Guenther was an FBI agent in the New York office for 22 years. He worked under John O’Neill in the counterterrorism division. In this interview he describes the problems O’Neill encountered in Yemen while investigating the bombing of the USS Cole. This interview was conducted on June 28, 2002.
Explain who John O’Neill is. What kind of guy was he?
That’s a difficult question. But I would say John O’Neill probably should have been a leprechaun, because he always had that little bit of impishness about him. There was always that little twinkle in his eye that kind of indicated that he was about some mischief. But that was really him.
He was a good, fun-loving, hard-working person. He loved the people he worked with. He was what I would consider an agent’s supervisor. His people loved him. At times, they could hate him, too, but there was always that love relationship there with him, because he always stood by his people. He was the type of person who didn’t administer from behind a desk. He wanted to be out with the troops. If there was a hot investigation going, he wanted to be out there managing out and assisting in any way he possibly could. He was a perfectionist. He didn’t like anybody that didn’t want to go the full measure. He wanted to make sure that you did your job to the utmost.
I think that the one thing that he feared more than anything — especially in the game of the war on terrorism — was that we would make some mistake that would cost us dearly. I guess that came to fruition with the World Trade Center. It wasn’t because we made any mistakes; just we were not able to get the information in time and do anything with it. But John always feared that somehow we would miss something. He would be after his investigators to make sure they covered every base and he would leave no stone unturned. Woe be you if you failed to cover everything.
What would happen? Tell me that side of the John O’Neill.
There was the dark side of John. He was a fiery Irishman and he would go after you with full measure. He’d just dress you down and start firing questions at you. “Why didn’t you do this? How come this wasn’t done? How come you didn’t cover this?” But he didn’t hold grudges. He would move on, as long as he realized that you realized your mistakes and went back and made the corrections.
So John always said that, in his career, “I’ve never hurt anybody.” I think that’s true that he never tried to hurt anybody in his career in order to move up in his career. Even though people may have made mistakes and he may not have like the way they’d done things, he never tried to intentionally hurt anybody.
A lot of people say he was equally as hard on people that worked for him, people that he worked for, and on himself. What was that about John O’Neill?
Well, some people would say he was a tyrant, but I don’t think that was the case. I think that he had values and he was dedicated to those values. He didn’t want people above him trying to tell him how he was going to run his investigations.
He would work hand in glove with his superiors. But he was adamant about the way he thought things should be done, and unless somebody could prove to the contrary, he was going to take that road. I think that’s where he possibly ran into a lot of problems with his superiors. With people that worked for him, he expected the same excellence that he expected from himself, and everybody that worked for him knew that. You either marched that line or you’d find yourself somewhere else.
How did you meet him? What was your first impression?
… I’d heard stories about him, but I’d never seen him before. I kind of thought he was kind of a dandy. He was impeccably dressed. His fingernails were polished. His hair was smoothed back. A bunch of us started to call him the “Prince of Darkness.” He was always in dark suits and starched white shirts. …
He liked being dapper. He liked being out in high society. He liked his favorite bar, Elaine’s, where he could hold court and be with people that he enjoyed being with. I guess that was part of that mystique that he liked having about himself. …
The nightlife, the hanging out at Elaine’s, how did that tie in to work?
He had the opportunity to meet with a lot of people. He did a lot of networking while he was in the social scene. If he had people coming in from other agencies or other countries, he would introduce them to this scene. They could feel free to talk and deal with a lot of the problems that they may be having in working together, and iron these things out more on a social level.
He made people feel very comfortable that way. It wasn’t, “I’ll only deal with you in my office setting.” He liked taking people out. I think he felt that that’s where he got more accomplished, because that’s where people relaxed and got to know one another a little bit better.
So he got it in the way that he understood how people dealt with each other. He thought the job he was doing was a bigger thing than any bureaucrat could really sort of–
You know, the definition of an FBI agent is you’re an agent 24 hours a day, and John fully believed that. He utilized his 24 hours as best he could to do as much of that job as he could. …
So John O’Neill comes to town in, I guess, January 1997. How does he view the job at that point?
I think his view was that he wanted to try to get away from being only a reactive entity and start to be more proactive; on investigations, try to develop assets or sources within these various groups so we could start to develop a better intelligence base as to what was going on and try to get ahead of the power curve. I think his real goal was to try to make that happen.
This is domestic?
Both domestically and internationally. He realized that there was probably going to be some sort of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations having the operational base in this country. And we didn’t have very good relations, or we hadn’t developed good sources within that community, where we could start to understand what was going on in the various Muslim communities. …
He developed good working relationships with intelligence agencies in other countries like Great Britain, a lot of the Middle Eastern countries. He worked very hard at making sure that they knew exactly who he was and how he wanted to fight this. He wanted to make it a team effort. …
Did he get this before a lot of others? Was he on to this really quick and perhaps dragging other people along?
He knew full well that this was something that was mammoth in size. He knew that it was only a matter of time before something like the World Trade Center was going to happen. He had no way of knowing it was going to be the World Trade Center again.
But he knew that this Al Qaeda network was preparing to do some more devastating operations. He tried as hard as he could, with the resources he had, and tried to identify what was going to happen. But, again, there just weren’t enough resources. The intelligence was not coming in to give him that opportunity to get a grasp on what was going on.
One of the things Dick Clarke told us was that, early on, he got the fact of the danger of there being domestic cells of Al Qaeda and fundamentalists being in the country, while the FBI and the rest of the world didn’t believe it. The official line was that it wasn’t a possibility. Was that true? If that was the case, what was his thought?
Yes. That was true. He fully believed that they had moved in and had cells here for a long time. On a daily basis, we were coming up with information that kind of leaned towards the fact that groups were coming in from various parts of the world. We couldn’t really find out what they were about, but we could see movements of groups into this country. …
Bin Laden — how personal a fight was this? Did he personalize the fight?
… I think what he realized is you have to know your enemy in order to be able to fight him well. I don’t think that he was personalizing anything. He just realized that he really needed to know and understand this man’s thoughts, his ideologies, and where he thought bin Laden would be looking and moving next. He was very academic about that. …
Take us on sort of the trip here over the years, where a bit of information would come in and then another piece, then another piece; where John O’Neill and all of you sort of started understanding the full threat that bin Laden and Al Qaeda represented. What were the first clues, and then what were the puzzle pieces that started falling into place?
Initially when all of these incidents began happening, probably the consensus was that most of these incidents were unrelated; that they were an Islamic terrorist group, but they may be a cell of some type. But under John’s investigative leadership, I think he realized what was going on here. He pressed his investigators to try to look for the ties, look for any connectivity between these organizations.
I’m speaking now of the Khobar Towers attacks, the embassy bombings, the Manila air terrorism attempts. In getting out there, sending his people actually out to these various countries and working with the local law enforcement and local intelligence agencies, we started to see the picture of, even if there were loosely associated groups, there sometimes was some connectivity on back to a larger picture. This larger picture turned out to be Al Qaeda.
It sounds like the essential greatness of John O’Neill is that he was a storehouse for all this information. He was good at three-dimensional chess and he was able to complete the pictures and see where the connections were. Aren’t there a lot of people like that in the FBI? Or was he something special?
No. I think John realized or started to see the big picture and he started to see the connectivity, since his investigative team had been the first to investigate a lot of these cases. The Washington field office had also been involved in some of these investigations, but John was able to get process on a lot of these people, including bin Laden early on. Because of that, every time an incident thereafter occurred, John would fight … with Washington to make sure that we constantly took the lead on these investigations. So we would build this intelligence base, and so we would have investigators that had the institutional knowledge and that was the way it was. New York agents had the most knowledge out there on these groups.
Why is that important?
It’s important because then you don’t have to go back and reinvent the wheel. We didn’t have, and still don’t have, the databases that we really need to do the job. Until those databases are in place, it’s going to be very hard for an investigative team, say, from Los Angeles or Miami or anywhere else to grab ahold of one of these cases and be up to speed right away. It’s the group and the grassroots — those investigators who you send out there who’ve seen the picture before. Once they hear a name, they know the relationship that he has with all the other loosely affiliated groups.
So it sounds like a John O’Neill was the perfect guy to have working for you in Yemen and the perfect guy to be in East Africa?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. He was a man that kind of thrived on crisis. He could walk into a crisis situation and make everybody there feel very, very comfortable. They immediately recognized his presence, his leadership, his command, and readily accepted it and followed it.
Was he ever frustrated by Washington not getting the fact that New York had this ability, or was he ever frustrated by inaction or inactivity or not moving along quickly enough? What were John O’Neill’s frustrations?
All of those. Yes, John was frustrated when he got into those parochial firefights as to who was going to be in control or how things were going to be done. John was very aggressive. He stepped to the plate anytime there was a major crisis and was willing to carry the battle flag. …
With the Cole investigation, that attack occurred, I think, 11:20 in the morning Yemen time, which would have been about 3:00 in the morning New York time. By the time we realized what was happening, 6:30-7:00 in the morning, that it was another terrorist attack, that it very well could be something perpetrated by the bin Laden group, John immediately seized on the opportunity to say, “New York should have the team going.” …
I was the team leader of the rapid deployment team in New York. “Get out people ready. Get our equipment ready. We’re going.” That was like 7:00 in the morning.
So throughout the day, I’m moving to get our people identified, who they’re going to be in the various components and get them suited up and ready to go. John spent the remainder of the day fighting with headquarters in Washington about the fact that Washington wanted to send the Washington field office, their rapid deployment team. So those folks were going through the same process of standing up, getting their people and their resources together. This food fight went on all day long.
It wasn’t until later in the afternoon when O’Neill was able to convince FBI headquarters that, yes, there was intelligence out there prior to the event from bin Laden’s organization that, yes, they were going to attack a U.S. ship in such a manner. They finally relented and said, “OK, if it’s a bin Laden event, it should be New York.”
But by that time, the aircraft had been delegated to fly to Washington. The Washington investigators had already taken their equipment and loaded on all of the Washington headquarters people and the hostage rescue team, and everything else. In the final analysis, the plane took off with only maybe four or five New York investigators on board. That was at 4:00 in the morning, more than 24 hours after the event occurred.
Those types of things frustrated John O’Neill. John O’Neill would have wanted to have been out the door within hours after the event and on his way. He was delegated as the on-scene commander, and readily accepted that task and wanted to move forward. But again, he didn’t leave to start moving towards Yemen until 2:00 the following afternoon. …
The effects of the figuring out who, what office was going to be in control? What were the effects on the investigation? Were there detrimental effects?
Well, I’m sure there were. It bogged down the ability of our rapid deployment team being able to move forward on a timely basis. By the time we were able to get our investigative component, our security components, all of our other technical people out, they were only able to go as far as Germany and then we ran into problems.
Mr. O’Neill ran into problems with the Madame Ambassador, Barbara Bodine, in Yemen. By the time we got the New York people as far as Germany, the ambassador determined that she was not going to allow any more FBI personnel or investigators into her country, because she felt that it was a small invasion that was occurring. I don’t think she ever realized what was needed to conduct one of these investigations. I don’t think that she realized the severity of the incident. So she made a determination that there would be no more FBI personnel or FBI investigative support personnel into the country until she determined how many people should actually be there. …
Do you remember his first phone call back to you where he mentioned Bodine and what his reaction to all this was?
One of his first calls back where you knew that he was having problems with the ambassador was when he had gotten his people into Aden and realized that there were no facilities available for them to stay. There was no hotel available. A lot of other government agencies had sent people over there. A lot of intelligence groups had sent people, and there was absolutely no place for FBI personnel to stay. The ambassador basically just said, “Let them sleep on the floor in the ballroom, because we’re not finding additional facilities for them.”
And John, being a guy who always took care of his troops was just incensed that she would not try to find some sort of accommodations so that he could make his people as comfortable as possible also. Right then and there, you knew that there was going to be strife between the two, because John was going to take care of his people, and he was going to do everything he possible could to make sure that they had what they needed to conduct their investigation. …
So what was the next problem with Bodine?
The next thing with her was guns, weapons. She couldn’t understand why our personnel needed to be armed. She wanted the weapons sent out of the country immediately. As a matter of fact, I think she even commanded that they turn in their weapons the next military flight that came through, they would all be shuttled out of the country. John wouldn’t stand for that. He stood his ground on that and did win the fight.
The next battle that I recall that they had was over manpower. The ambassador decided that there were absolutely too many people involved in this investigation. She made an arbitrary decision as to how many she thought that O’Neill would need to conduct his investigation. If memory serves me right, I think 27 was the number or something like that. She came up with this number. I don’t know how she derived that number, but she did.
Therefore, John was only allowed to have 27 people in the country at a time and, if he wanted to bring in, say, five additional specialized investigators, well then five people would have to leave. This became impossible for John O’Neill to comprehend, because he wanted his people there. He wanted them there now. He didn’t want to have to give up people. He didn’t want to give up security personnel in order to bring investigators in. But that’s what she was forcing him to do was to make these compromises and he was incensed by that.
So what did he do?
He did learn to play her game to some degree. Every time he wanted to try to get some personnel in, they would be in negotiations to try to say, “Well, I can’t lose five people. Can I send out three people for the five?” Depending on any given day or argument, he would win certain concessions. That’s the way he had to play the game.
So what was this doing to the investigation?
It was bogging it down. I mean, surely we could’ve used all the manpower. It would’ve helped to have had as many people as possible early on. It would have benefited her also, because we could’ve gotten accomplished what needed to be done as far as evidence recovery, going over the crime scene, and moving on. …
Tell me about the phone call that he was talking about with his dealing with the ambassador.
It was sometime early on in his stay over there. But it was after he had several encounters with Madame Ambassador that he called back one time and I got him on the phone. I think we were getting ready to do a conference call. He says in the impish way that he could have, “Clint. I have tried everything in my power to win this woman over with my O’Neill charm, but it just isn’t working. I don’t understand this.” So he laughed at himself and went on.
That was the way it was. I don’t think that he ever hated the woman or had any real dislike for her. He just couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get her to see his way and to deal with him.
And it got worse. Eventually, he can’t get back into the country?
Yes. Eventually it did get worse. It was in July when we had extracted our people from Yemen due to threats that we had received. The threats were serious threats against the team while it was in Aden. We had been able to extract them from Aden up to Sana, which is the capital.
That was another problem that he had with the ambassador. John wanted his people moved. He wanted them moved immediately because he took this threat as being real, and so he says, “We need to get an aircraft, get in there, and pick these people up.” I think there were probably about 18 FBI personnel, and then I think we had something like a 20-man Marine force protection group with us. So the closest possible aircraft that we would have would be military.
When we started to line up military aircraft to come in to pick them up, the ambassador said, “No. No military aircraft allowed in. You’ll have to have your people leave via commercial air out of Yemen,” which would have taken days to get two or three or four people out on each flight. There was only maybe two or three flights leaving a day. Again, John just was beside himself as to why she wouldn’t allow the military aircraft to come in and take everybody en masse.
Finally, she conceded that military aircraft would be able to fly in. I think it came in from Dubai or somewhere close, picked up the entire [group] and all of our equipment, moved the entire operation out of Aden and up to Sana.
Once they arrived there, the ambassador said the military force protection group will no longer be needed especially here in Sana, because everything is safe here. So she refused to let them off the military aircraft, and ordered the military aircraft out of the country as quickly as everybody could disembark.
Once again, John tried to fight that issue, thinking that he wanted that military force protection unit to continue with our investigators. He lost that battle. …
To some extent, perhaps headquarters helped or didn’t help enough in clearing it up and standing behind John O’Neill?
I think the stance in Washington at all levels was that Ms. Bodine was coming to the end of her tenure over there and would be rotating out in August of last year anyway, so let’s just let it flow and have the transition occur normally. That didn’t help O’Neill’s case at all, because there was still a lot of investigative time between present, when they were having the problems, and when she was going to be leaving.
From that time we landed our people in Sana and started to set up an investigative stance there, starting with work with local law enforcement in the capital, it went for several weeks. Then the intelligence again started coming that the same group that had been targeting our team in Aden was now targeting us again in Sana. At that point in time, since all our investigative team was staying in a hotel, not on the embassy compound itself, we felt that we weren’t going to be able to give them the protection that they would need.
So it was decided that we would pull the entire investigative team out until such time as things settled down and we could figure out a way to provide better protection to the team when it re-entered the country.
They were out for months?
They were out for a month or a little bit more than a month. Probably around July that we started focusing on coming up with a plan and working with the embassy over there to try to establish a reentry. That’s when John said, “Well, I’ll go over and sit down with the ambassador and we’ll work out the details,” and she denied him entry into the country.
John kind of wore that as, I think, a badge of some type. He was very amused that it was determined that he was persona non grata. He never got furious over it. He was kind of tickled by it.
If there had been full cooperation with the embassy, do you think the FBI would have pulled the investigators out?
No. I don’t think that they would have. I think maybe any other ambassador probably would have allowed that force protection Marine unit to stay with the investigators. Probably we could’ve found accommodations closer to the embassy where we would be able to set up a better protective perimeter. I don’t think he would’ve moved out.
But we were operating with three SWAT personnel as our only support as far as security goes, and an open hotel just wasn’t going to work. We couldn’t provide protection for our people. We just decided it was better to regroup and rethink this thing.
Now we know the connections. There were connections between some of the individuals there, the Malaysian meetings, and some of the hijackers. There were dots to be connected. What did we lose by, months before 9/11, having to pull out the best people to investigate the case, having to pull them out of Yemen?
That’s hard to say, what we lost. We could’ve lost a lot. We could’ve lost the intelligence that could’ve connected that dot to the World Trade Center. I don’t know that to be a fact, but a lot of the Al Qaeda people are coming out of Yemen. A lot of the Yemenis are involved. I think if we could have had better investigative effort over there, had been able to build the confidence of the local law enforcement, we may have been able to find people, interrogate them, and get a lot more intelligence that would have shown us something going on.
I think we’ll never know whether it would have made the difference over there, but I know that when the team did go back in, by that time there was a new ambassador in place, and the working relationship was vastly improved. That investigative team remained in the country from the end of August until mid-November, and they accomplished a lot while they were there. …
Did there ever come a point in Yemen where John sort of said to you, “Game’s over here. There’s things to be done, but we just can’t do it. It’s just impossible.” Did he ever come to a point where he just sort of threw his hands up?
No, John wasn’t the type of person to throw up his hands. No, he could become frustrated, but he would just attack the problem from another angle. As long as that investigation was still there and still needed to be conducted, he was going to find ways to do it. He’d work around the obstructions that were there.
In Yemen, in the investigation, what was happening? How was the relationship beyond all the politics of it all? How was he doing as far as his connections with the Yemeni officials? What were the frustrations there?
The frustrations there were, again, they were sandbagging him to some degree. They had made arrests and they would not allow him to have his team have access to these people to talk to them. Every inch of the way of the investigation was negotiations to try to get them to understand what we needed — that we needed to interview witnesses or we needed to talk to these people that had been apprehended to try to see if our investigation was in line with their internal investigation. …
So John did a lot of diplomatic work in getting these folks to understand what we’re about and how we were trying to approach this. He brought a couple of the top investigators over to this country and took them down to Washington and let them see what our operation was, how we processed evidence and the whole mechanism of what we went through in order to conduct an investigation. He tried to provide them with equipment that they may need, equipment and training. On several occasions, we sent people over to Yemen to give them the specific blocks of instruction that would help them with their investigations. So John was about teamwork and partnerships.
Was the O’Neill charm working here? Was he winning this battle?
I think he was winning that battle. Yes, I do. Again, when he brought them to this country, it was rounds of meetings and sit-downs, but then, “Let’s go out to dinner. Let’s take the conversation into a social setting and a more relaxed environment.” The reports that I had heard was that they enjoyed themselves and a lot was accomplished through this approach. …
Let’s talk about the millennium a little bit. What was the feeling around the office at the point? The millennium was coming up and the red flags were up. What was John O’Neill thinking? What was going on?
With the millennium coming, we started to focus or re-focus on New York City itself, knowing full well that we had a lot of large events that were going to be happening, especially Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Then a lot of threats started coming in locally. This caused most of our domestic terrorism people to be focused within the division. But John also knew that. His antenna was up by this time, knowing that the millennium really was something that he thought that they were going to be focusing on. His thoughts were really, “What did they mean by the millennium?”
Of course we meant as soon as we went from 1999 to 2000, we considered that to be the millennium. But John never really thought that that’s the way that the extremists were thinking. He thought more down the road that 2001 might be what they considered to be the millennium. So even after we were able to successfully get through the 2000 New Year’s Eve festivities, he never stopped thinking about the fact that they were probably still going to do something. …
What were his frustrations, though, around the millennium time?
Well, he’s feeling frustrated over the fact that he doesn’t have enough manpower to cover everything that he possibly thinks may be important to cover. We had so many threats that were coming in. Most of them were unfounded threats, but John wouldn’t let you just walk away from them. Whether they be unfounded or not, whether you thought up front they were unfounded, it didn’t make any difference. He wanted you to give that threat the same level investigation that you’d give something you thought was a serious threat. It became a situation where you couldn’t cover everything, although you were required to.
Tell me about the telephone. Tell me about how he operated.
Well, 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. Even if a lot of them may have been or could have been established to be business-related phone calls, he didn’t want anybody questioning them. So he’d always pick up his own phone and make his phone calls that way, and pay his bill and probably wrote it off as a tax deal at the end.
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 also.
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, of receiving or sending calls out. But he had to get all that business out of the way, and we all just obediently sat there and waited for him. 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. …
There’s a common belief that O’Neill used his elbows. That was one of his tools. When he felt something that was important and he needed to get the attention of Washington or whoever, too, he used his elbows. How successful or unsuccessful was that tactic for John O’Neill with Washington?
I tend to think in retrospect that it was probably unsuccessful, because that established order in Washington does not play that way. I think that’s probably why John O’Neill had very few friends down there. He was very aggressive and he stood up for what he thought was right, and was not going to be put down by people who maybe didn’t have the clear picture, didn’t understand the way it really was in reality. John O’Neill didn’t back off for anything, especially when he knew he was right. …
Did he ever sort of say, “Goddamn it, why doesn’t Washington stand behind me on this? They’re drowning me over here.” I mean, did he ever show any anger or any frustration or any–
If he did, I was not privy to it. John was a professional. He wasn’t going to flare up and make an incident over something in front of people that were working for him. I think that he wanted to make sure that you were true to him, but he wasn’t going to air his dirty laundry in front of anybody. If he was frustrated, he may have talked with other bosses about it; he may have shown his frustration there. But with the rank and file guys, no, he was a trouper and he wasn’t going to air his dirty laundry. …