The John O’Neill I Knew
The comments and observations of friends and colleagues, drawn from FRONTLINE’s interviews with Clint Guenther, Chris Isham, Valerie James, Barry Mawn, Fran Townsend, Robert Bryant and Richard Clarke.
Clint Guenther, Former FBI Agent NYC – Counterterrorism
I would say John O’Neill probably should have been a leprechaun, because he always had that little bit of impishness about him. There was always that little twinkle in his eye that kind of indicated that he was about some mischief. But that was really him.
He was a good, fun-loving, hard-working person. He loved the people he worked with. He was what I would consider an agent’s supervisor. His people loved him. At times, they could hate him, too, but there was always that love relationship there with him, because he always stood by his people. He was the type of person who didn’t administer from behind a desk. He wanted to be out with the troops. If there was a hot investigation going, he wanted to be out there managing out and assisting in any way he possibly could. He was a perfectionist. He didn’t like anybody that didn’t want to go the full measure. He wanted to make sure that you did your job to the utmost.
I think that the one thing that he feared more than anything — especially in the game of the war on terrorism — was that we would make some mistake that would cost us dearly. John always feared that somehow we would miss something. He would be after his investigators to make sure they covered every base and he would leave no stone unturned. Woe be you if you failed to cover everything.
What would happen?
There was the dark side of John. He was a fiery Irishman and he would go after you with full measure. He’d just dress you down and start firing questions at you. “Why didn’t you do this? How come this wasn’t done? How come you didn’t cover this?” But he didn’t hold grudges. He would move on, as long as he realized that you realized your mistakes and went back and made the corrections.
Richard Clarke, NSC Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001
He was, first of all, incredibly bright. He may not have had a Ph.D. from MIT or something like that, but his IQ was clearly off the charts. He had a stamina, an energy that was just unending. He worked virtually every moment when he wasn’t sleeping. He didn’t consider any job that he was doing a 9-5 job. He was on the job all the time, always working, always trying to get his goal — which, in the time I knew him, was getting terrorists.
In addition to the drive, there was also an Irish blarney kind of charm. The combination worked. Frequently, he was in your face because you weren’t doing a good enough job, or his subordinates weren’t doing a good enough job, or somebody else wasn’t living up to his standard. It would have been hard to take that all the time were it not for the charm that went along with it.
He was very demanding; he was demanding both up and down; both to his superiors and his subordinates. He set a very high standard of what should be done. Basically, if you didn’t want the job done, you didn’t give it to John O’Neill. If you did want the job done, you gave it to John O’Neill, and watch out, because it was going to get done; don’t worry too much about stepping on people’s toes along the way.
Frankly, a lot of the jobs that he did would never have gotten done, had he not stepped on toes. The real question I think you have to ask yourself is, when you’re out in the world arresting terrorists, if the only way to do that is to ruffle some feathers — and even before 9/11, it should have been obvious, and it was to me and it was to him — that stepping on a few toes, breaking a little crockery was a price that we had to pay to get the job done. After all, the job wasn’t a popularity contest; the job was protecting the American people.
Chris Isham, Senior Producer, ABC News
We met through other friends of mine who were in the FBI. We met at a dinner here in Washington. He struck me as unusual for an FBI agent, because he was direct, and he had a kind of a wit about him that was unusual, a bit of a playful side of his character, which was, again, unusual. He was also obviously highly informed by what he was doing. In our first meeting, he was very careful — and was always careful — but clearly informed, interesting, and interested.
He always made it very clear to me that there were certain red lines that he wouldn’t cross and he never did, obviously pertaining to classified information. He understood very well that there were red lines. But he also understood that there was a great deal in the public record and public domain, and that one could discuss these things in such a way that could be helpful without crossing those red lines.
That was, I think, the basis of our relationship. He was one of those rare birds inside the government who had access to highly classified information, and yet also understood that talking to a journalist was not necessarily a violation of any rules. It could actually be helpful on both sides.
Valerie James, John O’Neill’s friend and companion
Very first time I saw John, I did something I had never done before and will never do again. I sent him a drink. He was standing at the bar and he had the most compelling eyes I had ever seen. We both knew the bartender, although we didn’t know each other. He asked who had sent him the drink. The bartender pointed to me. He walked over, introduced himself. We started talking. About 10 minutes later, you get into that “What do you do?” thing.
I said, “What did you do?” He said, “I’m with the FBI.” I said, “I know, I’m with the CIA.” He pulled out a business card. He was with the FBI, obviously. We went to five places that night. We went to a salsa place. We went to a jazz place. It was typical of John’s frenetic life.
What did you think of him?
I thought he was an incredibly exciting, interesting person. He wasn’t just a law enforcement person; he had many interests. He knew a lot about French Impressionism. He knew a lot about jazz. One thing about John that fascinated me was when he got into something, he learned everything about it.
Did he have a routine?
We had four newspapers delivered to the house. He would skim through every one of those immediately, with CNN on. He would make coffee. He would drink a cup of coffee, sometimes two cups of coffee, and read every paper while watching CNN every morning.
Saturday mornings, a big treat for him, and he loved this — I know there are a lot of stories about how impeccably groomed John was — he would go over to the local barber across the street, and for $10, he would have his hair cut every week and a hot shave. That was his Saturday treat for himself.
[He] used to say, “You have five seconds to make a first impression. It’s all about grooming. It’s all about your whole personal self, your first impression, right?”
So what was the image he was trying to portray?
Probably someone on top of his game. Which he was.
Fran Townsend, Deputy to the U.S. Attorney General 1995-2002
Dick Clarke talks about NSC meetings where O’Neill would show up, and suddenly take the meeting over. . Is that the way you remember him in Washington in that job?
Yes. It didn’t always serve him well, but yes, that’s right. And he was conscious of it. I mean, that was part of him; he was very good. He had precious little patience. Others would come to a meeting and not have, as he would say, worked it before. Before you walked into a meeting with John, by the time you walked in the room, the thing was done. The meeting was over before everybody ever got in the room. He would make phone calls. He would see what people’s positions were. He would cajole them, persuade them to a consensus. So by the time he walked in the room, everybody in the room knew they had spoken to John. Everybody in the room knew that John knew where this was going, and it was basically cooked by the time you got into the meeting.
That was good news and bad news. For people who didn’t agree with him, it had to have been incredibly frustrating, because he had sort of gotten the thing arranged before he ever walked in the room, so there wasn’t going to be any real big debate. He used to laugh at people after he left — those who would go to the meetings instead of him then — that, boy, they didn’t understand how Washington [worked], how these things got decided, because the real work got done before the meeting started.
I think the thing that made him different was his passion. I say that because I believe it. I say that because I think that’s what his answer would have been to you. And I believe with all my heart that was his answer, because of something that he wrote to me. These are his words, not mine: “My passion holds all of my wealth and all of my liabilities. It is the best and the worst of me. But it is me. It is my identity. Alas, I know of no more noble cause than to fight for that which one has the greatest of passion for. Rebellions left in the hands of good men will ultimately prevail, and the costs and sufferings of the rebels will be small indeed.”
Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, 1993-2002
I think why John was so unique in the counterterrorism arena is that he had both the headquarters experience and the field experience. By virtue of the headquarters experience, he not only knew how his hierarchy worked; he made lots of invaluable contacts in other branches of our government in Washington — the White House, the intelligence agencies, the Defense Department.
But also, by virtue of having been in headquarters for a number of years in the terrorism arena, and that’s the security arena, he made lots of contacts all around the world with his fellows in law enforcement and in the intelligence agencies — building a coalition, year after year after year, to call upon when he needed them; when a terrorist plot was afoot, or he was trying to get the evidence to prosecute a terrorist. He brought all that to New York when he came, which was something that had not been there to that degree before. Then he continued to build on that.
He was right about how essential these worldwide contacts were. He spent a lot of time cultivating them around the world. He would bring over to my office, the U.S. Attorney’s office, these countless visitors from around the world, just to make sure we all knew each other got to know each other. Then when the occasion presented itself, we could call on that person to help out an investigation.
Barry Mawn, Head of the FBI’s New York office, 2000-2002
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.
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 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.
Robert M. “Bear” Bryant, Deputy Director of the FBI, 1997-1999
He was a person that I had immense personal regard for. We could argue like a couple of thieves in the night over issues, because we were both hardheaded. We were both a little bit Irish, he much more so than I. We had strong opinions about things, and we could get into it really quick. But it was never a personal issue, because there was always that professional respect, I think, for each other.
What kind of arguments would you have?
Tactical issues, about whether we should deploy people in harm’s way, and how to do certain things. John always had a definitive plan and he was always professing this and that, and sometimes I told him, “One, I’ve got the gold pin and I’m responsible. And I don’t do funerals well.” And he said, “Neither do I.”
So we basically would work out compromises on issues. Sometimes, if it was the agent’s safety, he was like I was; he was very conservative. But sometimes you take risks. Sometimes it was a tactical issue on whether to approach a person to do something, to try to get information. We talked all the time.
Someone like O’Neill, they need a guy to champion the cause, or champion the work. Is that who you were?
Probably. Let’s face it, John was a bit of a maverick. He had a lot of detractors, and he was a bit of a maverick. But I worked with John a lot of years, and had great personal regard for him. He always produced what I thought was an excellent product.