Anecdotes from the Life of John O’Neill


October 3, 2002

The observations and stories of friends and colleagues which offer a glimpse of John O’Neill’s personality, character and working style. These are drawn from FRONTLINE’s interviews with Clint Guenther, Fran Townsend, Barry Mawn and Richard Clarke.

Clint Guenther, Former FBI Agent NYC – Counterterrorism

John always had at least two telephones on him. He had a Nextel Worldphone, which was an FBI-issued phone, and he always carried his own personal little Motorola StarTAC. He spent probably more time on that phone than he did on any other. I think that he felt that, if he was under scrutiny by his superiors, he didn’t want anybody misconstruing what any of his phone calls were. So he’d always pick up his own phone and make his phone calls that way.

But he spent an inordinate amount of time on that little phone. It seemed to be, like, affixed to his ear. I remember one time that we had the Royal Canadian Mounted Police down for a week-long meeting on our efforts with the Egypt Air disaster and TWA 800. They were investigating the SwissAir 101 disaster up in Nova Scotia. So we had a week-long working seminar with these folks, exchanging ideas and investigative techniques. At the end John decided that we were going to take the RCMP guys out to dinner, and he was going to take them to a steakhouse out of town. We were all supposed to meet at, say, 6:00, and we’re all standing there at the bar. John shows up punctually at 6:00.

But he’s standing out on the street, and here he’s got this StarTAC glued to his ear, pacing back and forth. It was an hour and a half that everybody waited for John O’Neill to get off that telephone, because it was just one call after another, receiving or sending calls out. He had to get all that business out of the way . But then he came in and he was at the top of his game, really happy that he was able to once again take partners in law enforcement out and spend some quality time with them.

Fran Townsend, Deputy to the U.S. Attorney General 1995-2002

The night before his last day [at the FBI] — and now we’re in the end of August [2001] — he called me. I was at my desk. It had to be 7:00, 8:00 at night. . He has composed an e-mail to Mr. Gunn, whose son had been killed on the Cole and who he kept in contact with throughout the course of the investigation. He asked if he could read it to me.

John didn’t believe we did terribly well by the victims and survivors of these awful attacks, for all our focus on investigations and solving crimes and successful prosecutions. So he really was on a personal crusade, both with families of Khobar victims and TWA 800. The Cole was no different. He had developed this relationship with Mr. Gunn, who was frustrated with the lack of information he was getting.

He composed a long e-mail, talking to him about what the status of the investigation was, about pulling agents out, about the continued commitment of the case. At that point, John knew that the decision was made that they were going to put agents back in to continue the investigation. So in the e-mail, he tells Mr. Gunn about what a privilege it’s been to have met him, to know him, to work with him, and that he’ll keep in touch with him, and he will make sure that the bureau keeps Mr. Gunn apprised of developments.

The next day, his last day, very busy, lots of sort of administrative things he’s got to do, people he wants to say goodbye to. He calls me; it’s probably 6:00 at night, to which I say, “What in the world are you still doing there on your last day? What could conceivably keep you there?” He said, “Well, one I wanted to make sure that you were the last phone call from my desk, given all the cases we had worked on together. And the other thing, the real reason I’m still here, is there was a piece of paper, and I am determined that it will be my last official act in the FBI. I just signed the authorization to send the agents back into Yemen. I wasn’t leaving here until 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.”

In that 24-hour snapshot, you see both the man who really cared about the victims, and yet who was so committed to that case that it was a point of personal pride that he was going to sign the piece of paper that allowed the agents to go back and continue the investigation.

Richard A. Clarke, NSC Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001

Can you take us into a discussion at NSC when he would be there? What was he like?

Well, as you can imagine, the situation room, the conference room where they usually have these meetings, you know, it’s a bunch of fairly gray bureaucrats sitting around the table. And more often than not, a bunch of guys, unfortunately, all guys, more often than not.

And John would come into the room and there would be a presence about him. He would go around the room like it was a ward meeting and he was an Irish politician. He’d smash everybody on the back and grin and grip and pass out cigars and, you know, the atmosphere changed. He was building a team. I might have been chairing the meeting, but he was building a team and we were all on his team.

He wanted to get people beyond representing their agencies and have them be friends and have them feel like they were part of a team on which he was a key player. And then when you got around to the substance of any discussion, he always knew more about the CIA guy’s brief than the CIA guy did. He knew more about the State Department guy’s brief than the State Department guy. He prepared for meetings. He prepared in detail. He wanted to show everybody that his recommendation was well founded because he knew all the facts and he had considered all the facts. And he would continue to drive and press and press until people agreed with his recommendation.

Which they often did?

Which they almost always did.

Barry Mawn, Head of the FBI’s New York office, 2000-2002

Did you go to John O’Neill’s memorial service in Atlantic City?

Yes. It was very full. It was a good service. There were a number of speakers — I was one. Actually, I think my remarks initially were questioned by some people, primarily because they didn’t know the full extent of my relationship with John

Essentially, one of John’s biggest concerns when he left the job was that he was running from the [FBI] inquiry. And he almost didn’t retire because he said “I don’t want it to look like I’m running. I’ve always stood up to a fight.” I mean, he said, “You know, I’m going to ask for you to be supportive of me as to that whole incident, that it was minor and that it was not a big deal that everybody’s trying to make of it.” And he said “Essentially, down the road, I will make comments to that effect.”

And what he was planning, I know, is at a retirement party that he would get up there and explain what happened and what occurred. So I think what I did is I said “I want to set the record straight for John O’Neill. He didn’t run from a fight. He didn’t retire because this was a serious matter. He retired because circumstances were right and it was a good job. It was the right decision for him and his family,” and that in my view it was a really minor incident.

And I think some of the controversy is “Well, why are you bringing up that incident?” And I said that John would have wanted me to talk about it. And the people that really knew John came up to me afterwards and said “You definitely said the right thing there,” you know, setting the record straight, and it was not that big a deal.

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

“We Take Our Democracy for Granted,” Says Bob Corker, Former GOP Senator and Trump Critic
Bob Corker, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a sharp rebuke of President Trump and a strong warning to the American public in an interview with FRONTLINE.
January 26, 2021
‘Enabling It to Happen Again’: How Charlottesville Led to the Capitol Attack
A scene from the FRONTLINE documentary 'Trump’s American Carnage' shows how the 2017 Unite the Right rally and President Trump’s response foreshadowed Jan. 6, 2021.
January 26, 2021
'It's a Very Tough Job': In Rural Wisconsin, a Struggle to Save Family Farms and a Way of Life
Spend a few hours listening to people who live in Clark County, Wisconsin, and you hear a lot about what’s ailing small farms. But you also hear about the community ties and independence that keep them in farming.
January 25, 2021
New Generation of Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Look for a Future That Keeps Them on the Land, Following Their Passion
The collapse of small dairy farms has been changing the landscape of Wisconsin — literally and figuratively — for years. Thousands of family farms are weighing their future, questioning whether they should keep going when the next round of hard times, which never seems far away, could force them out of business.
January 21, 2021