immediately, I was immediately aware that a ship had been attacked over in Yemen. I knew instantly it was a terrorist attack. …
We found out that the SAC in Washington was going over as part of the assessment team, which was fine. That’s with State Department, the agency, military people. There’s apt to be a whole host of different agencies that would respond. They’d do an initial assessment and call back. But even as that’s transpiring, we start to get together a team, security people, evidence response people, bomb technicians, investigators. We start to put everybody on standby to potentially launch as soon as possible.
My recollection is that it was initially in talking to the assistant director of terrorism, or deputy director, that the Washington field office would initially respond. John was probably standing there with me. We both argued against that, and said, “We think this is Al Qaeda. We need to go, or the New York office component needs to go.”
That wasn’t immediate, but it was considered; “We’ll get back to you” type of thing, at which point I requested the deputy director to bring it to the director, because I didn’t want a lot of time lagging. The director, if memory serves me, was doing a field office visit over in New Jersey. Essentially, the deputy director got to him. I got the call back through the deputy director that the director said, “I agree with Barry. The New York office should respond.”
So we put our team together to respond. They responded pretty quickly. I picked John to go as the on-scene commander, because I thought he was the best, most qualified, and had been overseas before, had excellent ties and relationships in that part of the world. So I sent him over as the on-scene commander for the New York office.
Any trepidation about doing that?
None by me. Essentially, when you have a major incident like that, my view is you need a guy that’s got the best handle on things, that interacted with people. Again, he had dealt with the agency people on this. He knew State Department people. He would have known a lot of the people that he would immediately encounter. It’s the liaisons that essentially help that first chaotic 48-hour period go smoothly, if you walk into a situation and you recognize some of the people from other agencies.
Were Washington headquarters or the FBI happy that O’Neill was going?
My recollection is that I got questioned on it, “Is John the best guy to send?” I had no hesitancy, and said, “Absolutely, he’s the best guy to send.”
But soon there’s friction between the U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Barbara Bodine, and John. Help me understand what the main issues in Yemen were that O’Neill was dealing with, that he was talking to you about.
Initially, some of the main areas of disagreement were security, amounts of people that were over in Yemen, as well as, potentially, who was in charge and who was running it.
That being said, with the FBI and with John, there’s no question that we recognize the ambassador is the person in charge, the president’s representative in a foreign country; the person, overall, responsible for everything that happens with U.S. citizens over there.
But we also take a view recognizing that, if there’s an investigation, that we’re in charge of the investigation. We don’t cut in people just for the sake of them being in the know. We realize, obviously, the ambassador should be briefed as to what’s going on, what’s happening and, in particular, if we’re encountering any difficulties.
To a certain extent, some of the reporting that John told me is that she became very involved, and wanted to know exactly what was going on, when and where. And that’s kind of contrary to our thinking. If there’s a need to know, or if it’s something that’s obviously going to impact on those country authorities then, obviously, we’d tell. So that’s one issue.
There was also, in John’s mind, security — [in] which I fully supported him — that we go over as a big group. What we like to do is send over either a hostage rescue team or some of our SWAT fellows to provide security for the agent investigators, for the bomb techs, for the folks doing the Evidence Response Team. We like to have an in-house security. So we go as a pretty big package.
When we initially responded, we were probably a couple hundred in strength. Being fair to the ambassador, she maybe got some flack from Yemen authorities as to the overwhelming U.S. government response to this particular incident, that we didn’t need to be as strong as we were.
So those are probably the two main areas. Again, I fully believed and supported John as far as security. Yemen is a tough country. I guess there’s more guns than people. I don’t know if it was particularly friendly to the U.S. investigators, so we wanted to be secure with our people. I didn’t want to send anybody over there and get them hurt.
What is your sense of O’Neill’s feelings as he comes up against these obstacles?
I think he was very frustrated in that he wasn’t being allowed to do his job, that he wasn’t getting support, and that she was supporting the Yemen authorities, as opposed to the investigators and himself. Of course, our view on that is you’re the U.S. ambassador. We understand your position. But you need to be weighing in for us more so than the Yemenis, and she had her own ideas. She basically wanted to have a smaller contingent of people over there as possible. That’s not how we operate. Things just continued to escalate. I know she personally told me, when I finally went over there, that she thought John had lied to her. I couldn’t establish that at all. She had her views.
I really think it became a personality conflict between the two of them. Whether she viewed John as coming in and trying to take over and was usurping her as the head U.S person or not, I don’t know. But I think that was probably part of it. … Again, I don’t know. With these two individuals, I think from the get-go, they probably rankled one another, and it went from bad to worse.
In the upper echelons of the FBI, this may be confirming people’s worst fears about O’Neill? …
There may have been people at FBI headquarters that were going, “See, I told you so. John does upset people, and get them upset. And maybe he wasn’t the right guy.” But that’s all childish gossip and rumoring, as far as I’m concerned.
But it proved to be true in some ways.
In some ways. But at the same time, I’d balance that against, “Who is the right guy to go? What do we need to get done, and who’s going to know what to do?” In that regard, there are very few in the FBI that had the criteria to go over and do the job that he did.
I should tell you the story. When I went over there, one of the complaints against him is that John didn’t have any knowledge, that he was a cowboy; he was upsetting the Yemenis; he didn’t know how to get along, and that they were all making complaints about him. Initially, I found that very hard to believe. I had seen John in New York with a lot of people from the Arab countries come in and visit with him. I know he had gone over there. I knew he was well thought of by Arab intelligence agencies and law enforcement. I knew he was well thought of by other U.S. ambassadors. So I had a hard time accepting this.
When I went over, I saw the head of the PSO, which is the equivalent to the FBI in Yemen. I went with John every night as we went over and essentially tried to get information from the Yemenis as to some of the people that they had in custody, trying to get evidence, trying to get access to the various locations.
In my view, John was doing a masterful job. I mean, there was initially from the Yemenis, this, “We’ll take care of it. This is our country. The FBI is not going to come over here and tell us what to do. We’ll do it.” But there was some cooperation, limited cooperation. So John was working that relationship.
I was there for about a week and half. One of the evenings that I went — and this is, again, the equivalent of the director of the FBI that we’re talking to — he, unsolicited, said that when the USS Cole first happened, he said the entire government response was pretty large. He was referring to not only the FBI, but the State Department, the agency, and primarily the military. The military responded there in very big fashion, obviously, because the ship had been bombed. They had people hurt. So they came in there.
I said, “Did you have a problem with our presence?” He said, “No, I never cared about the FBI. You could have a thousand FBI here, because we’re both working to do the same thing. We’re looking to get who’s responsible for this. No, I have no problem with the FBI being here, and you can decide whatever you want as to how many you have here.”
So that refuted anything that I heard. It was also said that they didn’t like him. I mean, that was clearly not observed by me in going with these visits every night.
I’ve heard him described as haggard, having lost 25 pounds under stress and pressure. Is that what you saw when you got over there?
Yes. John had an extremely difficult job. Again, we were in a country that we had never been involved with before, and it’s an Arab country. I think they had a certain view of the U.S. So John’s job was to get out of them information that we needed and wanted to bring back, and eventually, hopefully, to have a prosecutive case back in the States. And we’re talking about Yemen citizens, so they are obviously going to be protective of their people and their investigators.
Actually, I think bin Laden was viewed very favorably in the part of Yemen that we were in. So it became a difficult task. You also had the language and the translation difficulties to go through. Every night, John was trying to pull information out of the PSO. He was giving information and taking. I mean, what we’d do is we’d try and give them a little bit of information that we had developed, and say, “OK, now we’ve shared this with you. We need to know who do you have in jail.” Or, “OK, we’ve told you about the background information on this individual we know. We would like to interview a certain person.”
Initially, it was, “No, you do not have access. He’s a Yemen national. You’re not going to be able to interview him.” So John had to try and break that down from no access to OK — going through the investigators to being allowed to sit in the room, towards the end, where our investigators that were Arab speakers were able to ask questions direct.
I, in particular, talked to a lot of my people over there, and asked what was John’s interaction. Essentially, John was praised to me by our folks, as well as people from outside the FBI, as being there, focused on the task and trying to provide security, which was everybody’s concern.
Then January comes, and O’Neill wants to go back to Yemen. But Ambassador Bodine wouldn’t give him clearance. What does it tell you?
What it told me is that, clearly, the ambassador had the upper hand, she was backed by the State Department, and that we had to find another way of addressing it. Any ambassador gets to approve who comes in-country and who doesn’t. And she clearly said that she didn’t want him.
How did O’Neill handle it?
I think John was upset. This didn’t help him. She was badmouthing him. She had caused a stir at headquarters. I actually think John was more disappointed that our headquarters didn’t back us as far as sending him back, and taking a stronger stand with the State Department. Eventually, our headquarters said, “Let’s try and work around.”
What did that say to you about headquarters and John O’Neill?
On that particular issue, they decided that they weren’t going to take that on. They got to make that their other options, as opposed to having a turf battle with State Department. They may have been right; I’m not saying they were wrong there. But I felt the investigation was important.
But O’Neill is the SAC in New York, the Al Qaeda expert. This is an Al Qaeda moment. This is the USS Cole. Why wouldn’t they back sending that guy back into that country?
You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t know. As I said, what was presented to me is, “Can we find another way of doing it?” And I said, “Yes, we can find another way of doing it. But it’s not the same as having John there. John has established a relationship. We said that he would be back.”
But “another way of doing it” is FBI code for what?
Sending somebody else in place of John.
Did we lose anything by not sending John O’Neill back into that place?
I felt that we didn’t progress as quickly as we could have by John not going back. John kind of held their feet to the fire. He had developed the relationship with the head of the PSO. By John not going back, we lost contact with the head of PSO. The director of the PSO is not going to see John’s deputy or lower-level people. So there’s that protocol situation.
If we had sent him back, I think the information and progress in the investigation would have gone quicker and smoother. I think we were somewhat frustrated. There was a deliberate slowing down. I think John could have kept that on track.
So that’s the Cole story?
As it pertains to John O’Neill, yes. We essentially stayed in Yemen. We made some progress. Then we got to the point where I actually pulled our people out of there because of the threat to them. Essentially, I was having battles with the ambassador by that time, indirect; I wasn’t dealing with her directly.
What was the result of all of that?
What ultimately unfolded is my people came out of there. But we left it that we would return once we were comfortable with our security. That was my position. She had been basically arguing against the necessity of us having our own security. She would allow our people to have their long weapons. There was some pretty good threat-specific information that they were targeting the embassy, that they were targeting FBI agents. That got to the point where I said, “I want our people out of there.”
Essentially, she wanted to keep two or three people there that would continue to do the investigation. She kind of thought we were overreacting to the security. But the director backed me on that position, and we did pull our people out. Subsequent to that, the ambassador was reassigned, and I don’t know the particulars of that. But she was scheduled to rotate out. She rotated out. There was a new ambassador in there. We started up discussions with the new ambassador. We essentially put people back in right around the end of August, the first part of September, just before Sept. 11, 2001.
Particularly after 9/11 occurred, the Yemenis became extremely cooperative, provided us an awful lot of information on both individuals over there, giving us access [to] people that had information concerning Afghanistan. We were able to pass on that information to the military, which was getting ready and did go into Afghanistan.
So we’re in the year 2000 now. It’s fall, winter. To what end were you chasing Al Qaeda? Are you trying to disrupt the money flow? What’s going on?
When you have an entity or organization like Al Qaeda, we’re looking to identify as many people as we can — who’s supporting them, who’s financing them, what are their criminal activities, where are they going, really, whatever we can — and also to get some sort of criminal violation or statute where we’re going to be able to lock them up wherever we come across them.
Essentially we’ve done that, where if we’d get a warrant on an individual. Then if we developed or learned intelligence that the individual has traveled to another country or is in Europe, then we can work with the local authorities there to arrest them and essentially bring them and extradite them back to the U.S. So it’s really multi-fold as to what the FBI’s trying to do, and again, prevent whatever we can.
My view on Al Qaeda and the Taliban is we were working outside. I mean, we’re all outside the protective ring. The Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban, and it’s very difficult to penetrate that ring. So we’re all on the periphery. When they send people out from the middle of that ring or from inside that ring, we get an opportunity, hopefully, to grab people, find out who they are, what’s going on inside the ring.
Like here in the U.S., obviously we can go wherever we need to go and get warrants if we need to, or arrest people if we have the probable cause to arrest. But when you’re going overseas and you’re dealing with a host country that may be our friends, they may not be — we’re talking about language difficulties. We’re talking about other law enforcement agencies that essentially are not going to say, “We’re glad you’re here. You can take over.” They’re going to say, “We’ll conduct the investigation and we’ll let you know.”
Did he ever say to you, “I believe they’re here. I believe there are cells here?”
No. He never said that. I’ve heard that he said something along those lines in a speech, but I don’t know if he was just trying to make a point as far as Al Qaeda is a serious terrorist organization. To me, to this day, John had no knowledge of any Al Qaeda members in the U.S., or else he would have come to me and said, “We’ve identified this guy.”
We may have had some suspects that we were conducting investigations on, to either put them in or put them out. But I don’t think he ever had any information saying “There’s a cell here and we know who it is.” If we did, we would have acted on that.
Can you explain to me how John O’Neill handled his lifestyle? He’s out at Elaine’s, he’s out at Bruno’s; it’s costing him a lot of money. How much of that is expensed to the FBI?
It would depend on what he’s doing. If he’s actually got people in from other law enforcement agencies, either domestically or internationally, and they’ve come in for briefings and things of that nature, we can get what we call representative funds from headquarters. That being said, we never get enough to cover all of the costs in New York City, just because it’s so expensive. But that kinds of goes with the turf. New York agents are used to digging into their own pockets to help out the cause.
He’s making about $120,000 a year?
I believe so. Right.
How’s he doing that? How’s he living that life?
I know for a fact as part of this whole inquiry that came up that he had borrowed some money from different people. Those that he had to report, he reported. And he told me about it, that he had declared them, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about that. But John borrowed money from different people in order to accomplish that, I guess. I think part of it is he was treated, as well. I mean, it was not uncommon to share costs if we went out. New York is very expensive. It’s tough to get by in New York.
But he had volunteered to me that he had borrowed money from friends. I knew who they were. He had declared it. So I wasn’t really concerned about that.
But there’s also the incidents with the phone, the PDA, and the past car incident. One person I interviewed said, “Hey, this might have been a guy that was just stressed beyond belief. He’s stretched financially. He’s working real, real hard. He’s worried about Al Qaeda. He might be drinking too much.” Is this a guy who’s starting to make a lot of mistakes?
Not in my view. No. It’s not unusual, with John or anybody else. I’ve been in the same position, where you’re in debt because of the high cost of living areas you’ve been in. Essentially, what you do is you try and get by, and we all ultimately hope that we’re going to retire and then get into a big paying security job, and you pay off your bills. Then life becomes a little bit easier. But John was not unique in that regard. I was there are one time. A number of agents I know, they’re all strapped.
The times that I did go out with him, John didn’t drink a lot, in my estimation. A lot of times he’d nurse iced teas all night long. He might have a drink, and then he’d switch over to iced tea. So I didn’t really see him coming undone. Clearly, towards the end he was upset because of the incident, and I think he finally figured out — actually, I counseled him to the fact that he probably wasn’t going to go beyond his current position.
Was that hard to do?
Was it hard for me to do? No. John and I, again, had a relationship where he was straightforward with me; I was candid with him. If I didn’t like something that he did, I told him, which wasn’t too often. But there was a time or two that maybe he irritated me, and I let him know right away, and [it was] a “Boss, it won’t happen again” type of thing. But our initial pact was that he would be loyal to me; I would support him. I said, “Essentially, I’ve tried to support”– which I had tried to support him in getting a higher position at the assistant director level at headquarters. That didn’t work.
Essentially, everything I was getting from headquarters is, “He’s not going to get promoted beyond where he’s at.” So it was at that point that I said, “John, it’s probably time for you to consider a change. I mean, you are here in New York. You don’t want to go any other place and run another field office. You’re not going to be promoted to assistant director, even if I leave” — at the time, I didn’t know when I was going to leave — “that you’re going to get this spot.”
I said, “It just makes sense, and you do have some financial difficulties. You’ve got debts you’ll need to pay off. Maybe it’s time to take advantage.” He had an excellent reputation in New York City. I said, “Take advantage of that. Get a job.”
How did he take it?
I think he talked to a couple other people, and essentially everybody — Jim Kallstrom and others — came back with the same advice and said, “You know, if you get a good offer, it’s probably time for you to leave.” I think he came to that conclusion. He had a great offer as head of security for the World Trade Center. He saw growth in that job, which I did, too. It just made sense for him to go.
I was happy for him that he took the job, because it was high paying, it had a lot of visibility — head of security at the World Trade Center. It kept him in town, kept him with his family. It would probably allow him to continue to run in the circles that he was accustomed to in a little bit better fashion than worrying about money. So, yes, I was happy for him. Also, he was available for me, in any capacity I might need; I could reach out for him. As it turns out, that was only about two weeks, and then he died.
That summer of 2001, Dick Clarke tells us, the whole world is lit up. There’s feelings that something’s going to happen and there’s going to be a terrorist attack or something. Did you have that sense, too — that it was a hot time?
It was probably, yes, the most intense from April or May. We had responded to the USS Cole. My view was that us being over there and responding to this, and even with people locked up by the Yemen officials, that this isn’t deterring anything; that it continues, and it’s targeting us as well, as they need to do another strike just to show that they were in control or in charge.
Did you figure it would ever happen in the United States?
No. I really felt it would be overseas. … When it happened, I was shocked. I guess I would give them credit after they did the Cole and the embassy bombings, that they had put together two good terrorist operations. But I didn’t think that would extend to them being able to plan and organize and commit the act that they did on 9/11 here in the States
The irony of John O’Neill dying in that building — how do you see it?
Extremely ironic. My view is John had been chasing Al Qaeda or bin Laden for the last five years, six years, and had gone to Africa. I had sent him to Yemen. And for him to turn around and leave the FBI [and begin what] I thought was going to be the start of a good period of time for him and his family — to be down there when Al Qaeda hits the World Trade Centers, and he ends up being killed as a result of it — extremely ironic. I mean, he had been chasing bin Laden, and directly bin Laden ended up killing him.
Did you go to the memorial service in Atlantic City?
Yes. It was very full. It was a good service. There were a number of speakers; I was one. Actually, I think my remarks initially were questioned by some people, primarily because they didn’t know the full extent of my relationship with John. …
Essentially, one of John’s biggest concerns when he left the job was that he was running from the inquiry. He almost didn’t retire, because, he said, “I don’t want it to look like I’m running. I’ve always stood up to a fight.” I mean, he said, “I’m going to ask for you to be supportive of me as to that whole incident — that it was minor and that it was not a big deal that everybody’s trying to make of it.” He said, essentially, “Down the road, I will make comments to that effect.”
What he was planning, I know, is at a retirement party, he would get up there and explain what happened and what occurred. So I think what I did is, I said “I want to set the record straight for John O’Neill. He didn’t run from a fight. He didn’t retire because this was a serious matter. He retired because circumstances were right and it was a good job. It was the right decision for him and his family,” and that, in my view, it was a really minor incident.
So it was along those lines. I think some of the controversy is, “Why are you bringing up that incident?” I said that John would have wanted me to talk about it. The people that really knew John came up to me afterwards and said, “You definitely said the right thing there,” you know, setting the record straight, and it was not that big a deal.
Would John O’Neill be surprised by all this, by whatever is being said about him?
No. I don’t think he’d be surprised. To a certain extent, I sometimes am of the view that he’s perhaps somewhat pleased that he’s being recognized. Now, he’s been recognized negatively, but for the most part I think it’s positive. I think he would have been pleased that he’s being talked about, and that he’s for the most part being viewed positively as having done a good job as an FBI agent and employee. He once gave a speech and said, “My mistress is the FBI. I live it, breathe it, day in and day out.” And to a certain extent — to a great extent — I think that was true.