Since 1991, Valerie James was John O’Neill’s friend and companion. In this interview she describes daily life with O’Neill. “He is working on this incredible stuff day after day that he can basically talk to none of us about,” she tells FRONTLINE. “He can’t even tell other of his peers about what he’s working on; it’s that intense. Does a man like that come home to roast chicken and mashed potatoes every night?” This interview was conducted on July 11, 2002.
Maybe you can help us a little bit with John O’Neill’s background. Where did he grow up? What kind of youth did he have?
… It seemed like he always had a vision for himself because he said when he was a kid, a young kid, he used to watch [Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. on the television series The FBI] and he wanted to be with the FBI. …
He knew he wanted to work for the FBI, so he had those goals in mind. He went and got a job as a clerk. The FBI was 17 years old. He was a fingerprint clerk, and he started going to college. That’s how he worked his way through college. …
Describe John O’Neill to me.
That’s a tall order. John was a fun guy. John was the kind of guy who everybody liked. John never met a stranger — I don’t care if he was in a restaurant and it was the waiter or the proprietor of the restaurant, it doesn’t matter who it was — John would get to know the guy and on a personal level, too. John liked people, and people liked John. …Was that part of his nature, or did he understand the importance to his job?
Oh, no, he totally understood the importance of his job. Yes, it was his nature to be a friendly, outgoing person. But he also very much understood it was important to his job. …
How big a Rolodex did John O’Neill have?
Huge, huge, huge, and bursting. If a Palm Pilot can burst, a bursting Palm Pilot. It was huge, and it was an international Rolodex.How important was that?
When John died after Sept. 11, there were two phone lines in the apartment. Each phone line had call waiting on it. I had two people in here answering the phones, and they couldn’t keep up with it. The phone rang 18 hours a day, both phones, 18 hours a day, and call waiting people from around the world, calling. …
You guys met in Chicago. Tell us about the first time you met him, what you thought of him immediately.
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 incredible. 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? Like when he woke up in the morning, did he do certain things? Did he get the newspaper immediately, did he drink coffee? What was he like early in the morning? What would he do?
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.
Tell us about that, the grooming, what that meant. How impeccably dressed was he? How was that part of what he was?
… [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. …
How did John view his life, his role, what he was out to do every single day when he got and went out that door?
John said to me, on a number of occasions, “I am the FBI.” He loved the institution of the FBI.
What do you mean by that?
He loved it. He loved being in law enforcement. He saw himself as a person that made a difference.In the end, we know how essential that role was. Not a lot of people did understand that while he was doing the job. Did he get it?
I think he got it from the very beginning, when terrorism first started to be such a big thing. I think he got it immediately. He knew how huge it was going to be. He knew the dangers we were going to be in. …
So what did he feel his responsibility was?
I think that’s one of the reasons that John could be viewed as a controversial person, in a way, because I think he hammered on it. His superiors didn’t necessarily love that.
What do you mean? Was he egging things on? How was he perceived because of that?
I think that in Washington, the FBI had become a very political organization, and John was not about politics. He was about getting the job done.
So his way about himself?
Maybe sometimes, as far his own organization went, possibly [a bull] in a china shop. He would fight things. He would fight for things. For instance, when the [East] Africa bombing took place, they tried to take the jurisdiction out to D.C., and John fought hard. And they did finally keep it here. …
Did he recognize about himself that he sometimes was a bull?
Yes, very much so.
How so? Explain that to me.
He would ruffle somebody’s feathers, and it would really bother him until were right with that person again. He would say, “Are we OK? Are we OK?” So he knew [he] ruffled feathers.
He would be very up front about it. You’ve probably heard the stories of he and Barry Mawn when they first met. John was very disappointed not to get that job. It was the job that John wanted. A lot of people really felt he should have had it. They were both in Quantico, and he went up to Barry Mawn with a beer, two beers, and said, “Can we sit down and talk?” I was so proud. I said this to both of them; I was so proud of how they got along when Barry first came here, because how hard for both. …
Your relationship, I assume, went pretty quickly. You realized that he was a special guy.
Immediately. It happened in Chicago. It went from, we met one night, we went out the next night and then that’s just the way it was. But John took over immediately. John was a take-charge kind of guy. The next weekend, he had a lot of plans, living this frenetic life that he usually lived. He called me up and said, “OK, Saturday plans for this, Sunday plans for this, Monday night plans for this.” I guess if that had been anyone else, I would have been a little taken aback. With him, I found it charming. I found him charming. …
Were there two John O’Neills? How did he seem to compartmentalize his life?
He did compartmentalize his life, obviously. I didn’t see two John O’Neills. I saw one. …
John is brilliant. He is a guy that gets it. He is working on this incredible stuff day after day that he can basically talk to none of us about. He can talk to very few, some people in law enforcement. He can’t even tell other of his peers about what he’s working on; it’s that intense. Does a man like that come home to roast chicken and mashed potatoes every night? I think his whole life needed to be complicated. I think he was complicated. …
[Why did he take the position in Washington?]
I think he probably saw that as a stepping stone to get to New York City. It was a promotion to go to Washington. … John was very excited about going to Washington. He knew it was another cliff for him. …
Let me get through this now. I’ll ask this now so that we don’t have to deal with this later. The wife — how did that finally come up, and what did it mean?
Well, actually, that’s an interesting story. I did not know that for two or three years. Someone that John worked with in the FBI’s wife told me, and it was bad. I was shocked. My family was shocked. I loved him. It had been two or three years by that point. What are you going to do, you know?
He explained to me, “I was really afraid.” I said, “Why didn’t you just tell me?” I mean, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me had he told me. They had been separated for quite some time anyhow. He said he thought I wouldn’t go out with him. What are you going to do? We’re humans. We all make mistakes.
It was a shock. It was a big shock. It was a huge disappointment to me.
What did it say or not say about John O’Neill?
It didn’t say or not say, actually, anything to me. I don’t think John meant anything by it. I think he always meant it to be taken care of. It was a detail to him. I mean, it’s not a detail. It’s clearly a very large thing, and after his death, it turned into a very large thing. But to him, it was a detail.
John wasn’t good at details. John didn’t manage small bits of his normal daily life. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not talking about work or any of that. But John wasn’t detailed about things like that.
But he already sounds like one of the most detail-oriented guys you’d ever want to–
With the places that he needed to be in his life. But as far as, oh, I don’t know, normal, just daily events that you might do all your life, take out the trash, things like that — John needed someone else to do all that.
So he was sort of the big picture guy?
Definitely was the big picture guy.
So he goes to Washington. We got a lot of people telling us this intense story of driving all night, getting in Washington on Sunday morning, not going to an apartment, not washing his clothes, going directly to the FBI–
Hanging his pictures. Hanging the pictures in his office.
Tell me, do you know what happened? He probably told you all about it.
He went straight to his office … and he got the call from Dick Clarke. And the rest is history.
It sounds like an amazingly intense couple of days. What happened? Did he call you to tell you what was going on? What was going on?
… I know it was very, very intense for John. That whole 10 months that he spent was, he told me, the most intense time he spent with the FBI. I mean, they had burnt John out. Do you know how Jimmy Carter looked when he started off? I’ve seen the pictures of him afterwards, how he aged. I have said it to John — I felt that job aged John. …
Tell me about his liaison skills within that world, the power world of Washington.
I think John realized how critical that was to him and to doing his job, having all these relationships with people. He was brilliant at it, and it turned out it was critical to him.
Don’t you remember one of the quotes — and it was so true — after the World Trade Center, and the world started writing about John, how they said, “He was New York?” John really hadn’t even been here, what, five, six years? Not a very long time. He wasn’t New York. He was from Atlantic City, New Jersey. He had never lived in New York before, and that’s what people’s persona about him was. He was New York. He just started. John just understood what it took.
When he was in Washington, he was Mr. Washington?
Absolutely. When he was in Chicago, he was Mr. Chicago. But, you know, that didn’t just happen. That wasn’t just a coincidence. I mean, he always knew the restaurants or other places to be. He always knew the bartenders. Again, it doesn’t just happen. John was a voracious leader. In research, he was a voracious researcher. …
So what was the attitude towards John O’Neill from headquarters?
… He was very controversial there. You’ve got to know that. He was very controversial at headquarters.
And he got that?
He got that, loud and clear.
Did he battle that?
Very much so. …
Did he ever rant and rave about this? Did he fixate on this?
What would he say?
John became very paranoid the last year, year and a half of his life. I would say to him, “John, I feel like you’re paranoid.” But you know what? He wasn’t paranoid. They were out to get him. There were a handful of people in D.C. that were out to get John O’Neill.
But why? This guy knew so much. He was so good at what he did. Nobody says he did a lousy job. Why? Was it because of his demeanor?
O’Neill liked to do things his way. … He was a little rough around the edges as far as politics. But I think it annoyed him when he knew the right way that something should be done and he couldn’t get it done. Or he didn’t care how he got it done.
And what we’re talking about here is not a job.
We’re talking about saving our country. …
Tell me about the first time you found out that he had gotten the New York office.
I remember exactly. He called me up, and I was at home. He said, “Hey, babe, how does New York sound to you?” I said, “You got to be kidding me.” He said, “Nope, I got it.” Jim [Kallstrom] hired him. He was very, very excited. …
Tell me a little bit about those times. What was it like? What did you do after you get to know the town and all?
John would just read Time Out Magazine, read New York magazine of course. We just started on the whole restaurant circuit. One thing I loved about John is he wouldn’t just go to the top five best restaurants. We’d check out Alphabet City, and we’d check out the East Village, and we checked out the West Side. John just liked to know stuff. We got bikes. We rode around the city.
He also got to know some of the most powerful people in the city quickly?
In a very short period of time.
Tell me about that, and why it was important to his job.
When we moved in, he immediately set out to meet the people he needed to in NYPD and the people at Port Authority, and got to know the different people on the law enforcement foundations, things like that, immediately ingratiated himself in the city, made himself part of the city. I think that is why he was Mr. New York. But he realized that was essential to his job. …
Was it something about the responsibility he felt [in terms of his job] that overrode his own personal life?
Well, it did override his personal life. From what I can tell, it certainly did in his years with me. But I think the FBI was his mistress. He loved it. He loved it more than he loved any woman in his life. He loved it. Let’s not forget this is a little kid that had a vision and he became the vision.
Did the FBI love him as much as he loved it?
I do not think that they did, and I think that was a disappointment to him. …
The lifestyle, the nightlife in New York, the late nights at Elaine’s — tell us about that part of his life, how that fit into the job, what it meant and what it meant by the personality of John O’Neill.
I think it mean two things. Elaine’s is a very great place to meet people, and, if you have a personality — and John O’Neill most certainly did — to quickly become part of New York life and the people that had their finger on the pulse of New York life, Elaine’s is the place to do it. If you can fit yourself in there, a very good place to start, a very good place to become Mr. New York.
As far as John’s late nights and things like that, I think that was John’s way of relaxing. You asked me earlier, “What did John do for relaxation?” That was relaxation to John, to go sit among friends. Elaine’s is really a Cheers bar. Everyone knows everyone. Sit among friends, have a couple of scotches, relax.
So it was work and pleasure.
It was work and pleasure. He met Johnny Miller at maybe the only bar in Yemen and he walked up to John Miller and he said, “What is this? Elaine’s in Yemen?”…
[Around the millennium], they catch a guy in Seattle. They know this is going to be a big day, that the bad guys might really want to hurt us. Did he talk about it? Did he act differently? Was his routine differently coming up to those days?
No, his routine was not different. No, he did not act differently. But, yes, it was a very intense time for him. He worked very hard and very long hours, and it was very intense. He was very relieved when it was over. I knew the head of Scotland Yard called him at midnight London time, and said, “Everything is OK on my watch. I am passing it over to you now.”
What did he do New Year’s Eve? He wasn’t sitting here drinking champagne with you, that’s for sure.
Actually, he was home for a while. Then he went to the office for a while. Then he and Joey went down to Times Square. But they always did on New Year’s Eve.
Just because that is where the threat would be? What was he doing?
I think that he wanted to be down there to celebrate the safety of our city and that nothing was going to happen. Then, nothing did happen. …
He said it the Monday night before he died. He said it on Sept. 10. A group of people were going to Elaine’s, and they were going to the China Club, and John said, “Nothing happened under my watch.”…
You told us very well about how he would study anything. If he were going on a trip, he would read every book possible perhaps. How did he study bin Laden? Was the name bin Laden a familiar name around here?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. John studied everything about terrorism — any kind of terrorism — the IRA bombings, any kind of terrorism, John had a book or five or six or a dozen.
Would he sit around watching videotapes? Tell us about that.
He would definitely sit around watching videotapes. He would watch videotapes. He would read whatever material he could get his hands on. We had a fax in the house. People would fax him information all the time. John would sit in bed or sit on the couch or whatever and constantly underline his newspapers. He would constantly underline. He had a clipping service, I believe, at work.
Take us into the room with him watching these tapes. What would he be watching, and why would he be doing it?
I think with O’Neill, it was the total immersion thing. We have already talked about how, when John moved to a city, before he even left, he would immerse himself in anything he could read or find out about the city. I remember back when John first started in terrorism, domestic terrorism, with the abortionists. He read everything he could get his hands on about abortionists. He read everything he could get his hands that time about the fundamentalist religion.
He got himself up to speed about everything. I think that is exactly what he was doing with terrorism and Osama, trying to find out every little piece of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and John knew that. …
Did bin Laden become sort of a nemesis?
No. I don’t recall that. Yes, the name was bandied about. We were all certainly aware of who he was and what a threat he was considered to be. No, I don’t believe he was a nemesis.
What was the threat? As far as John O’Neill was concerned, what was the threat?
Well, I think he thought that we could never live in freedom with these people constantly, I mean, constantly, after us. He told someone, after he retired, in that week before he went to the World Trade Center, they said, “Well, at least you are going to a safe place.” And John said, “No, no one will ever stop trying to get those two buildings.” So John realized what a very real threat terrorism was to the world.
Did he get that there was something going to happen, that there would be continual attacks against the United States?
Did he understand? Was he frustrated be the fact that other people didn’t get it like he got it?
Explain that. I don’t mean Washington or whatever, just in general. I mean, he is sitting on the top of these investigations, and all while the world ignores it.
I just think that he felt that there were number one, not enough resources put into it; that it really had turned into a global thing, and people were not taking it seriously. I think John realized what a great danger it was. And in retrospect, we know he did. Look what happened. …
When Yemen came along, which he eventually headed and was sent over there, did he know originally that there some in Washington who did not want him to go, that did not want him to head up the investigation?
Yes.What was his attitude towards that?
He felt he was the best person for the job.
So how would he fight for it? How did John O’Neill fight for something he knows he should have to be done?
Knowing John O’Neill, he probably discusses it at first and then he screams and rants and raves. But he did end up heading it up and going over there.
But that must be absolutely annoying to be again, possibly ignored, when everybody knows that he is the right man at the right time.
That is a point in John’s career where he was very, very, very frustrated. He didn’t realize it at that point, but that is when his career really drew to a close.
And then the fiasco with Barbara Bodine. I thought, “Great, close the chapter on John’s FBI life.”
Tell us about Bodine. How you first heard about–
John called me from Yemen, and I heard about it in a phone conversation from John.
What did he say?
Well, he was very upset. He did not go into things in great detail, because he always worked under the assumption that the phones were tapped and he would usually begin the conversation by, “Don’t say anything.” He did call me. He said, “I am going to call you at the office the next day.” He just said a little more in the office.
I have to tell you, when John came home — he got home, I think it was two days before Thanksgiving, because he kept telling me he was going to try to be home for Thanksgiving — John had dropped 20-25 pounds. For John O’Neill to be the emaciated man when he walked in here — he was very hurt by that, and then didn’t feel supported when he came back. …
What was it about the two of them?
Do you know what I think it was? Two human beings that immediately disliked each other. You know how that happens sometimes? There are people that you just love right away. I said I am surprised, because John had the personality that people liked him. Something about him, it sounds to me like, set her off. And the more it didn’t work, the more it didn’t work.
But here is like two people that are very important positions at a very important time, and time is of the essence.
And it looked like it turned into a personal vendetta.
So was he unbelievably frustrated by this?
He was unbelievably frustrated by it. …
Tell me about after the decision for retirement.
Well, it was a very, very painful decision for John. … John needed to make some money, too. Let’s not forget that the FBI does not have the biggest entertainment budget in the world. One of John’s greatest skills was liaison. He paid for a lot of that himself out of his own pocket. He needed to make some money. He had some debt to pay off. …
John actually is not the happiest person in the world with this great new job. … He wasn’t excited about it. If John had his druthers, he would have stayed with the FBI. He would have still been assistant director in New York.
It was a time when, we have been told by lots of people, everybody knows, that June and July, August all the red flags were up, a lot of warnings, a lot of chatter. Here was a man like this, so knowledgeable, so totally involved with the anti-terrorism fight. How can you walk away at a time like this?
Well, his own people were fighting him. John was fighting a double war. He was fighting terrorism, and he was fighting his own people too. … John went through a couple of really bad years here. The first really bad year was in 1999. I believe that was the first year that the car issue came, and it was hideous. It was horrendous. Then maybe two years later, the briefcase thing happened. Things were just kind of domino-ing and happening.
Tell me about The New York Times article and about the briefcase.
We knew before we got The New York Times that it was going to be in the paper. John was absolutely distraught over it. Number one, it was a ridiculous thing. He had to go to a retirement seminar. It is a mandatory seminar. You must go. It is in Florida. He went down for a few days, and then we were meeting for the weekend. So I flew down on a Friday afternoon. I was supposed to meet John.
We were meeting in Bal Harbor at the Marriott. John came in. I don’t remember seeing John as distraught as he was this night. What has happened? He told me he left his briefcase in this room of 150 FBI agents and got a phone call. Couldn’t hear on his cell phone, so he just walked outside to take his call.
Walked back in, his briefcase was gone. He was completely freaked. … They found the briefcase within 20 minutes. There was nothing missing from the briefcase other than a Mont Blanc pen and a lighter. Anyhow, that story, interestingly enough, died for 18 months. John went to Yemen. All of that happened, and then, all of a sudden, this story was dragged up again.
And that was the final nail in John O’Neill’s coffin that they were going to use to have him retire.
Did he know who did it?
Did he confront them?
It was completely denied. The person that he thought did it said absolutely not, wouldn’t want to hurt you in any way, shape, or form.
It has been reported that was Tom Pickard.
That is who John felt it was, Tom Pickard. John really never knew. He was out to get John for a long time, and John never really knew why. I guess Tom knows why, if it was, in fact, him. …
Let me ask you about Sept. 10, the night before. What happened?
Well, it was a typical unreal moment, OK? It was Fashion Week that week. He called me at the office, “What are you doing tonight?” I said, “I am taking a client out.” I was taking a client our to dinner. … So he said, “What time will you be done?” I said, “I don’t know, 9:30 or 10.” He said, “I will be home no later than 10:30.” I said, “OK, we will meet back at the apartment.”
I got to the apartment, I don’t know, 10:00, 10:15. I stayed up until about 11:00, 11:30, finally went to bed. I woke about 1:30 and he wasn’t home. I was annoyed. So I started playing solitaire on the computer. John waltzed in, I don’t know, 3:30, 4:00, sat down next to me on the chair. “You play a mean game of solitaire, babe.” I said something unkind. He went to bed, got up the next morning, and the most amazing thing happened.
I can hold a grudge for a couple of days. I was a little annoyed at him. The next morning, he came into my restroom and he said, “Babe, please forgive me. I really fucked up and I am sorry.” It just touched me so much that he said that. I don’t know why it touched me. I said, “I do forgive you.” And we went, walked across the street, and that was the last time I ever saw him. He dropped me at work. It was the last time I ever saw him.
Normally, I would not have spoken to him for a couple of days. So can I please tell you how happy I am that I did say that?
So what happens the morning of Sept. 11?
… It was a beautiful, beautiful day. The sun was shining. The sky was bluer than blue. I didn’t know anything had happened yet. I’m happy. … I walk into my showroom. The phone is just ringing off the hook and both of my assistants look really concerned. People started running in my showroom. My children started calling. Joe was in college in Wisconsin, my daughter was in Chicago. Just all of our lines were lit up. The World Trade Center has been hit.
You know, I never thought it would be John. I just didn’t think of that. As a matter of fact, my brother called me and he said “Val, you’re not going to see John for months after this,” meaning he’s going to be investigating it and all of that, and I said, “Oh, my gosh, I know.” The furthest thing from my mind could have been anything happened to O’Neill.
So then I think it was 9:17. One of my assistants got the call from O’Neill and she said, “It’s John.” We got on the phone. By now there are 20 people in my showroom, but half of them know John, and he says, “Hey babe, it’s me.” I said, “Are you OK?” He says, “Yes, I’m fine.” He said, “Val, do you know what hit it?” and I said, “John, I don’t know.” I said, “Jay said he thought it was a 747.” John said, “Val, it’s horrible. There are body parts everywhere.” We said a few other things to one another, and he said, “OK, I’ll call you in a little bit.” I said, “OK.”
So we all sat back down. I’m all happy and relieved. I’m trying to call the kids. Our phone lines were not working by that time, but … my daughter got ahold of me, and I said, “I just heard from him. He’s fine.” OK, great.
We heard screams from across the hall. I’m on the 24th floor, and across the hall is the rental office. They have a large screen TV there. We all ran across the hall just in time to see the second tower hit. I knew immediately John was dead. I don’t know why I knew, I just knew, and I just slumped down into a chair and I said, “Oh my God, John is dead.” And everybody said “Don’t say that, don’t say that. Don’t talk like that.”
About 2:00 in the afternoon, I said to my assistant, we were just sitting there waiting for him to call. Everyone went back to my office, and he never called. It took the kids about three days to realize he wasn’t going to call, because nothing can happen to O’Neill. He makes things happen, but nothing can happen to him. …
So you got the one phone call?
One phone call, and that was it. I believe it was 9:17. Life changed forever for everybody. …
A lot of people talk about the irony.
But you know what, wouldn’t John have loved to go that way? His heart had already been broken by the FBI. John didn’t die like Patton did, walking across the street and getting hit by a car or something like that. He was killed by terrorism, the thing that was the closest to his heart.
If he had lived, would he have been able to stay out of the fight?
Absolutely not. He would have been in the thick of it, in whatever capacity. I think it would have been a huge capacity; not necessarily in public, not with the FBI, but he would have definitely been back in the game. Do you know how he would have been sought after? …
Do you know anything about his connection with the Cole family and what he thought about his responsibility to them? Can you add anything to when he talked about that?
John just felt he had a huge responsibility. I think that is, again, his compassion. … I believe the very last thing he did when he left his office was e-mail Lou Gunn in response to Lou’s e-mail. It was the last thing he did. No reason, again, to do that. Lou Gunn could do nothing for John O’Neill. Compassion. He really very much cared about people. …
Is this a man who had regrets at the end of the day?
You know, I thought a lot about that. I don’t know if John O’Neill had regrets or not. When the going got really tough the last couple of years, when politically they were really after him, occasionally he said to me, “I wonder if I made the right choice with my life.” Did O’Neill love his career? Did he love his life? Did he love being John O’Neill, the FBI? Absolutely, he loved every second of it.
So I think at the end of the day, did John O’Neill have regrets? No. I think he would do everything over again exactly how he did it. …