An Update: John O’Neill and the 9/11 Commission

This 2004 file photo shows a Barnes and Noble book store in Springfield, Ill., displaying "The 9/11 Commission Report", the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attack upon the United States.

This 2004 file photo shows a Barnes and Noble book store in Springfield, Ill., displaying "The 9/11 Commission Report", the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attack upon the United States. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

April 26, 2004

FRONTLINE’s story on John O’Neill spotlights two central issues that emerged during the 9/11 Commission hearings held in the spring of 2004 investigating why the U.S. intelligence community failed to prevent the Sept. 11th terrorist attack:

– The 9/11 Commission’s investigation revealed that America’s $30 billion intelligence community, spread over more than a dozen agencies, was disorganized, fractured and impaired by organizational and legal restrictions on the sharing of information.

These disclosures directly relate to John O’Neill’s story. He came tantalizingly close to possibly uncovering the 9/11 plot. But his investigations into the USS Cole terrorist attack and into Al Qaeda’s presence in the United States were both undermined by the CIA and FBI’s failure to share information with each other. Read FRONTLINE’s “What If” report for details.

– The 9/11 Commission hearings also revealed how the FBI was not capable of functioning as a domestic intelligence service because of limited resources as well as a culture and organization that emphasized a traditional law enforcement approach to counterterrorism. FBI agents were trained to build criminal cases that could be prosecuted. As the 9/11 Commission’s Staff Statement noted, “The Bureau rewarded agents based on statistics reflecting arrests, indictments and prosecutions. As a result, fields such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence, where investigations generally result in fewer prosecutions, were viewed as backwaters.”

John O’Neill had run up against this FBI culture; his counterterrorism efforts directly threatened the dominance of the group who held sway over the bureau – the criminal division. O’Neill also fought to improve the FBI’s resources and capabilities to fight the new terrorism, arguing for a plan that represented a seismic shift in the way the FBI had always operated. One example: He would have given authority to a new more analytic agent who would have enhanced technology to fight terrorism. As the 9/11 Commission hearings disclosed, “66 percent of the bureau analysts were not qualified to perform analytic duties.”

Some selections from the 9/11 Commission’s Staff Statement No. 9 (April 13, 2004) relating to the FBI’s problems in fighting terrorism:

Counter Intelligence Not a Priority–“The FBI took a traditional law enforcement approach to counterterrorism. Its agents were trained to build cases. Its management was deliberately decentralized to empower the individual field offices and agents on the street.” … “The Bureau rewarded agents based on statistics reflecting arrests, indictments, and prosecutions. As a result, fields such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence, where investigations generally result in fewer prosecutions, were viewed as backwaters.” … “Agents developed information in support of their own cases, not as part of a broader more strategic effort. Given the poor state of the FBI’s information systems, field agents usually did not know what investigations agents in their own office, let alone in other field offices, were working on. Nor did analysts have easy access to this information. As a result, it was almost impossible to develop an understanding of the threat from a particular international terrorist group.”

Reno Told Freeh to Shift Resources to Counterterrorism–“Reno told us that the Bureau never seemed to have sufficient resources given the broad scope of its responsibilities. She said in light of the appropriations FBI received, it needed to prioritize and put counterterrorism first. She also said that Director Freeh seemed unwilling to shift resources to terrorism from other areas such as violent crime. Freeh said that it was difficult to tell field executives that they needed to do additional counterterrorism work without additional resources.”

FBI Statistically Driven–“Collection of useful intelligence from human sources was limited. By the mid-1990s senior FBI managers became concerned that the Bureau’s statistically-driven performance system had resulted in a roster of mediocre sources. The FBI did not have a formal mechanism for validating source reporting, nor did it have a system for adequately tracking and sharing such reporting, either internally or externally.”

Problem of Rotation Through Headquarters–“Additionally, the career path for agents necessitated rotations between headquarters and the field in a variety of work areas, making it difficult for agents to develop expertise in any particular area, especially counterterrorism and counterintelligence.”

No Ability to Know What It Knew–“Prior to 9/11, the FBI did not have an adequate ability to know what it knew. In other words, the FBI did not have an effective mechanism for capturing or sharing its institutional knowledge. FBI agents did create records of interviews and other investigative efforts, but there were no reports officers to condense the information into meaningful intelligence that could be retrieved and disseminated.”

Reno Warned FBI to Strengthen Intelligence–“Reno told us that she was very concerned about the Bureau’s information sharing and intelligence capabilities. In 2000, Reno sent several memoranda to Director Freeh expressing these concerns. One memo stated that ‘it is imperative that the FBI immediately develop the capacity to fully assimilate and utilize intelligence information currently collected and contained in FBI files and use that knowledge to work proactively to identify and protect against emerging national security threats.’ Reno’s requirements involved improved information sharing, improved counterterrorism training, a threat assessment, and a strategy to counter that threat. It is not clear what actions the FBI took in response to these directives from the Attorney General.”

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Could Disenfranchise Wisconsin Voters
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to extend the absentee ballot deadline in Wisconsin wasn't a surprise to election officials but could disenfranchise thousands of voters in a city with nearly 300,000 absentee ballots outstanding.
October 29, 2020
COVID-19 and the Most Litigated Presidential Election in Recent U.S. History: How the Lawsuits Break Down
A FRONTLINE analysis found that more than 400 election-related cases have been filed in the U.S. this year, making 2020 the most litigated presidential election in recent U.S. history — largely due to concerns involving COVID-19.
October 28, 2020
Trump Stokes Fear in the Suburbs, but Few Low-Income Families Ever Make It There
In an effort to appeal to suburban voters, President Trump has promised to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods. But in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed, families with low incomes have not flooded the suburbs.
October 28, 2020
Cheat Codes: Students Search For Shortcuts as Virtual Schooling Expands
Cheating has always been an issue in schools, but there is little getting in the way for students today. Shared answers have become even more accessible as districts have adopted or expanded their use of popular online learning programs.
October 23, 2020