The Man Who Knew
Produced and Directed
Co-Produced and Reported
One of them knew
it was going to happen
JERRY HAUER, Dir. Emergency Mgmt. NYC '96-'00: The night before he died, he had said to me, "We're due, and we're due for something big."
NARRATOR: His name was John O'Neill. And long before the world knew about Osama bin Laden, FBI agent O'Neill was obsessed with him.
TEDDY LEB: He was among the first people to see the bin Laden threat.
NARRATOR: He warned of Al Qaeda.
TEDDY LEB: He said that we're at war with these people.
NARRATOR: He warned of the threat to the United States.
TEDDY LEB: And we better not take them for granted because they are here to hurt us.
NARRATOR: But people at FBI headquarters thought John O'Neill was too much of a maverick and they stopped listening to him.
JOE CANTAMESSA, FBI Special Agent NYC: You could be flagged as a problem, and your career could pretty much be over.
NARRATOR: Last summer, O'Neill left the FBI and took a new job as head of security at the World Trade Center.
JOE CANTAMESSA: Of all the places to go to work, and of all the ways that you could lose your life.
NARRATOR: Tonight FRONTLINE investigates the internal power struggle at the heart of the FBI's failure on September 11th.
NARRATOR: There was after the horror of September 11th the inevitable question: Did anyone in the government know?
The move from Chicago to headquarters was a big promotion for Special Agent John O'Neill. He'd be the chief of the counterterrorism section. He drove all night from Chicago and went straight to the office on a Sunday morning.
September 5, 1995
He'd just arrived when the White House called.
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: It was a Sunday morning and I was in my office and I was reading intelligence. And I saw a report that indicated that the man who had plotted the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the ringleader, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef --
Subject: Ramzi Ahmed Yousef
Place of Birth:
RICHARD CLARK: He was about to move within Pakistan. And there was a small window, a closing window, to catch him. And so thinking there might be somebody at the FBI on a Sunday morning, I called.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: It's sort of typical -- I mean, you know, John in the office on a Sunday. John, a new job, was going to get his feet on the ground and get himself settled in and was going to make sure that he was -- if that was his job, he was going to be the expert in it in short order.
NARRATOR: O'Neill had made his reputation investigating white-collar crime, drug rings and abortion clinic bombings.
Subject: John P. O'Neill
1976: Baltimore -- White Collar Crime
RICHARD CLARKE: I said, "Who's this?" And he responded, "Well, who the hell are you? I'm John O'Neill." And I explained, "Well, I'm from the White House, and I do terrorism. And I need some help." And I told him my story on the classified phone line.
And he went into action, and over the course of the next two or three days, he never left the office. He worked the phones out to Pakistan. He worked the phones to the Pentagon. He works the phones at the State Department.
NARRATOR: O'Neill was new to the counterterrorism game. In 20 years, he'd chased a lot of bad guys but nobody like Ramzi Yousef.
MARY JO WHITE, U.S. Atty. So. District of NY '93-'02: Yousef is one of the most dangerous people on the planet -- very smart. Getting him and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue, and John O'Neill recognized that, was not about to take no for an answer anywhere before he was taken into custody.
RICHARD CLARKE: O'Neill put together an arrest team that managed to catch Ramzi Ahmed Yousef in Pakistan just before he moved into Afghanistan, which would be been beyond our reach. It was a pretty intense couple of days, but it worked.
NARRATOR: At headquarters, down in the SIOC -- the situation room -- they waited for word from New York that Yousef was in the lock-up.
LEWIS SCHILIRO, Director of FBI NYC '98-'00: When we loaded him on the helicopter, he had been blindfolded. It was a very clear night -- very, very clear -- sometime in January. And one of the agents asked me if he could take the blindfold off Yousef, and I said, "Sure. Go right ahead." And it was ironic because as he finally focused his eyes, we were right adjacent to the World Trade Center, and he kind of focused in on that. And of course, one of the agents sitting next to him gave him a little bit of a nudge and said, "Do you see? It still stands?"
And Yousef, in no uncertain terms, said, "It would not have been had we had more funding." And I looked at him at that point. Really, just the way that he said that, the coldness of it, is something that I'll probably never forget.
NARRATOR: For the next six years, O'Neill and his agents would follow the bloody and complex trail from Ramzi Yousef to Osama bin Laden. He'd painstakingly pieced together bits of information gathered from sources around the world, sources who would sometimes become close friends. One of them was a journalist.
CHRIS ISHAM, ABC News: He was one of those rare birds that -- inside a 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, and it could actually be helpful on both sides.
NARRATOR: In analyzing the information about Ramzi Yousef, Isham said his friend, O'Neill, saw a different sort of terrorist with a new kind of mission.
CHRIS ISHAM: The picture was still fuzzy -- I mean, it was by no means sharp -- that there was an emerging global Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network that was becoming more and more engaged in the objective of attacking American targets.
MARY JO WHITE: When Yousef fled from the Trade Center bombing in 1993, among the places he went, really right before he was apprehended in Pakistan, was to the Philippines, where he was mixing the bombs to blow up, you know, 12 jumbo jets in a 48-hour period, and was not far away from at least attempting to carry out that plot, which would have resulted in thousands of deaths in two days.
NARRATOR: For Agent O'Neill, the trail of Ramzi Yousef was an introduction into the sophisticated and interconnected world of the new terrorism.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director '93-'95: We now know that he was planning an operation to crash a dozen American airliners virtually simultaneously with bombs. Now, one version of this, I believe, from the Philippines, has it that he was planning on crashing one of the 12 not in the Pacific but into the CIA headquarters in Langley. What's interesting is whether that was part of his plan or not. If you look together at crashing airliners and at Ramzi Yousef's plot to blow up the World Trade Center in '93 by explosives, what happened in September 11th, 2001, is some kind of a weird amalgam of those two Ramzi Yousef plots.
NARRATOR: Another of O'Neill's friends worked in the upper reaches of the Justice Department.
FRAN TOWNSEND: John completely throws himself into this. He's reading everything he can get his hands on about radical fundamentalism. He's already got in his mind this is a major and long-term problem for us that we are ill-equipped to deal with, not because we lack the commitment to deal with it, but because it's a mindset he's now read. He's studied it.
NARRATOR: From the beginning, O'Neill obsessed about the details of the Ramzi Yousef case. He dug into that plan to blow up the planes, known as the Bojinka plot. Investigators had found a connection with the World Trade Center bombing that led to Yousef's co-conspirator, Ahmad Ajaj, and a terrorist training manual with a title that would translate into "Al Qaeda" --"the base."
They uncovered a list of phone numbers called by Yousef and other World Trade Center conspirators from their safe houses. One of those numbers belonged to Osama bin Laden, identified by an early CIA report as an "Islamic extremist financier."
RICHARD CLARKE: I think if you ask most terrorism experts in the mid-1990s, "Well, what about this man, bin Laden?" most people in the mid-1990s would have said, "Ah, yes, the financier, the terrorist financier." What O'Neill said was, "No, this man is not a financier. The money is money for a purpose. The purpose is building a worldwide terrorist network based out of Afghanistan, the point of which is going after the United States and after governments friendly to the United States, particularly in the Arab world."
NARRATOR: Once convinced bin Laden was a threat to America, O'Neill began a campaign within the FBI to sound the alarm.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT, Deputy Director FBI '97-'99: The first time I ever heard the name Osama bin Laden was from John O'Neill. And John O'Neill was very much aware of who he was, who his group was, Al Qaeda.
NARRATOR: Over time, Robert "Bear" Bryant would become second in command at the FBI and a supporter of John O'Neill.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: He was a person that I had immense personal regard for, and we could argue like a couple of thieves in the night over issues because we were both hard-headed. We were both a little bit Irish, and he much more so than I. And we had strong opinions about things, and we could get into it really quick.
NARRATOR: O'Neill argued for a plan that would represent a seismic shift in the way the FBI had always operated. He would give authority to a new, more analytic agent who would have enhanced technology to fight the new terrorism. That directly threatened the dominance of the group who held sway over the culture, the criminal division.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: From his point of view, it was very clear what had to be done. You would basically have a whole branch of the FBI that would be -- not be touched by the criminal side.
NARRATOR: The criminal side -- the J. Edgar Hoover G-men who carried the guns and made cases and arrests. The man who would eventually lead the criminal division, Tom Pickard, aggressively competed with O'Neill for the attention of the director, Louis Freeh.
Subject: Louis J. Freeh
1974: J.D. Rutgers Law
NARRATOR: As a former street agent himself, Freeh identified with the criminal division, and Tom Pickard was a long-time friend. O'Neill's counterterrorism section was on the FBI's radar, but just barely.
JOE CANTAMESSA, FBI Special Agent NYC: A lot of people don't realize that a year prior to the first bombing of the World Trade Center, all but one squad was eliminated or reconsolidated in New York, so -- and we were the flagship office that had most of the counterterrorism issues. We were pretty much scaling back. And while we would never close the program, it certainly was given much less resource support, and the thought -- and the threat was thought to have been diminishing.
NARRATOR: To reinvigorate the counterterrorism effort, O'Neill would try to muscle his way through the bureaucracy that surrounded Louis Freeh. But in that struggle, O'Neill's personal style got in the way. They said he was too intense, pushed too hard, had what they called "sharp elbows."
JOE CANTAMESSA: We often talked and joked about the fact that we weren't really in the club, and we really didn't care. And that was something that John and I had shared on occasion. And there is a difference between those people who spend time in an organization and are happy to make it to the top and have never rolled over a stone or created a problem or solved a problem, you know, just to carefully run through, and be there and be promoted. John was not like that.
NARRATOR: O'Neill just didn't do anything the FBI way. Where at the end of a long shift, they went home to their families --
MICHAEL SHEEHAN, Chief Counterterrorism, State Dept. '98-'01: He was the type of guy who'd put his arm around you and take you out to dinner, and smoke cigars and drink whiskey with at the end of the day, and really -- and talk about all the issues in great depth. And he -- that's -- he took this -- the business -- his business beyond the work hours and well into the evening, or he'd like to do that.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's evenings were spent at Washington's watering holes with a network of spies -- CIA, DIA, NSC and foreign intelligence officers.
JERRY HAUER, Dir. Emergency Mgmt. NYC '96-'00: John tended to be a little more flamboyant than a lot of the traditional agents in the FBI. I think there were jealousies. John did know everybody all over the world. John could pick up a phone and talk to somebody in an embassy in a foreign intelligence service anywhere in the world, and they all knew him.
NARRATOR: And in the buttoned-down FBI, O'Neill was considered too flashy.
FRAN TOWNSEND: It was the presentation. It was the -- as he would call it, it was the "package." They resented sort of the Burberry suit and the white pocket square and the expensive tie and the Bruno Magli shoes. You know, this wasn't the bureau.
CLINT GUENTHER, FBI Agent NYC - Counterterrorism: I kind of thought he was kind of a dandy. You know, he was impeccably dressed and looked like his fingernails were polished and his hair swooped back. And a bunch of us kind of, you know, started to call him the "Prince of Darkness."
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: He worked both ends of the candle pretty hard. We had a morning briefing every morning at 7:30, and sometimes he would come in late. And I told him I wanted him there. I don't care if he came in his slippers and pajamas, be there. And he was.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's days were spent analyzing fragments of information. There was the story about two of Ramzi Yousef's Bojinka co-conspirators, Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad. In 1995, Murad told a story of Middle Eastern pilots training at U.S. flight schools and of a proposal to divebomb a jetliner into a federal building. It was a tantalizing bit of information. Agents were dispatched but then withdrawn. The investigation languished.
JAMES KALLSTROM, Director FBI NYC '95-'97: I had a fairly low opinion of headquarters throughout my whole career. It seemed like, you know, the headquarters was a very negative place, where they would find a million reasons why you couldn't do something, as opposed to why you could do something. It was not the type of place where you always felt you were getting a lot of assistance.
John was the opposite of that. John you could talk to, and you could tell John what you needed and John would get it.
NARRATOR: James Kallstrom was the powerful boss of the FBI's New York office. Watching from a distance, he saw O'Neill's attitude and expertise make enemies among the group that surrounded Louis Freeh.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Yeah, I'm sure there was some jealousy in the bureaucracy. There always is. You can get by with some sharper elbows for a while, but you need to be right a lot. You know the old saying, "When you run with the wolves, don't trip," you know? You can have those types of character traits -- you really need to have those to get the job done sometimes -- but there'll always be a comeuppance in bureaucracies if you exercise that too much and you don't restrain it.
NARRATOR: At headquarters there were those in the upper reaches of the bureaucracy who looked for ways to wound O'Neill. A whispering campaign began about O'Neill's personal life. There was one version: married his high school sweetheart and had a couple of kids. Then there was the truth.
FRAN TOWNSEND: John had been separated from his family for some time. And I think John would have said to you his family suffered as a result of that, as a result of his devotion to his job.
VALERIE JAMES: 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.
NARRATOR: And he loved Valerie James.
VALERIE JAMES: 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 just had the most -- he was standing at the bar, and he had the most compelling eyes I had ever seen.
NARRATOR: She had her own children, and after a while, they started calling him "Dad." He hinted he might marry their mom. The trouble was, he hadn't told her he was already married.
VALERIE JAMES: I didn't know that for two or three years. And someone that John worked with in the FBI's wife told me, and it was bad. I was shocked. You know, 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?
NARRATOR: There weren't exactly FBI regulations against O'Neill's behavior, but there were unwritten rules of the road, and the whisperers said O'Neill's lifestyle made him unfit for his sensitive job.
VALERIE JAMES: John's brilliant. He's 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 any of his peers about what he's working on, it's that intense. Does a man like that come home and eat roast chicken and mashed potatoes every night? You know, I think his whole life needed to be complicated. I think he was complicated.
NARRATOR: O'Neill said he could care less what the bureaucrats thought. The only one he was concerned about was Louis Freeh.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: Louis Freeh is extraordinary, in the sense of being sort of a regular person, very committed to his children and his wife. He wasn't one to be out late or wasn't a big drinker, wasn't -- that was not his style at all.
NARRATOR: O'Neill figured a personal connection to Freeh was out of the question. He'd have to find another way to make his case about reorganizing the FBI.
Then, after Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia blew up the U.S. Air Force barracks known as Khobar Towers, O'Neill saw his chance. Both O'Neill and Freeh got deeply involved, taking 14-hour plane rides to Saudi Arabia, time enough for a sustained O'Neill terrorism tutorial.
From the beginning, O'Neill's cop instincts told him the Saudis weren't fully cooperating. They were hiding something.
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: On at least one occasion, John told me that he believed that the Saudis were telling us one thing but doing another, and that he tried to persuade the director of the FBI of that, but the director wanted to believe that the Saudis were cooperating.
NARRATOR: Finally, on a flight back to Washington, O'Neill decided to give Freeh a piece of his mind. The way they tell the story at the bureau, O'Neill uttered an indelicate phrase, telling his boss the Saudis were blowing smoke up a particular portion of the director's anatomy.
CHRIS ISHAM, ABC News: He never told me the precise words, but I can hear John saying them. I -- you know, I think that he felt that the Saudis were definitely playing games and that the senior officials in the U.S. government, including Louis Freeh, just didn't get it.
NARRATOR: The story has it that Freeh didn't appreciate the bluntness. The two flew home in silence for 12 hours.
FRAN TOWNSEND: If that was what John said, and he said it in that indelicate a way, it wouldn't surprise me that Freeh would have viewed that as inappropriate and therefore disrespectful. If John said it in that way, it wouldn't surprise me if Louis chose not to sort of deal with him while he was in that mood.
NARRATOR: Louis Freeh has reportedly denied this story, but declined FRONTLINE's request to talk with us.
And as to the substance of the dispute between Freeh and O'Neill, over at the White House, where they always thought Iran was behind the bombing, they eventually learned the truth about the way the Saudis were acting.
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it turns out that the Saudi government had a suspicion that it was Iran, and the Saudi government didn't really want the United States to conclude that it was Iran and go off and start bombing Iran. So the Saudi government decided at a very high level to give the United States and the FBI only a little bit of cooperation, not the full picture.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's instincts had been right, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.
JOE CANTAMESSA, FBI Special Agent NYC: Well, remember about this being in the club I mentioned? You have to be a little bit of a minimal threat to the organization and the director and the management structure. John, because of his aggressive posture, his aggressive nature, his willingness to go forward when it may not be politically correct -- I think a few people were just uncomfortable with John's aggressive style.
NARRATOR: But for every enemy O'Neill made at headquarters, it seems he'd made an ally elsewhere. One of them, in the midst of her own struggle with Louis Freeh and the headquarters bureaucracy, he kept secret.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: The attorney general had seen John at meetings, knew he was an expert from his position at the FBI. And she would frequently say, "Well, what does John think?" There were times I was sitting in her office, and she'd ask that, and I'd say I didn't know. And she said, "Well, call him."
And literally, I would be dialing John's cell phone from the attorney general of the United States' office. And you know, he'd get on the phone, "Hi. How are you?" And I'd -- "Look, I'm in Ms. Reno's office." And so if she wanted to know, she knew she had the ability to reach out to him. This made him, in fairness, a little bit uncomfortable. He knew that this would not have been looked upon kindly by other people in the bureau.
NARRATOR: Around Washington, O'Neill's allies and drinking buddies began to warn him that he should take his Al Qaeda crusade to a field office. He should leave headquarters.
JERRY HAUER, Dir. Emergency Mgmt. NYC '96-'00: You got to be careful whose toes you step on, particularly in Washington, because there are some pretty big shoes. And he created some headaches for himself at headquarters because he did manage to step on some toes.
VALERIE JAMES: He told me that was the most intense time he spent with the FBI. I mean it burnt John out. Do you know how Jimmy Carter looked when he started office and the pictures of him afterwards, how he aged? I felt that that -- I said it to John. I felt that job aged John.
NARRATOR: There was an opening in the New York City division. The boss up there, Jimmy Kallstrom, was also a tough guy, a thorn in Washington's side. He grabbed O'Neill -- saved him, really. At headquarters, they were happy to see him go, and on January 1st, 1997, John O'Neill moved to New York.
It was a promotion, assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism and national security. He'd be in charge of a team of about 350 agents. And best of all, it was in New York.
JAMES KALLSTROM, Director FBI NYC '95-'97: New York was the flagship office of the FBI. It's where it happens, in New York. I mean, that's where you wanted to be if you were an FBI agent. So it's only natural that John O'Neill, who's -- you know, his whole life was the FBI, from what I could see -- would want to be in New York.
NARRATOR: In the New York office, they were still piecing together the evidence in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They also had new information that bin Laden had been involved in the shooting down of two American Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia. The confession of captured Al Qaeda member Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl told of Osama bin Laden's efforts to develop chemical weapons, buy weapons-grade uranium and to spread the Al Qaeda network into Europe.
O'Neill was working to connect all these dots with the powerful U.S. attorney Mary Jo White.
MARY JO WHITE, U.S. Atty. So. District of NY '93-'02: I had a reputation of being fairly autonomous also, and not being afraid to rattle cages to get things done, and he had that reputation, too. And so when he came to New York, he wanted to try to get us both off on the right foot and, you know, not have those two cage-rattlers, you know, work at counter-purposes.
NARRATOR: U.S. Attorney White was among the first of his allies in Manhattan. His forays into the night added more. He connected with many of them at the epicenter of the New York scene, Elaine's.
ELAINE KAUFMAN, Owner: He's a lovely man, intelligent, easy to talk to, very well groomed. He wasn't a braggart. He was low-key. Because I know some of the others, they tell you they just saved the whole world out there. But he never spoke like that.
CHRIS ISHAM: Elaine's has a very hierarchical seating structure. And sort of the tourists and the peasants are relegated to the back end of the restaurant, and you simply don't want to be there. And there are about seven or eight tables in the front. John always made sure that he was in one of those front tables because he understood the importance of being completely wired, and he felt in order to be wired, he needed to be in the front of the restaurant, not the back of the restaurant.
ELAINE KAUFMAN: It's like George Plimpton. I mean, he's George Plimpton on the job. There's no place that George can't sit. And so it was with John. He could sit anyplace he wanted. He was the Big Kahuna.
NARRATOR: O'Neill would return to the office often after midnight. He might have a scrap of information or a new name.
CLINT GUENTHER, FBI Agent NYC - Counterterrorism: John always feared that somehow we would miss something. He would be after his investigators to make sure they covered every base, and woe be you if you failed to cover everything.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's investigators now had more evidence about one of the conspirators in that Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef. Wali Khan Amin Shah admitted involvement in a plot to assassinate President Clinton. The plot had links to bin Laden.
CLINT GUENTHER: Under John's investigative leadership, he pressed his investigators to try to look for the ties, look for the -- any connectivity between these organizations. This larger picture turned out to be Al Qaeda.
NARRATOR: O'Neill was becoming obsessed, haunted by the specter of bin Laden.
JOHN P. O'NEILL, Jr.: My dad had a lot of video of Osama bin Laden. Whatever was out there was actually in his apartment. He studied him several times, watched the videos, I know, several times.
VALERIE JAMES: 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 wherever and constantly underline everything.
CHRIS ISHAM: By then, bin Laden was in Afghanistan. And I organized through some channels to do an interview with him, which took shape in the early '98 through spring of '98. The interview actually happened in May of '98 with John Miller.
NARRATOR: And some of O'Neill's information helped Isham and correspondent John Miller draw up their questions.
JOHN MILLER, Correspondent, ABC News: I wanted to ask -- did he either -- Mr. Bin Laden, either finance or order the World Trade Center bombing, because of the Ramzi Yousef association? Because of the association is why I would want to ask that. But would you ask him now if we could ask that before he starts again?
NARRATOR: O'Neill couldn't wait to get his hands on the tape.
CHRIS ISHAM, ABC News: He wanted to see everything. He was, well, "I need to see the whole thing. I need to see the whole interview."
INTERPRETER: He says he doesn't know.
JOHN MILLER: Oh. So [unintelligible] issue. Disregard.
CHRIS ISHAM: I said, "Well, you know, we have this whole thing about outtakes, and, you know, it -- you know, it may sound stupid, but we, you know, really can't give you all the outtakes of the interview." He says, "No, you don't understand. I have to see the whole interview." It was like he wasn't taking no for an answer.
NARRATOR: O'Neill finally saw the entire interview on the ABC News Web site.
CHRIS ISHAM: He was obsessed by him. I think there's no question about it. He always knew that there was so much more that he didn't know, and that's what spooked him. What spooked him and what really used to drive him crazy was what he didn't know and how much was out there that he didn't know.
NEWSCASTER: [August 7, 1998] Two bombs, minutes apart, exploded without warning Friday outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania."
LEWIS SCHILIRO, Director of FBI NYC '98-'00: We had turned on the TV, watching CNN. And John O'Neill put it together in relatively short order and was convinced, in his own mind, that Al Qaeda was behind that.
MARY JO WHITE: I had the same immediate reaction. What I did was to call both Lew Schiliro and the attorney general and I think John O'Neill. And I, in particular, having been enmeshed in bin Laden and Al Qaeda, was our immediate reaction.
LEWIS SCHILIRO: And it was really the first time ever that I began to at least focus in on, really, the significance of Osama bin Laden.
NARRATOR: Two American embassies had been bombed in east Africa virtually simultaneously.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN, Chief Counterterrorism, State Dept. '98-'01: That clearly was the event that changed bin Laden's profile dramatically because it was such a major event. Two embassies blown up simultaneously over 500 miles apart in the continent of Africa was not expected. Most of the attacks previous to that were in the Middle East. This was in a part of the world we didn't expect. Two embassies done simultaneously showed a great deal of sophistication in the organization. So this was a major event.
NARRATOR: But at headquarters, the brass were engaged in a procedural dispute.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: We're in the command center, and people are being pulled in. I'm over there. There's all sorts of senior bureau people there. Everybody's coming together. And the reason this becomes a significant question almost immediately is because the FBI's got to deploy people overseas. They're going to deploy people initially to Kenya and Tanzania. And who's going to be the on-scene commander?
NARRATOR: O'Neill believed his experience and expertise made him the obvious choice to lead the investigation as the on-scene commander.
FRAN TOWNSEND: And he really wanted to roll up his sleeves and get into it, and wanted to be there and wanted responsibility. He 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?
NARRATOR: But down in the SIOC, there were those who wanted to cut New York and O'Neill out. On the QT, Townsend called O'Neill.
FRAN TOWNSEND: And he was -- to say angry, disappointed, hurt -- there becomes this bureaucratic arm-wrestle over who's going to be the office of origin.
NARRATOR: O'Neill desperately needed the help of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.
MARY JO WHITE, U.S. Atty. So. District of NY '93-'02: He and I were both very adamant that the New York field agents who were most knowledgeable about bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization get over to Africa as quickly as possible as the investigation was unfolding because those first few days are often the most critical to whether you capture somebody or not or figure out who's involved.
And he and I certainly shared the view that you need the folks who know what they're looking at in charge of, or very much in the thick of the investigations.
FRAN TOWNSEND: I'm basically sitting at the SIOC, at this point, as the attorney general's representative. And so I'm running back and forth across Pennsylvania Avenue twice a day to brief her, say, "There is tremendous consternation about who's going to be the office of origin." You'd think it would be bigger things than that but you're -- in the early going, we're involved in that discussion.
NARRATOR: The attorney general decided to stay out of it. Fran Townsend and Mary Jo White couldn't win the argument. And as it happened, O'Neill's other ally, Deputy Director Bear Bryant, was out of cell phone range, on vacation.
So the head of the criminal division, one of those men in Louis Freeh's inner circle, Tom Pickard, was temporarily in charge. He decided the New York team would not take the lead in the investigation, Washington would. And John O'Neill would not get command.
FRAN TOWNSEND: This is the World Series, and he's gotten benched. And that's exactly how he feels about it. And he is very hurt, very upset about it. And bitter.
NARRATOR: O'Neill hit the phones. He ended up venting to Bear Bryant.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT, Deputy Director FBI '97-'99: I said, "You're going to have a stroke." He was so intense.
INTERVIEWER: This is the first guy you heard the word Al Qaeda and bin Laden from. Shouldn't he be there?
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: Well, he wasn't.
INTERVIEWER: But that wasn't your decision. I got a feeling that wasn't your decision.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: Well, he wasn't there.
INTERVIEWER: It wasn't your decision, was it?
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: He wasn't there.
NARRATOR: After a couple of weeks, O'Neill's belief that Al Qaeda was responsible for the bombings turned out to be right. Headquarters reversed itself and gave the investigation to O'Neill's New York team. But Washington refused to send O'Neill himself. Stuck in New York, he had to be content to learn as much as possible long-distance from his agents.
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: You'd go into John's office, and on the wall there would be a chart with lines connecting phone numbers in the United States and phone numbers in the Middle East and phone numbers in Africa -- names. This guy was involved in this case, and he talked to that guy over in that case.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's agents in east Africa had found another training manual nearly identical to the one found in the World Trade Center bombing. One cooperating witness revealed that bin Laden was planning to send operatives to the U.S for pilot training. A computer found in a raid showed hundreds of targets around the world already surveilled and approved.
O'Neill's agents identified a man named Mohamed Rasheed Daoud al-'Owhali. He led them to a safe house in Yemen that acted as a kind of terrorist telephone exchange, relaying messages to and from bin Laden in Afghanistan.
[www.pbs.org: Explore the full map of connections]
RICHARD CLARKE: Certainly, after the embassy bombing in Africa in '98, it was very obvious that what John was saying was right, that this was more than a nuisance, that this was a real threat.
But I don't think everyone came to the understanding that it was an existential threat. Question was, "You know, this group is more than a nuisance, but are they worth going to war with? After all, they've only attacked two embassies, and maybe that's a cost of doing business. This kind of thing happens. Yes, we should spend some time and some energy trying to get them, but it's not the number-one priority we have."
NARRATOR: O'Neill's message still hadn't gotten through, and yet he had come to believe Al Qaeda had infiltrated the United States.
He had studied the videotapes of bin Laden's training camp in Afghanistan. He knew thousands of Al Qaeda fighters had been exported throughout the world. His police contacts in Germany, Spain, Italy were tracing their movements. But he could not convince headquarters that they were in the United States.
CLINT GUENTHER, FBI Agent NYC - Counterterrorism: He fully believed that they had moved in and had cells here for a long time, that groups were coming in from various parts of the world. And we couldn't really find out what they were about, but we could see movements of groups into this country.
CHRIS ISHAM: John understood that this was a global operation and that if we were going to get a handle on this, we had to work very, very closely with liaison services, such as the British, the Jordanians and the Egyptians and the Yemenis and the French.
RICHARD CLARKE: What John O'Neill was trying to do was to get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells, to look for the connections, which, frankly, most FBI offices were not doing. It was not one of the priorities of most FBI field offices.
NARRATOR: At headquarters, as he prepared to retire, Bear Bryant tried one last push of the reorganization plan he and O'Neill had been talking about for years. It would emphasize new ways of gathering and passing on information about groups like Al Qaeda.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: The trouble with the FBI, it never knew what it knew. I mean, it had information, but it never got to the right places. And that goes to automation. That goes to, you know, analysts. It goes to a lot of things.
NARRATOR: The reform plan meandered up the ladder at the FBI, through the Justice Department, the Congress and the White House. But it was never enacted.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: It was never funded. It was just -- it was put in the back burner somewhere.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: I don't know. I left in '99. I left in December of '99. The thing I saw was that it was never properly funded. Whether it's priorities or whatever, I don't know. I wasn't there.
[www.pbs.org: Read the complete interview]
NARRATOR: At just this time in New York, a new crisis was emerging that would eventually get the entire bureau's attention. O'Neill's international contacts were on full alert about the upcoming millennium celebrations, and O'Neill was lobbying for a full-blown FBI response in the United States.
MARY JO WHITE: The millennium, not only because of what that represented symbolically -- which, again, raises its danger value tremendously -- but also because of intelligence we were getting throughout our government -- had us all extremely concerned.
NARRATOR: From the New York SIOC, O'Neill and his team began to track a case that proved his theory that Al Qaeda had infiltrated the United States. An Algerian national, Ahmed Ressam, had been arrested on the border between Canada and the state of Washington. Among his possessions they found bomb-making material and maps. He had circled the Los Angeles airport on this one.
RICHARD CLARKE: We had always talked about the possibility that there were Al Qaeda cells in the United States, and we had looked for evidence. And we had encouraged FBI offices other than John O'Neill's office in New York to start looking for evidence.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: Anybody who's anybody, who could be anybody related to this, we're watching. We're -- the entire FBI is mobilized.
NARRATOR: The agents dug into the details of the plot. From the plan to blow up the Los Angeles airport, another trail led from Boston to a planned attack in Jordan. There were other conspirators in Seattle, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, where O'Neill was worried about the massive New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square.
LEWIS SCHILIRO: Certain documents were found on Ressam's possession, documents that indicated a New York connection -- in fact, a pretty strong connection to New York.
FRAN TOWNSEND: John's frankly terrified. New York presents a real target to him. He's got the New York City Police Department, he's got hundreds of agents working. He's got all kinds of things in his world of work that he's got to worry about.
NARRATOR: O'Neill personally hit the streets, seeking fast-track warrants and pushing the investigative envelope. One of Ressam's co-conspirators lived in New York. Abdel Meskini was supposed to deliver money and a cell phone to Ressam. O'Neill's agents arrested him.
MARY JO WHITE: Arrests were made that, had they not been uncovered, the plot had not been uncovered and those arrests made, we could have had horrific tragedies around the millennium.
NEWSCASTER: We have two million people -- two million people -- compressed in this small area here in mid-town Manhattan. No incidents in --
NARRATOR: O'Neill was one of those two million people. If Al Qaeda struck here, this was where he wanted to be.
FRAN TOWNSEND: We were in the SIOC. The attorney general was there. And we waited for midnight with sort of bated breath on the East Coast. And he called in to the SIOC, and we put him on speakerphone, and he clearly couldn't have been any more pleased that we had gotten through it.
LEWIS SCHILIRO: And I remember talking to John shortly after midnight. There was a sense of accomplishment. We had just made the arrests in the Ressam spin-off. And you know, certainly, we believed that we got everybody that we needed to find, but you know, you're never really 100 percent sure of that.
RICHARD CLARKE: And so I think a lot of the FBI leadership for the first time realized that O'Neill was right, that there probably were Al Qaeda people in the United States. They realized that only after they looked at the results of the investigation of the millennium bombing plot. So by February of 2000, I think senior people in the FBI were saying, "There probably is a network here in the United States, and we have to change the way the FBI goes about finding that network."
NARRATOR: If the bureau was finally going to reorganize itself to take on terror, O'Neill wanted significant influence in that process. He needed a highly visible, powerful platform. As it happened, Jimmy Kallstrom's old job, head of the New York office, was open. O'Neill pulled out all the stops and made a play for it.
FRAN TOWNSEND: He couldn't stop himself. He desperately wanted that job. He really wanted that promotion. And it would have been unlike John to want something and not really throw himself into it.
NARRATOR: O'Neill aggressively lobbied. But there were some administrative problems on his record. He'd lost a bureau cell phone and a Palm Pilot. Then there was the time his old Buick broke down. Val was with him. He figured he'd just pop into an FBI safe house to pick up a bureau car. He'd take her home, and that would be that. But headquarters called taking the car "unauthorized use of government property." And letting Val use the bathroom at the safe house was considered a security breach.
VALERIE JAMES: John went through a couple of really bad years here. The first really bad year was in 1999. And I believe that was the first year that the car issue came up. And it was hideous. It was horrendous.
NARRATOR: Headquarters initiated a formal inquiry.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT, Deputy Director FBI '97-'99: I think what happens in the FBI -- it's a very militaristic society, and you have to -- if you're being investigated by OPR, Office of Professional Responsibility, there's a question, they don't want to promote somebody that's got a cloud over them, even a minor thing like a vehicle.
NARRATOR: Bear Bryant, O'Neill's biggest supporter at headquarters, had retired. Louis Freeh promoted his long-time friend, Tom Pickard, to deputy director. It was not good news for Agent O'Neill. It was Pickard who decided O'Neill would not lead the investigation in east Africa, and now Pickard and Freeh decided John O'Neill would not get the big job in New York.
CHRIS ISHAM, ABC News: John was somebody that the bureaucrats were not always pleased with because they felt that he wasn't marching to their tune, that he was too ambitious and too -- that he operated out of the box too often. And this was an FBI that believed very much, under the 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. And so the envelope fought back.
NARRATOR: At 48, it looked like the bureaucracy was sending John O'Neill a message. The old-timers had seen it all before.
ROBERT "BEAR" BRYANT: My daddy always said don't kill your mavericks. They might save your life some day, and they're the ones that will always have the great ideas. So try to take care of them. And John was a maverick. A brilliant maverick.
NARRATOR: The buzz around the New York office was that the new boss, Barry Mawn, wasn't keen on keeping O'Neill around.
BARRY MAWN, Director FBI NYC '00-'02: I had heard stories that, you know, he was "Mr. New York," that he was the FBI in New York. And so if you needed anything or wanted anything, you had to go through John. And he was also -- I think he enjoyed being -- having the contacts liaison, being a power broker, the Elaine's. I think John enjoyed all of that.
NARRATOR: Mawn had all but made up his mind to move O'Neill out of the New York office.
FRAN TOWNSEND: Barry was a skeptic. He had heard sort of the headquarters gossip about John O'Neill's style, But it was funny. I can remember saying to John, "Barry doesn't stand a chance. If you decide to win him over, you'll win him over. You just have to -- if you put your mind to it, you know very well you'll do it." And I used to tell John, John was his own best advocate, when he put his mind to it.
BARRY MAWN: There was a knock on the door, and John was holding two beers. And he said, "Well I understand you're an Irishman, and you like to drink beer. These are for you." So I laughed and said, "Well, you got that correct." And he said, "Well, where are we at?" referring to the relationship between us.
[www.pbs.org: Read more O'Neill anecdotes]
CHRIS ISHAM: John loved the bureau. He loved the FBI. And he also felt that there was a lot that he could be doing for the FBI and that, given the war on terrorism was escalating, it wasn't in any way getting resolved, it was getting worse and not better.
BARRY MAWN: He wanted to stay in New York. He said, "I will be your most loyal supporter, and all I ask in return is that you be supportive of me in my efforts." And so I said, "Well, we got a deal. And we'll go forward." So I -- we went forward, and essentially, he lived up to his agreement, and I believe I lived up to my agreement.
FRAN TOWNSEND: Bless Barry. I give him credit. Barry saw John O'Neill's talent. He saw past the sort of -- the package issue, if you will, the style issue. And Barry recognized John's enormous contribution and how bright John was. And Barry came to rely on John.
NARRATOR: As the weeks wore on, and just as that investigation about the car incident seemed a thing of the past, headquarters ordered O'Neill to attend a conference of other agents in Florida.
VALERIE JAMES: We were meeting in Bal Harbor at the Marriott. John came in. He is just -- 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.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's bag contained classified documents. Taking them out of his FBI office was against the rules.
FRAN TOWNSEND: It's one of those moments I remember where I was. I remember what I was doing and because I could -- John was a -- you know, you used to say he swaggered. You know, he had all this -- he exuded self-confidence. And I could hear the fear in his voice. I could hear his throat tighten. I could hear he was wound that he had lost -- that this bag was gone. And he knew -- even if there had been nothing in it, his sense was, because the bureau had come down hard on him the time before for something stupid, that even if it was nothing more than he lost bureau equipment, he was going to get -- this was going to become a federal case. This was going to be a big deal in terms of the bureau, and it was going to be used to hurt him.
NARRATOR: Hours later, the bag was retrieved. Fingerprint analysis showed the documents hadn't been tampered with. But the damage was done.
RICHARDCLARKE: John always wanted to be thought of as being close to perfect. At the end of any meeting, he would hang around and say, "How'd I do? What can I do better next time? What am I doing wrong?" And of course, he was doing nothing wrong. He was doing everything spectacularly well. But he always wanted to do better. He always needed that reassurance.
And for him to be criticized for something like the suitcase -- the briefcase incident, whatever the truth value of that incident was, it hurt him a lot because he always wanted to be thought of as close to perfect -- perfectly dressed, perfectly briefed -- and didn't want anybody to think that he was in any way not the number-one guy in terms of performance.
NARRATOR: At headquarters, they pounced. Upstairs, they said that O'Neill was getting sloppy, burning the candle at both ends. Carrying around classified documents was a serious problem. The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility began a criminal investigation.
BARRY MAWN: I knew it wasn't good. He knew it wasn't good. He felt that this would probably be used by some of the detractors -- unnamed detractors at headquarters that would use this against him.
NARRATOR: O'Neill was in real trouble. He hired a lawyer and hunkered down to save his job.
FRAN TOWNSEND: He was consumed by this job, and the job turned on him. When he would make some foolish mistake, they came down awfully hard on him. Given what his contribution was, given what he had sacrificed, there was a sense of entitlement. And it's a terrible sense of unfairness. "Why? Because you don't like that I had a drink at Elaine's? You don't like my suit?" Well, because -- and he really -- he really felt people -- he didn't -- people above him -- his view was people above him felt threatened by him, by his expertise, and so didn't really want him around.
NARRATOR: As the criminal investigation against O'Neill dragged on inside the FBI, he and his team began noticing increased telephone activity from that safe house in Yemen. One intercepted message, confirmed by millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, said bin Laden was planning a "Hiroshima-type" event.
O'Neill had his agents paying attention to American embassies, especially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and U.S. military targets because an Egyptian informant had told them an American warship would be hit by Al Qaeda.
Then, on October 12th, 2000, Al Qaeda struck. The guided missile destroyer USS Cole was the target of a suicide mission. Seventeen sailors died.
BARRY MAWN, Director FBI NYC '00-'02: John came to me and said "It's Al Qaeda," and I totally agreed with him. And he said, "You got to get to the director, and we got to get this so the New York office responds initially.''
NARRATOR: At headquarters, down in the SIOC, there was once again strong resistance to the idea of sending O'Neill and his crew from New York to Yemen. It took hours for Barry Mawn to convince Director Freeh to let New York take the lead and to authorize O'Neill as the on-scene commander.
INTERVIEWER: Washington Headquarters of the FBI happy that O'Neill was going?
BARRY MAWN: My recollection is that I got questioned on it. "Is John the best guy to send?" And I had no hesitancy and said, "Absolutely, he's the best guy to send."
INTERVIEWER: Why would they have said that?
BARRY MAWN: Well, again, I think it kind of goes back to a little bit of the history John had with some of the folks back there, that there was probably some questioning as, "Well, do we want to send O'Neill?" And "He does have sharp elbows" or "His style may be -- " they were concerned that he wasn't the best guy to go, and that you needed someone more of a diplomat to -- in my view, to a certain extent, is when you have a major incident like that, you really don't need a diplomat at that particular point in time. You need somebody that knows what to do and is going to do it and get it done.
NARRATOR: Headquarters gave in to Mawn. This time, O'Neill was named on-scene commander in charge of the Yemen investigation.
FRAN TOWNSEND: And he was like a kid. He couldn't have been any more excited. I can remember him leaving the office to go to his apartment to pack a bag to go. And he was so pleased. He said, "This is it for me." You know, "I needed this. I needed this." And in some ways, he believed it was a vindication of him, and that the bag incident wasn't that important, because if it had been that important, they wouldn't have sent him, if the bureau thought it was that important.
NARRATOR: O'Neill and the members of his rapid deployment team immediately headed for Yemen. O'Neill knew time was of the essence. The Al Qaeda attacks had been coming more frequently.
CHRIS ISHAM: This was a case that he was really pushing hard on, that he understood that this wasn't just a venue where they set off a bomb, that there were connections between Yemen and east Africa, and Yemen and Afghanistan, and Yemen and Europe, and that there were -- this was very much of an important operational base for these guys, and that if he could illuminate that base, that he could begin to really put a dent in this network.
NARRATOR: But when he got to Yemen, O'Neill discovered how hard his task was going to be.
MICHAEL DORSEY, Naval Criminal Investigative Service: It's much like living in a 14th-century or a 15th-century country, listening to sporadic gunfire from AK-47s. And certainly, Yemen was bin Laden's back yard. That's where he was from. That's where his family is from. That's where he lived. And we recognized that. It was very difficult to get information out of the Yemeni security forces to actually cooperate with us initially. They were suspect of the U.S. government being in their territory and what our ultimate purposes were.
FRAN TOWNSEND: They're in impossible conditions, the agents. They don't have anyplace to sleep. He's got agents sleeping on the floor. They're working ridiculous hours. It's hot as all get-out. And you're in an impossible -- and it's in a hostile environment.
MICHAEL DORSEY: We had to move in caravans from the hotel out to the Cole, or from the hotel to some of the sites where we believed the terrorists and their support network had been. And those were in caravans of NCIS-FBI personnel, all armed, surrounded by Yemeni security force personnel. So these caravans would be 8, 10, 12 cars long. It was certainly announcing our presence. Any time we went somewhere, everybody in that city knew who we were and where we were going. And it gave us an uneasy feeling.
NARRATOR: To protect the hundreds of investigators on the ground, O'Neill and American military commanders wanted to show the Yemenis a forceful presence -- guns ready, perimeters established. But much to O'Neill's surprise, that approach quickly angered the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, who felt his actions were harming U.S.-Yemeni government relations.
Subject: Amb. Barbara K. Bodine
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: You had an ambassador who wanted to be fully in control of everything that every American official did in the country and resented the fact that suddenly there were hundreds of FBI personnel in the country and only a handful of State Department personnel. She wanted good relations with Yemen as the number-one priority. John O'Neill wanted to stop terrorism as the number-one priority. And the two conflicted.
FRAN TOWNSEND, Deputy U.S. Attorney general '95-'01: This results in meetings between the attorney general and State, FBI, C.I.A. and Justice. But Ambassador Pickering is at it, the undersecretary, and the attorney general. Things are getting raised to that kind of a level, this has become such a bone of contention between them.
RICHARD CLARKE: Almost all of us who were following the details in Washington, whether we were in the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department -- almost all of us thought that John O'Neill was doing the right thing.
NARRATOR: But not the higher-ups at the FBI.
BARRY MAWN, Director FBI NYC '00-'02: There may have been people at FBI headquarters that were going, "See? I told you so." You know, "John does upset people and get them upset. And maybe he wasn't the right guy." But that's -- I mean, that's all childish gossip and rumoring, as far as I'm concerned.
NARRATOR: But on the ground in Yemen, the law enforcement agents saw a very different John O'Neill.
MICHAEL DORSEY: I think he developed a real sense of closeness with the senior Yemeni officials. They referred to him in Arabic as "Alach [sp?]," which is "the brother," and oftentimes referred to him as "the commander" or "your commander." They had a real sense of appreciation for his seniority in the U.S. government and for what he represented. And I knew that they came to trust John.
NARRATOR: For six years at the center of the FBI's counterterrorism effort, O'Neill and his team had built the evidence on the mounting bin Laden threat: failed plots to kill hundreds of Americans in Jordan, Ressam's explosives headed to LAX, an aborted Al Qaeda plot to blow up another American warship, the USS The Sullivans, and now the Cole. The Yemenis finally agreed to let the FBI join in the interrogation of one of their most prominent suspects, Fahad al Quso.
O'Neill and his agents believed al Quso knew about bin Laden's desire to videotape the destruction of the Cole, and possibly a whole lot more. O'Neill worked his newly developed Yemeni police officials and old allies in the CIA.
NARRATOR: He had come to believe that some Yemeni officials were not being forthcoming about information from al Quso and other suspects. It was the Khobar Towers investigation all over again.
But the weeks were taking their toll. O'Neill needed a break. He'd get back to al Quso after he returned from New York at the first of the year.
VALERIE JAMES: 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. He -- John had dropped 20, 25 pounds.
NARRATOR: In New York, he plotted his return to Yemen. He had taken a Yemeni police delegation on a tour of Elaine's and other hotspots. He was working them, trying to get unfettered access to al Quso and what he knew. But then he was told he wouldn't be allowed to return to Yemen. Ambassador Bodine denied his visa.
CHRIS ISHAM, ABC News: I mean, John was not rational on the topic of Ambassador Barbara Bodine. He was -- I mean, "livid" would be putting it mildly. I mean, one can't forget that John was -- he very American, but he was also very Irish.
INTERVIEWER: And that means?
CHRIS ISHAM: That means when he got hot, he got hot. And he was hot. There's no question about it. I think he felt that she was on the wrong side.
NARRATOR: Ambassador Bodine would not grant FRONTLINE's request for an interview. She was quoted in The New Yorker magazine. "The idea that John or his people or the FBI were somehow barred from doing their job is insulting to the U.S. government, which was working on Al Qaeda before John ever showed up. This is all my embassy did for 10 months."
For weeks, the ambassador had been making the case against O'Neill, even lobbying Louis Freeh. Finally, her accusations had their intended effect. Headquarters supported her decision not to let O'Neill back into Yemen.
BARRY MAWN: John was upset. She was bad-mouthing 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, "Well, let's try and work around not having John go back." And so that's what I had to do.
NARRATOR: So O'Neill would not be in Yemen. The investigation slowed to a crawl.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN, Chief Counterterrorism, State Dept. '98-'01: I watched with dismay as the issue of the USS Cole completely disappeared from the U.S. scene, completely -- again, in a new administration. It was just not on their agenda. Clearly, it was not on the agenda of the Congress, the media or anyone else. Again, it went into oblivion.
NARRATOR: By spring, intelligence about Al Qaeda forces in Yemen convinced O'Neill they were about to target his agents. O'Neill pleaded with Barry Mawn to pull them out, and Mawn agreed. O'Neill's investigation in Yemen was effectively over.
[www.pbs.org: More on the FBI, CIA and Yemen]
CHRIS ISHAM: We don't know what would have happened if John could have done his job in Yemen and had really had the full back-up to go and to really push in Yemen and what kind of networks he could have exposed. But you know, we do know there were Yemenis involved in the attacks of September 11th. So is it possible that if he had been able to really open up that network and really expose that network, that he could have in some way deterred the tragedy of September 11th? I don't think we know, but it's sad because we won't know the answer to that. But I think there is a fighting -- he would have had had a fighting chance if he'd been able to do his job.
NARRATOR: By early summer of 2001, other intelligence services were putting the Bush White House on full alert. Every single indication was that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the United States.
RICHARD CLARKE: In June of 2001, the intelligence community issued a warning that a major Al Qaeda terrorist attack would take place in the next many weeks. They said they were unable to find out exactly where it might take place. They said they thought it might take place in Saudi Arabia. We asked, "Could it take place in the United States?" They said, "We can't rule that out."
And so in my office in the White House complex, the CIA sat, briefed the domestic U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, Immigration, Federal Aviation, Coast Guard, Customs -- and the FBI was there, as well, agreeing with CIA -- told them that we were entering a period where there was a very high probability of a major terrorist attack.
NARRATOR: In New York, O'Neill was also convinced Al Qaeda had picked a target. But he was by now more marginalized than ever at the FBI. And so in July of 2001, when that memo from the Phoenix office pleading for investigations of flight schools made its way to headquarters, it was not passed on to O'Neill or Mawn in New York, nor was the struggle that August of the Minnesota office to investigate the alleged 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
The most sophisticated office in the FBI, the office that, under O'Neill, had been dealing with these matters for six years, apparently was out of the loop.
CHRIS ISHAM: John had heard the alarm bells, too, and we used to talk about it. And he knew that there was a lot of noise out there and that there were a lot of warnings, a lot of red flags, and that it was at a similar level that they were hearing before the millennium, which was an indication that there was something going on. And yet he felt that he was frozen out, that he was not in a capacity to really do anything about it anymore because of his relationship with the FBI. So it was a source of real anguish for him.
NARRATOR: O'Neill's after-hours reveries around Manhattan took on a morose quality. He knew it was time to go. But where? His friend at the White House, Dick Clarke, had an idea.
RICHARD CLARKE, NSC Chief of Counterterrorism '92-'01: Shortly after the Bush administration came into office, the question came, "Well, who would you recommend to do the terrorism job?" And I came up with four or five names. The first name that came to mind was John O'Neill.
NARRATOR: But the job required Senate confirmation. The FBI would have to endorse him, and O'Neill knew better than to believe they would. And then, 13 months after that briefcase incident, with the investigation still open, a well-placed leak to a newspaper made sure his government career was over.
FRAN TOWNSEND: The New York Times is now starting to ask questions about that incident both at the headquarters level and at the New York field office. In spite of sort of Jimmy Kallstrom and others trying to persuade The New York Times that somebody had an agenda here, this was really sort of ill-motivated, it was clear that they were going to run with it.
VALERIE JAMES: And that was the final nail in John O'Neill's coffin that they were going to use to have him retire.
INTERVIEWER: Did he know who did it?
VALERIE JAMES: He suspected.
INTERVIEWER: Did he confront them?
VALERIE JAMES: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And what happened?
VALERIE JAMES: It was completely denied. The person that he felt did it said, "Absolutely not. Wouldn't want to hurt you in any way, shape or form."
INTERVIEWER: It's been reported that was Tom Pickard.
VALERIE JAMES: That's who John felt it was, Tom Pickard. And John really never knew. He was out to get John for a long time, and John never really knew why.
NARRATOR: At the time, Tom Pickard was interim director of the FBI. Now retired, Pickard would not agree to an interview with FRONTLINE. He was, however, quoted in Esquire magazine saying, "The briefcase was a big deal. It was not so much that he lost it, he shouldn't have had those materials with him in the first place. Losing the briefcase just added to it. Let's just say it was not John O'Neill's finest hour."
FRAN TOWNSEND: I think the cost, personally, had become so high for John, the New York Times article, the outstanding issue about the missing bag -- there had become such a personal cost. And I think he had sustained so many blows. You know, he would say, "How many body blows does somebody have to take?" I think it had become too much. It was just time for him. He just didn't want to take it anymore.
NARRATOR: At the end of August 2001, Agent O'Neill ended his 25-year career with the FBI. He was 49 years old.
FRAN TOWNSEND: And his last day, he calls me. It's probably 6:00 o'clock at night, to which I say, "What in the world are you still doing there on your last day?" And he said, "Well, I just signed the authorization to send the agents back into Yemen, and I wasn't leaving here till I did it because I promised that we would send them back. When I pulled them out, I had to. But I was determined to be the one who signed the piece of paper to send them back."
NARRATOR: O'Neill needed to make some money. Just being John O'Neill had gotten very expensive. Jimmy Kallstrom and others made some calls. There was one job, in particular, he was really interested in. It paid $350,000 a year, but it also had a special kind of significance for O'Neill. It was chief of security at those buildings Ramzi Yousef had tried to destroy, the World Trade Center.
CHRIS ISHAM: And I joked with him. I said, "Well, that'll be an easy job. They're not going to bomb that place again." And he said -- he says, "Well, actually" -- he immediately came back and he said, "No, actually, they've always wanted to finish that job. I think they're going to try again." And of course, that's something I'll just never forget.
NARRATOR: On the night of September 10th, John O'Neill did what he loved doing, and he did it from his favorite table at Elaine's.
JERRY HAUER, Dir. Emergency Mgmt. NYC '96-'00: It was classic John. To this day, I can remember John sitting in a chair, looking up at me with that classic John O'Neill smile, saying, "It doesn't get better than this."
NARRATOR: The talk, of course, turned to bin Laden.
JERRY HAUER: He had said to me, "We're due. And we're due for something big." That was just -- he said that, "Some things have happened in Afghanistan. I don't like," you know, "the way things are lining up in Afghanistan." And he said, "I just -- I sense a shift, and I think things are going to happen." And I said, "When?" He said, "I don't know, but soon." And that was just his sense of things.
We left about 2:30. John gave me a big bear hug and said, "I'll see you tomorrow." And John went home, and that was the last I saw of him.
September 11, 2001
NEWSCASTER: It appears that there is more and more fire and smoke enveloping the very top of the building.
WITNESS: Oh, my God!
NEWSCASTER: That looks like a second plane has just hit.
FRAN TOWNSEND: I saw the second plane. And of course, by then there's no doubt of what the issue is. And I call again, and I don't get through, and I leave a message. I knew he should have been there by then. And frankly, I'm just concerned, as a friend, that he's OK.
VALERIE JAMES: We got on the phone and he says, "Hey babe, it's me." I said, "Are you OK?" He says, "Yeah, I'm fine." He said, "Val, it's horrible. There's 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."
JOHN P. O'NEILL, Jr.: He said, "Look, I'm on my way out now. Have you talked to your mother today?" And I said, "No." He said to me, "Well, give her a call. She's worried about you." And I said, "OK."
FRAN TOWNSEND: He paged me to let me know he was OK. And that was the last contact I had.
JOHN P. O'NEILL, Jr.: I was running down the street. Right after I got right after I got around St. Vincent's Hospital, on the "Y", and I started to run a little bit, I saw the south tower collapse.
VALERIE JAMES: I knew immediately John was dead. I don't know why I knew, I just knew. And I just -- I slumped down into a chair, and I said, "Oh, my God. John's dead." And everybody said, "Don't say that. Don't say that. Don't talk like that." About 2:00 o'clock 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.
NARRATOR: In the aftermath, what John O'Neill had come so tantalizingly close to discovering became clear. Some of it came from Yemen, from that suspect, al Quso. He told about a secret meeting in Malaysia attended by two Cole bombing conspirators, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almidhar. They had been coming in and out of the U.S. on legal visas. They'd trained in American flight schools. They, too, had died on September 11th, piloting flight 77 as it crashed into the Pentagon.
Among the 2,801 people murdered on September 11th, in the debris of a fallen stairwell, under what was once the south tower of the World Trade Center, they found John O'Neill's body.
THE MAN WHO KNEW
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
AND REPORTED BY
A FRONTLINE Co-Production with Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd.
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: There's more. Go to FRONTLINE's Web site for a video interview with John O'Neill recorded in 1997. Explore his life history and speeches, interviews with friends and colleagues, more about the FBI and how bin Laden came into focus for U.S. intelligence. Find out, took, on our Web site whether this program may be airing again on your PBS station. Then join the discussion at PBS on line, pbs.org, or write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to this address [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]
Next time on FRONTLINE: It is one of our greatest fears, a nuclear missile fired by a rogue nation.
NEWT GINGRICH, Former Speaker of the House: I'd like to know that if somebody who is truly crazy fires a missile, that we can stop the missile.
ANNOUNCER: But are missiles the greatest threat?
Gen. GENE HABIGER: If Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea wanted to inflict great pain on the United States, a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend.
ANNOUNCER: FRONTLINE investigates the battle over missile defense, Missile Wars.
To order a VHS copy of The Man Who Knew call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.98 plus s&h]
Funding for this program was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
home + his life and career + what if... + "connect the dots" + interviews
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation