Update — April 12, 2004: In the week that the 9/11 Commission holds hearings scrutinizing the FBI’s actions in the years prior to the terrorist attack, FRONTLINE rebroadcasts the remarkable story of John P. O’Neill, the FBI’s counterterrorism expert who long warned of Al Qaeda’s threat. A summary of this FRONTLINE report follows:
When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: John O’Neill.
The former head of the FBI’s flagship antiterrorism unit in New York City, O’Neill had investigated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen. For six years, he led the fight to track down and prosecute Al Qaeda operatives throughout the world. But his flamboyant, James Bond style and obsession with Osama bin Laden made him a controversial figure inside the buttoned-down world of the FBI. Just two weeks before Sept. 11, O’Neill left the bureau for a job in the private sector — as head of security at the World Trade Center. He died there after rushing back into the burning towers to aid in the rescue efforts.
FRONTLINE’s “The Man Who Knew,” chronicles John O’Neill’s story — a story that embraces the clash of personalities, politics and intelligence, offering important insights into both the successes and failures of America’s fight against terrorism.
Drawing on exclusive interviews with many of O’Neill’s closest friends and associates, this report opens with O’Neill’s introduction into the new world of terrorism — the capture in 1995 of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists — Ramzi Yousef, the ringleader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
Former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White credits O’Neill with quickly grasping the danger Yousef and other terrorists represented to America.
“Yousef is one of the most dangerous people on the planet — also very smart,” she says. “Getting and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue. And John O’Neill recognized that and was not about to take ‘no’ for an answer before he was taken into custody.”
O’Neill immersed himself into learning everything he could about global terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist militancy. In 1997, O’Neill was promoted to special agent in charge of the national security division in the bureau’s New York office. Observers say O’Neill grabbed at the chance to head the team that was investigating and prosecuting most major international terrorism cases. The job would also be the perfect base from which to continue his pursuit of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But while John O’Neill had succeeded in winning allies among CIA and international intelligence agencies, not everyone within the FBI was so enamored of him. A fixture on New York’s celebrity social circuit, O’Neill’s flamboyant style and his unconventional personal life — he had several longtime girlfriends and a wife he never divorced — had long raised eyebrows within the FBI.
“The Man Who Knew,” gives viewers an insider’s perspective on O’Neill’s investigations as well as the internal territorial debates among the FBI, the State Department, and the White House over how to deal with U.S. terrorist investigations in East Africa in August 1998 and the Yemen in October 2000.
“[O’Neill] believed the New York field office had the greatest depth of expertise of anybody in the country on this issue, and if it’s Al Qaeda, how could you send anybody else but the people who know the most?” recalls Fran Townsend, former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s office of intelligence policy.
O’Neill’s New York FBI team was at the center of bureacratic arm-wrestling over who would head the 1998 investigation into the embassy bombings in East Africa. O’Neill again was the focus of a heated political battle over the investigation of the 2000 attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. Current and former government officials such as Richard Clarke, counterterrorism chief in the Clinton administration and Barry Mawn, former head of the New York FBI office, recount how O’Neill’s desire to show the Yemeni security forces — which he viewed as being less than cooperative — that the FBI meant business was one of many issues in the investigation which angered U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine.
Finally, when O’Neill made a brief trip home to New York for Thanksgiving, Bodine denied his re-entry visa, preventing him from returning to the investigation. Insiders tell FRONTLINE that O’Neill’s removal from the scene in Yemen may have seriously limited the Cole investigation — an inquiry that some speculate might have led O’Neill to the Sept. 11 hijackers in time to foil their plans.
“The Man Who Knew” also chronicles O’Neill’s increasing frustration with Washington’s lax attitude toward the threat posed by bin Laden, including the possibility that Al Qaeda sleeper cells were already operating within the United States.
“What John O’Neill was trying to do was get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells,” Clarke says. “It was not one of the priorities in most FBI field offices.”
By the summer of 2001, O’Neill had been so marginalized by FBI officials that key clues of the looming Sept. 11 plot apparently were never passed on to him. His 25-year career with the FBI would come to an end following bureau investigations into his temporary loss of a briefcase containing a classified report and charges that he used an FBI car to give a ride to his girlfriend. In August 2001, while the allegations were pending, O’Neill opted to retire from the bureau at age 49. Just eight days after he started his new job as director of security at the World Trade Center, the terrorists he had long pursued struck the towers.
O’Neill’s critics contend that his personal failings proved fatal to his FBI career. His supporters, however, believe his main failing was refusing to conform to the standard-issue FBI mold.
“John was somebody that bureaucrats were not always pleased with because they felt he wasn’t marching to their tune — that he was too ambitious and that he operated out of the box too often,” ABC producer Chris Isham tells FRONTLINE. “And this was an FBI that believed very much under the [FBI Director Louis] Freeh regime of operating within the box. This was a guy that was constantly pushing the envelope when the envelope didn’t want to be pushed. So the envelope fought back.”