She served as deputy to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno from 1995 to 1998 and headed the Justice Department’s office of intelligence policy and review from 1998 to 2002. In this interview she describes the FBI infighting over the 1998 embassy bombings investigation and the conflict between O’Neill and the U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the probe of the USS Cole attack. Townsend also recounts how high the fear was of a terrorist attack at the millennium following the arrest of Ahmed Ressam at the Canadian border. This interview was conducted on May 30, 2002.
We’ve had somebody say John O’Neill was all about contacts; everything with him was a contact. When did your contact with John O’Neill begin and how and what were the circumstances?
I had come down to Washington in the end of December of 1993. In early 1994, there was a series of attacks on abortion clinics in the United States. The FBI code name for the case was VAPCON. … John O’Neill was an assistant special agent in charge of the Chicago field office at the time, and was brought back temporarily to head up that investigation as the inspector in charge.
It was interesting, because I later came to find out in a conversation with him that his own personal feelings on the abortion issue didn’t stop him from working the case. His attitude was he’d signed on to uphold the laws and Constitution of the U.S. Shooting people for their political beliefs or their beliefs at all was a violation of that law, and he was going to enforce it.
So he had no problem with the assignment, and frankly, he brought a tremendous amount of energy and organization to it. It was John’s style. Whatever he was doing at the moment, he invested himself in 110 percent. So he brought a tremendous focus and energy to that investigation. And frankly, once John was there, we worried far less about the pace and focus of the investigation. We knew it was being taken care of.
When you said he gave 110 percent, how did that manifest itself?
Oh gosh, in a thousand ways. It was important to him. He put in tremendous hours. You never heard from John [that] he had to do something else. If he was focused on a case, he was completely focused on it. It involved sort of accessing any contact he had domestically in local police departments. You hear a lot about John having had these tremendous international contacts. He also had tremendous contacts in the United States, whether it was in the medical community [or] in local and state police departments. Whatever he was working on, he used every contact, every piece of information he had at his disposal.
It also included John’s being able to put a team together. He had a tremendous talent for being able to assemble the right investigators with the right set of skills in order to do the job.
He came here subsequently in 1995 as the kind of terrorism guy of the FBI?
That’s right. …
Dick Clarke has told us the by now well-known story of John O’Neill’s first day on the job, coming to the thing on Sunday and all. Your version of that story? Do you have a role in that story at all?
I had heard John tell the story exactly as Dick’s told it. It’s sort of typical. 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, if that was his job, he was going to be the expert in it in short order. So the notion that he was there on a Sunday, getting himself settled in before everybody got to work on Monday, is not at all inconsistent.
One of the things I don’t have any real sense of is how he worked. There’s the general answer, which is John O’Neill threw himself into his work, John O’Neill was an expert, John O’Neill had lots of contacts. But from your perch, watching this guy come in, what is it that he did? What was he so great at?
He had a weird combination of qualities. I mean, there were thousands of agents. John was not your average agent, and that screamed itself at you when he was in a room in a meeting on a case. He was bright. He was articulate. He was very aggressive in terms of how he approached his work. He was very hard-charging, which, I think, at times put some people off.
So that’s sort of a rare combination. The bureau is blessed to have a good number of guys with those qualities. What I think made John different, and I think what John would have said was his passion for the job, his passion for fighting about things he really believed in things that he loved. The job was one of those. What made him different was the absolute single-mindedness and passion that he brought to whatever the case was he was working on. At the end of his life, it had been bin Laden. …
Dick Clarke tells us that it’s not that [O’Neill is] not a fit in Washington as a boss; it’s just that he’s more than that. He can be more than that in Washington. He talks about NSC meetings where O’Neill would show up, and suddenly take the meeting over. … He’s either the iron filing to the magnet, or the magnet to the iron filing. Is that the way you remember him in Washington in that job?
Yes. It didn’t always serve him well, but yes, that’s right. And he was conscious of it. I mean, that was part of him; he was very good. He had precious little patience. Others would come to a meeting and not have, as he would say, worked it before. Before you walked into a meeting with John, by the time you walked in the room, the thing was done. The meeting was over before everybody ever got in the room. He would make phone calls. He would see what people’s positions were. He would cajole them, persuade them to a consensus. So by the time he walked in the room, everybody in the room knew they had spoken to John. Everybody in the room knew that John knew where this was going, and it was basically cooked by the time you got into the meeting.
That was good news and bad news. For people who didn’t agree with him, it had to have been incredibly frustrating, because he had sort of gotten the thing arranged before he ever walked in the room, so there wasn’t going to be any real big debate. He used to laugh at people after he left those who would go to the meetings instead of him then, that, boy, they didn’t understand how Washington [worked], how these things got decided, because the real work got done before the meeting started. …
When does the light bulb go on for John O’Neill about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?
… From his time down in the international terrorism section at headquarters in Washington, as he begins to see the Ramzi Yousef case and World Trade Center, as things begin to progress, John completely throws himself into this. He’s reading everything he can get his hands on about radical fundamentalism. So I think it was probably before World Trade Center that this issue of radical fundamentalism sort of raises itself on his scope. He’s already beginning to focus on it before the first World Trade Center, and think about it and look at the implications of it.
By the time the first World Trade Center bombing happens, from things he said to me, 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. He really believes this is a mindset that will be so difficult to us to counter because it’s so alien to us, the whole thinking of it, that he’s not sure we’re well prepared to deal with it. …
So did he ever talk to you about his version of the so-called spat with Director Freeh after Khobar Towers, and after the Saudis and when he supposedly said to Director Freeh, “I think they’re blowing smoke up your ass, boss?”
He talked to me about Khobar. I think that he had some difference of opinion with the way that the bureau approached the Saudis about it. He talked to me about the incident.
In fairness, though, I sort of feel compelled to tell you Director Freeh really threw himself into that case. … John had differences of opinion, I think, about the particular tactics in that case. But that case wouldn’t have continued to get the attention that it got if it wasn’t for Louis Freeh. …
Is it possible that Louis Freeh actually didn’t speak to him for the 12 hours on the return back from Saudi Arabia on a flight, and that was sort of it for John, in terms of access to the boss?
… 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 — insubordinate is the wrong word, but inappropriate — in terms of his approach, and therefore disrespectful. If Freeh viewed it as disrespectful, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. You could disagree with Louis, but he would have expected you, and I think rightfully so, to have done it in a respectful tone and manner. 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. …
Will you contrast the two men’s contrast styles for me?
Wow. Well, I think it fair to say Louis Freeh is a very sort of down-to-earth one of the guys. When I say “one of the guys,” very unassuming. [He] doesn’t come across when you’re talking to him as having a tremendous ego when you think of where he is in the bureau and in the government. He’s extraordinary in the sense of being sort of a regular person and very committed to his children and his wife. … He wasn’t one to be out late or wasn’t a big drinker; that was not his style at all. He was a neat dresser but an ordinary dresser. He wasn’t particularly self-conscious about what he wore. …
He and John shared that sort of determination and single-minded focus when they got on something. Both Louis Freeh and John O’Neill, when they were focused on an issue, could be a pit bull about it, and in that way they were common. But they were not common in terms of style. John, while adoring his children, had been separated from his family for some time. I think John would have said to you [that] his family suffered as a result of that, as a result of his devotion to his job. …
This liaison stuff — the going out and having a good time — did John enjoy it?
Absolutely, he enjoyed it, and I think anybody would be lying if they didn’t tell you he enjoyed it. He was good at it. People were completely charmed by him. … But John also viewed that as a business choice. …
Were there institutional bureaucratic headquarters-oriented guys above him, women above him, whatever it is, obstacles to his passion?
John didn’t deal well in bureaucracy of any dimension. … I don’t know that it’s so much people above him. I guess it was. But there was some jealousy. This whole notion of when John walked into the room, he owned every piece of it — there were people at all levels who were jealous of that. I mean, there were people above him that were uneasy with that. It’s funny. You’d see him, when he’d walk in with somebody above him, he would try desperately to fade into the wallpaper. It was just impossible. He couldn’t do it, and that’s hard when you’re with somebody senior to you.
For me, here’s the critical question: Is it about the substance, or is it about the style with him?
To the extent that people didn’t like John or he had problems with it, I know it’s about style. Again, I defy somebody to point to substance where he was wrong. It was the presentation. It was, as he would call it, “the package.” They resented sort of the Burberry suit and the white pocket square and the expensive tie and the Bruno Magli shoes. This wasn’t the bureau. They resented nights out at Elaine’s or wining and dining with foreign liaisons. People resented it. It was petty jealousy, if you ask me. …
So he goes up to New York. … How happy was he to be back out in the field?
Beside himself. In fact, one of his secretaries has told this story. He got up there and he decided he was going to meet everybody there was to meet. We all do courtesy business when you go on a new job. John, in true John O’Neill style, was going to fit everybody important, anybody and everybody there was to know, and meet into some ridiculous compressed time schedule. He did it, and he didn’t just meet them. Like I said to you before, he got to know them. He got to know who their kids were, who their wife was, what was important to them, what they liked, what kind of wine they drank or cigars they smoked. He didn’t just meet them, and he didn’t just work with them. He knew them. …
When he’s talking to you, Fran, is he talking about bin Laden as a nemesis, as a character? Is this a kind of Odyssean thing he’s going through?
He understands bin Laden is one person. There was not any question in his mind this is an organization. Look, if it was just one person, this would be an easier threat to counter, because you’d just have to worry about getting one person out of the way. This is a philosophy; this is a cause. It’s a jihad. So worrying about one person is important; it’s an issue. But it’s bigger than that. It’s about understanding the organization, the organizational structure, how they communicate, what their objectives are. So John’s looking at it.
Did he care about getting bin Laden? Absolutely. Was he focused on it? Absolutely. But he was focused on that in a way that it was bigger than just one individual. …
Did John O’Neill have a back channel to the attorney general of the United States of America?
Yes, absolutely, and she valued it.
What was the nature of that relationship?
Between John and the attorney general? In fairness, you’re talking to the back channel. On intelligence matters, I was basically the attorney general’s advisor, and had a direct relationship with her. The attorney general had seen John at meetings, knew he was an expert from his position at the FBI, and valued, respected, realized this is a talented guy, a very knowledgeable guy.
She was one to seek numerous opinions before she’d make a decision, and in this area, John was one of them. She would frequently say, “Well, what does John think?” She would ask the bureau for their position. That didn’t stop her from sort of saying to me, when a meeting was over, “What does John think?” She knew we were professional colleagues, personal friends, and she knew I could get ahold of him.
Look, 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.” Literally I would be dialing John’s cell phone from the attorney general of the United States’ office and he’d get on the phone: “Hi, how are you, look, I’m in Ms. Reno’s office.” 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. So he was put in a bit of an awkward position. But he was a real public servant. He would not have said to her, “I can’t talk to you.”
The nature of his advice would usually be in the realm of law enforcement techniques? Political? Is “scrubbing” the word you used?
No, it wasn’t political, and it wasn’t necessarily law enforcement. It sort of ran the gamut. It might be anything from a question about an organization, a terrorist organization. It might be a question about a particular investigation being run on the national security side, the intelligence side and techniques that we were using or not using, and why, what did he think would be most effective. It also ran over to the area of policy considerations in the classified area.
Was what O’Neill was saying frequently at odds with what she might hear from the director?
I don’t think it was so much at odds. As was John’s way, John would give a very unvarnished view. It gave her a more complete picture. I can’t think of an instance frankly where it was at odds. It just provided her, from her perspective I think, with a fuller picture that was all.
That’s right. He had nothing to gain. He had no agenda in terms of the advice he gave her. He had no reason to give her anything but his sort of unvarnished view.
In fact, he had a lot to lose, yes?
Yes, I think that’s right. Let’s not kid ourselves. John was at a very senior point in his career. The next promotion would have to be one that was passed on by the attorney general. In fairness, in full disclosure, it was also to his benefit for her to feel the way she did — that he was bright and articulate and provided her with sound advice. …
A kind of interesting thing is happening — as I understand it from purely an outside perspective, obviously — at about this time. The East Africa bombings happen. He runs into Lew Schiliro’s office, Lew tells us, and says, “It was Al Qaeda” almost immediately.
Washington has decided, headquarters has decided, I gather, “This is ours.” Tell me the story.
Well, this is one I’m in the center of. 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. … 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? Who’s going to have responsibility for the investigation on the ground in those countries? …
For all of John’s involvement, the one thing he had never been was named on-scene commander at a major event overseas, and it was a ring he was desperate for. As Jimmy Kallstrom has said to you, he was a great leader, and he really wanted to roll up his sleeves and get into it; he wanted to be there and wanted responsibility.
He believed — and I think rightly — the New York field office had the greatest depth of expertise of anybody in the country on this issue. If it’s Al Qaeda, how could you send anybody else but the people who know the most? There becomes a bit of a bureaucratic wrangling, because under law, if there’s a terrorist act committed against Americans overseas, one of the appropriate places for venue is the Washington D.C. field office. It’s not headquarters. It’s in the field office there. They have a whole infrastructure to support overseas deployment because of that jurisdiction. …
I had spoken with him. And he was, to say angry, disappointed, hurt, there becomes this bureaucratic arm-wrestle over who’s going to be the Office of Origin. …
I’m basically sitting at the SIOC at this point as the attorney general’s representative. So I’m running back and forth across Pennsylvania Avenue twice a day to brief her. If there were issues like this that come up, that need her intervention, that’s my job. I’m running across the street to say, “Look, 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 in the early going, we’re involved in that discussion. The bureau very much wants to make that decision without any intervention of the attorney general. And quite frankly, I say that would be nice, if you do it quickly.
But in the meantime, Mary Jo White is a presidential appointee, with not only a direct pipeline into the attorney general, but she works for the president. Mary Jo White had a very strong opinion about it, and rightly so, because ultimately how that investigation gets handled and by whom will affect the evidence that’s gathered and the issues that this presents at trial that she’s going to be forced to litigate. So she has a stake in this being done correctly.
Mary Jo White is certainly unabashed about speaking her mind. I hear it. She calls the attorney general. I get across the street. I talk to the attorney general. If I remember right at this point, the attorney general talks to Tom Pickard about getting this sorted out. Pickard is not the deputy director at this time. Bear [Bryant] is, but Bear’s out of town. Pickard is the head of the criminal division, so he’s sitting in as the senior guy. So Pickard’s trying to sort this out.
Pickard had been the head of the Washington field office before coming to headquarters, so he knows about Washington the field office’s capability. Pickard decides, at least in the initial stage, to assign the office of origin responsibility to the Washington field office. … O’Neill views this as a tremendous slap in the face. … This is the World Series, and he’s gotten benched. That’s exactly how he feels about it. He is very hurt, very upset about it, and bitter. …
In the end, O’Neill is a good soldier about it?
Yes. If the question is, does he slack off because he’s pissed, the answer is absolutely not.
It’s not consistent with the character at all.
In fact, if anything, he’d probably find a way to worm his way over there if he could possibly get there.
And he did, eventually. …
Do you think, in your heart of hearts, we missed anything because of it?
No. I can’t say that I think we missed anything. It was an unnecessary distraction. It caused more of an administrative burden. It just was hard. It was one of these, it was hard enough; we didn’t need to make it harder. …
What does John O’Neill know as a result of [the East Africa] investigation that he didn’t already know about Al Qaeda and its threat and its size and its scope?
… John thought there were indications of that in the intelligence about their planning capability. But the notion that they could pull of these bombings within minutes of one another by separate cells who were that closely linked operationally — what the investigation really did show was that they planned over a substantial period of time in terms of surveillance, reconnaissance, putting it together, putting the pieces in place: the training, the infrastructure support. It showed a much more elaborate sophisticated organization. If there was any doubt in anybody’s mind, the East Africa bombings proved that positive. ..
How does [the discovery of the millennium plot against Los Angeles International Airport] mobilize John O’Neill? It’s another dot presumably to be connected? What is the meaning of these events to John O’Neill?
It’s interesting, because John doesn’t get immediately involved. It’s curious because what happens is the guy comes across with this nasty stuff in his trunk and a bunch of stuff in his pockets — we in the business call it “pocket litter” — and that has to be looked at and has to be gone through. We’re all very concerned about, what is this? You spend the first 24 to 48 hours, saying, “What have we got?”
Among the pocket litter are phone numbers in New York. So I get on the phone and so does FBI headquarters, not just me, and we say, “Whoa. What are these numbers? What is this? Does this mean anything to you?” In fairness, it was clear that Ressam had committed a crime. I mean, there was not much doubt about him being in possession of this stuff. There was a criminal case, and so this case could have been run on the criminal side as a criminal investigation.
I very much championed the idea that we run this as a national security investigation; run it on the intelligence side. It’s not that we didn’t have a criminal case, but what did we care about most? I can remember having this conversation with the attorney general: “What do you care about most right now in early December?” … Ultimately, at some point might there be a criminal case? Yes. But that wasn’t our purpose; it wasn’t our focus. What we cared about what this nation’s security. What we wanted to do was prevent an attack. The way the laws are designed, the intelligence and national security authorities are designed to let you do that. …
John is in New York. There are other things happening around the world. There’s a very close relationship with the CIA and FBI, and they’re working together overseas. There are things happening in Pakistan; there are things happening in Jordan that we ultimately as this thing begins to unfold in December, come to understand are all related to the Ressam arrest, which only raises our concern.
You mean this idea that they were going to blow a hotel up in Amman — all those millennial events?
That’s right. All of this is going on at the same time, and it only emboldens us in the belief that this is real. We don’t know what we have in Ressam at the time. But we know it’s real, we know it’s a threat, and we know it’s Al Qaeda. We learn that in pretty short order. …
You know you’re headed for some big event on New Year’s Eve?
We don’t know if it’s New Year’s Eve. We suspect it’s New Year’s Eve. We know we’re headed for some major event sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. [That’s] what we’re surmising.
Inside the United States?
Yes, we absolutely believe [that]. And we believe — because this is what frightens us — we believe for the first time they’re really planning to hit us on our own soil, and that scares the life out of us. I have a very small office at the time. I’m trying to think, I don’t remember the exact number, maybe 19 people, lawyers and we kick into — I used to liken it to running a 7-11: we’re running a 24/7 operation. I’m not doing any Christmas shopping. I have a little kid at the time. We’re working incredible hours. This is the story where I came in with the grinch doll. I’ve canceled Christmas. I will tell you not a person, God bless them, there’s not a person who complained about it, who didn’t stand up and say, “Tell me where you want me, where you need me.”…
The same thing was going on at the bureau. … John was awake for four days at one point. I mean, I at least would catch a nap on my couch. The attorney general at one point laid down on my couch, because she didn’t want to go. She only lived a couple of blocks away from the department. But even she wouldn’t leave, it was breaking so fast. …
People have told us that he called from Times Square that night, called lots of people on his cell phone. He called Lew, lots of people. Did he call you?
What did he say?
It was interesting, because we were in the SIOC. … The attorney general was there. We waited for midnight with sort of bated breath on the East Coast. We’d gotten through London. He called in to the SIOC. We put him on speakerphone, and he clearly couldn’t have been any more pleased that we had gotten through it. Got off the speakerphone and he paged me to call him not on the speakerphone. We had an opportunity to talk about how relieved we were. I can remember saying to him, “You’ve gotten through at New York. I’m not going home until we get through L.A.,” because I was concerned. The whole Ressam thing had been on the West Coast, and I knew I was not going to sleep. He could rest easy. New York was OK. I knew I was not going to rest easy until we got through Los Angeles and Seattle midnight there. So I stayed.
I was driving home a little it after three in the morning. I turned onto my street and my cell phone rang, and who else would it be at that hour? It was John. He said, “I’m calling you to say congratulations, because you wouldn’t take it at midnight. We’re through it. We’re going to be OK.” It was just sort of funny. It would only be him to be up at three in the morning to make sure he called me to say we were through it.
So another dot on our collective radar screens. What does it tell you, Fran, and what does it tell him about pending threat or the existing threat? What have we learned as a result of all that?
… The notion of them planning an attack specifically to happen on U.S. soil — I think for me and for the investigators that was the lesson. That was [the] turning point. …
Does O’Neill know or believe that there are — for lack of any more precise term – “sleeper cells” in the United States? Does he know about the guys in Arlington, Texas? Does he know about San Jose, California? Or are there at the time?
Oh, we’re worried about it. Because if you think that our only focus during the millennium case is in New York, you are mistaken. We’ve stood this thing up. We’re watching anybody who’s anybody who could be anybody related to this. The entire FBI is mobilized. If I’ve given the impression that this was a Seattle and New York office case, it’s not. You’ve got people in Los Angeles, in Texas, in the South. You’ve got them all over the country, looking at people.
I don’t know if we would have articulated it as well as you did about sleeper cells. But we’re certainly worried that there are other Al Qaeda operatives already in the United States, who may either know something or be providing support. Sure, we’re worried about that. …
[O’Neill is] very focused. I come back to the millennium thing again. Ultimately, when we wrap up the New York piece to that investigation, I’ll never forget he’s the on-scene commander in New York. They’re going to execute some warrants at some residential locations in Brooklyn. They had executed earlier in the case on a van. And he’s got a “Cecil DeMille,” as he would call it, going on up there. 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. …
He’s focused on New York and he’s focused on his problem. I mean, he’s frankly terrified. New York presents a real target to him, and he’s really terrified. He doesn’t want to see anything happen to New York. …
He doesn’t get the job he wants the most in the whole wide world when Barry Mawn gets the job [as head of the FBI’s New York office].
… Not much doubt in my mind that it wasn’t realistic. I didn’t suspect he was going to get the job. Part of that had to do with my perch down here and sort of interacting with people who were making the decisions. How they perceived John and how much John was perceived or not as being a team player and somebody they could work with — the sort of other administration stuff that had gone on that would be considered against John in the context of that decision.
There was not much doubt in my mind it was unrealistic of John to think he would get it. It’s funny, because in the most honest moments, I think he knew that. He couldn’t stop himself. He desperately wanted that job. He really wanted that promotion. It would have been unlike John to want something and not really throw himself into it. It would have been one thing if he just threw his hat in the ring and didn’t get it. He couldn’t help it. That’s not his style.
[Why was John O’Neill having trouble moving up the ladder at the FBI?]
At that level of government, it really is important that people are comfortable in working together. It’s not just expertise. Expertise is very important, but it’s not just that. People have got to really trust one another in the ability to speak their mind, speak freely, give their opinion and play, as the saying goes, get in the sandbox and not kick sand on one another, but play well together.
I think it was probably an unfair view of John that he didn’t do that well, that he didn’t play in the sandbox. I think Dick, myself — there were plenty of us who would say to you John was one of the most extraordinary team players you’ll ever meet. But I don’t think that was always his perception. He was very strong-willed and he was very opinionated, and didn’t sort of roll over on something he felt strongly about very easily.
I think people misinterpreted that perhaps as him not being as good team player, and so maybe not ready for that next step. I’m not going to kid you. I think there were also those who thought that some of the sort of petty bureaucratic things that had happened were an indication that he wasn’t ready to make the next step. I think that was ridiculous, frankly.
There are people who believe, Fran — and I’m not telling you anything you don’t know — that he was burning it at both ends way too hard around that time. He’s in some serious debt maybe. He’s not expensing these evenings at Elaine’s and other things. He’s going too hard. He’s frustrated. He’s a little bit unhappy, and maybe he’s making some bad judgments — you know about these things — leaving the phone behind, the Palm Pilot, taking Val in the car, leaving the bag behind. What’s your view of what was happening to him personally and professionally at this moment?
… He referred to the bureau — people have used this quote — as “a mistress.” He was consumed by this job, and the job turned on him. That was his view. When he needed the bureau when he would make some foolish mistake — some of which you’ve mentioned — they came down awfully hard on him. For the contribution he had made, why wasn’t that factored in, and why was it such a sort of capricious mistress? Given what his contribution was, given what he had sacrificed, there was a sense of entitlement: “I’m entitled to get promoted. I’ve earned it.” And it’s a terrible sense of unfairness. “Why, because you don’t like that I have a drink at Elaine’s? You don’t like my suit?”
His view was people above him felt threatened by him, by his expertise, and so didn’t really want him around; that it was personal; it was an insecurity thing. I don’t know if that’s true. But I think that it is certainly true he was a man who was very downed by the way the bureau had treated him after all he felt he had given to the bureau. I think it fair to say he was very bitter at the way the bureau treated him, and very down about it in that period of time that you’re talking about. …
Now, when Barry [Mawn] comes, the story that Barry tells is absolutely true. John had told it to me about going to see Barry at the academy. He makes up his mind. In absolutely true John O’Neill fashion, he’s determined to make Barry a believer. He knows he’s got an uphill battle. …
Barry had heard sort of the headquarters gossip, if you will, about John O’Neill’s style, and Barry was a skeptic. 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. If you put your mind to it you know very well you’ll do it.”
I used to tell John [that] John was his own best advocate when he put his mind to it. And he absolutely put his mind to it with Barry, and bless Barry, I give him credit. Barry saw John O’Neill’s talent. He saw past the package issue, if you will, the style issue. Barry recognized John’s enormous contribution and how bright John was, and Barry came to rely on John.
We interviewed Barry at some length, and he says it exactly the way you say it — very skeptical. … Barry recognized early on who the guys were, who the gatekeepers were that weren’t going to help O’Neill get what O’Neill needed, and that he, Mawn, could always go to the director and, if he felt O’Neill needed it, get what O’Neill needed. Is that the way you remember it too?
Yes. I think that’s a fair statement. Barry recognized that his role was less that he had to supervise John. It was less that John required supervision as opposed to John needed cover when it came to dealing with headquarters. Barry could do that effectively for John. Barry understood it, John understood it, and Barry, to his credit, was comfortable with that and viewed that as an important role he could play for John. …
[What happened with the briefcase incident?]
… It’s one of those moments I remember where I was, I remember what I was doing, because John was — he used to say he swaggered. 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 this bag was gone. 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, 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.
So before you get to what’s in the bag, he’s already worried about it. He’s already jacked-up, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Barry’s just arrived. This is the last thing he needs, and so he’s really wound.
When you hear that there may be classified documents, even accidentally, you know this is very bad news for this guy?
Yes. I know it’s serious. I know that he’s going to have to see this thing through; this isn’t just going to go away. …
It will take a year for the time bomb to really go off in The New York Times, at least publicly, about the bag. But there is a criminal complaint or criminal investigation launched about O’Neill. It could have been simpler than that. But according to some people that we’ve talked to, it seems a sort of heavy-handed FBI response to the transgression. Did you read it that way and did he read it that way?
Well, to be fair, now again you’ve got to put it in context. There’s an awful lot going on. The U.S. ambassador to Israel has been chastised publicly about his handling of classified material. There’s the Wen Ho Lee investigation. I mean, there’s a lot going on publicly about handling of classified material by government officials of. So once again, John’s timing — he used to say, “Call me ‘Black cloud'” — his timing couldn’t have been worse, and in that context, it’s a problem. …
But he knew if somebody wanted to get him, if there was a long knife laying somewhere, somebody could use this against him. Did he know this was it for him?
No. He had hoped, as the relationship with Barry developed — I think John thought that he might get one more bite of that apple that when Barry retired. He had spoken to Barry. He knew that Barry wasn’t going to stay sort of a super long time and there were rules about the mandatory retirement. John had been promoted fairly young, so John if he wanted to stay, [if] he could afford to stay, he might have another bite of that apple. He thought perhaps, with Barry’s support, he might have a better shot at it. When this happened, he really saw that evaporate. He believed that was it. This was not going to happen.
So that gives us the context for the urgency that he felt about getting to Yemen: “This is my moment.”
“This is it for me.” It was important to him. So there are these conversations. I don’t doubt for a moment that somebody said to Barry, “Don’t send O’Neill.” I can tell you from my perspective, without telling you who are having the conversations, that I was aware of those conversations and that they were going on. I can remember at one point Barry and I talking because Barry wanted to get a read on what was going on in Washington.
But that having been said, for those that raised that issue, people believed in his expertise. It’s a good government story. In spite of whatever the nonsense, the bureaucratic wrestling that was going on about whether or not John O’Neill should go, the good government answer was John O’Neill needed to be the on-scene commander, and that’s the decision that got made. The right people made the right decision, and John went.
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. He was so pleased. He said, “This is it for me. I needed this.” 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. So for a lot of reasons, he was really pleased to be given the opportunity. …
Tell me about what he had in mind when he was on the airplane going over. What do you think his goal was heading there?
He knew it was a hostile environment. He understood that there was a political dynamic for the Yemeni government about cooperating with the United States, how precarious the government’s hold on power was in Yemen, and that that very precarious balance could be affected by the relationship with the United States and the cooperation with the United States on the case.
So he knew that the environment was a challenge, and there’s nothing John O’Neill loved more than a challenge. So he was thinking through in his own mind how to establish the kind of relationships that bear fruit, sort of convincing them that he understood their constraints, that he understood them, he respected them, and he would work within them, but that failure was not an option. He had to be successful, and that investigation had to produce results. …
What is the definition of success?
We understood going into Yemen that we might not get bodies, people, out to prosecute and put in jail. Success was information. Success was putting the next dot on the map and understanding what it meant and what it was. And we couldn’t do that, we’re not going to be successful at developing that picture without the assistance of the Yemeni government — not on Yemeni soil. …
Do you figure there has ever been a harder posting for an FBI on-scene commander to walk into?
No. And I don’t think there’s anybody in the bureau who thinks that there was ever a more difficult operating environment than they faced, put aside operating in Afghanistan in the center of a war. But certainly up to that moment in time, the bureau had never had to operate as an investigative agency in a more hostile environment. …
He gets there, and there is the specter of the United States ambassador. How soon do the wires get crossed between the two of them? How soon are you hearing about trouble with her?
You begin to hear about it pretty quickly. As is common when there’s a deployment overseas, in the early going, there’s at least two secure phone briefs a day, sometimes more, to talk about developments, to check on personal security for people over there. So that’s a large group of people who sit at each end of the phone. Then I’m also speaking to him myself offline off these phone calls.
But in the morning and afternoon briefs, you can tell there’s a sense that this isn’t going to be easy. They’re in impossible conditions, the agents. He’s concerned. 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 it’s in a hostile environment. It’s not like these guys and women have a whole lot of options to go out for a run or for a walk. They’re confined to this hotel and they can’t sleep. It’s really atrocious conditions.
John has got expectations of the ambassador and the embassy to provide a greater level of support. So there’s sort of minor white noise, minor friction you can see begin to develop. It’s a difficult environment, and that’s going to take its toll. Everyone expected that, and I’m not sure that there was a lot that could have been done about that. It was by virtue of the environment they were in. …
And you had these two people who absolutely, as I understand it, are oil and water, in personality terms.
I will tell you it was not for lack of — John made up his mind to work with Barry Mawn and to make Barry Mawn a believer. John went over with the same idea about Ambassador Bodine. John could be difficult at times; I’m not going to kid you. But he went over there, and it was in his interests to make it work, and he was determined to make it work. There was nothing in it for him to cross swords with her. He could get nothing but hurt by that. He knew that.
That having been said, [just] because he needed to get along with her, he wasn’t going to sacrifice the bureau’s position there or certainly sacrifice the people’s security there. If it meant he sort of had to make sort of one of these critical decisions, and he decided even if it meant he was going to get hurt, he couldn’t in good conscience risk certain things about the investigation because he couldn’t sustain the criticism from her. …
How bad did it get, and how obvious was it to all of you that it was bad between the two of them?
It’s interesting. It became pretty obvious. I mean, it was sort of ridiculous, frankly. We would attend meetings with Dick Clarke and we would all be each asked for the various agency perspectives. I didn’t have a lot to say. The bureau would give its perspective that they had gotten from John in one of these morning meetings. The State Department would give their perspective that they had gotten from the ambassador either by phone call or cable — and these things would be night and day.
In fact, I can remember Dick and I looking at each other at opposite ends of the table and saying, “Are these two people in the same country?” If it wasn’t serious, it would almost have been comical. Dick was rightly incredibly frustrated. So you look for other data points; you ask other people who are in country.
I can remember [saying to] somebody who I can’t name, for their own security, somebody was in-country, “What’s your take on it?” And he said, “Look, I’ve seen John at his worst. I’ve seen John when he can be very difficult, and I will tell you he’s doing a magnificent job. He is really bending over backwards to try and make this thing work with her.” I believe that. It was in John’s interest for that to be true. It was interesting because this was said by somebody who had has his disagreements professionally with John.
So what was going on?
Hard to say, and because we don’t know because we’re not real sure what this is all about. The cables coming back from her, the tone of them, gets increasingly sort of — there’s a meanness to it. They become personal, I mean, they really become personal. This results in meetings between the attorney general — there’s a big interagency meeting between State, FBI, CIA, and Justice. But Ambassador Pickering is 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. …
Is there a substantive downside to what’s going on? Are there things he’s not learning, we’re not getting? Is he actually being thwarted in some significant way by this squabble?
This is one where I think there are definite consequences. Beyond the sort of personal disagreements between them, part of what they’re disagreeing about is the U.S. government’s interactions with the government of Yemen; how to read what the message is from the government of Yemen, what is in the area of the possible, the doable, [and] what’s not; where we can push them harder, where we cannot push them harder; and what are realistic expectations of this cooperation and where it’s going to get us.
As I’ve said to you, John believed a good deal of this was based on relationships. Part of the disagreement becomes whether or not John can be interacting with them without her being there and without her having a measure of control on that. No question, it affects the progress, the pace of the investigation, the progress of it. …
And therefore what? Makes it harder impossible for us to know about key things about Al Qaeda?
No, but what it means is, it becomes a “What if?” What you’re asking is, “Well, if this problem weren’t there, what would we know?” I can’t tell you. You don’t know what you don’t know. I can tell you that the investigation moved more slowly as a result. And when investigations move more slowly, that suggests that opportunities are lost to gather information that you can’t get back. So is there information out there that we might have gathered that we didn’t? Probably so. I can’t tell you what that is; I can’t touch it I can’t point to it. …
[What is O’Neill thinking the summer of 2001 after the Yemen incident?] What is going on in his head?
He was very busy up until the last minute. Until he walks out the door, he’s busy working substantively on Al Qaeda, but particularly on the Cole. …
He was concerned; I won’t kid you. He was concerned that the bureau would be unfair with him in looking at the whole missing bag situation. He had that concern from the time it happened frankly, and that was moving along. The bureau, in terms of trying to conclude that issue, were going to interview him. That was coming up in August to schedule that.
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 them The New York Times, somebody had an agenda here. This was really sort of ill motivated. It was clear that they were going to run with it.
John was very concerned that the pressure of the news article would impact the bureau’s view of the case, and that it would impact his prospects for employment. I think he made a balanced decision. It was not sort of a jump. He loved the bureau. He loved the work. But I think from my conversations with him, he made the judgment that it was the right thing at the right time. It was a good opportunity. …
Was he frustrated with anything that wasn’t happening? We all look after Sept. 11 and say [this was] the greatest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor, right? Forget the personal stuff. Was he sitting there saying, “We’re not doing it. We’re not going to get it. We’re vulnerable. Washington isn’t paying attention.”
I think he was frustrated I do think he was frustrated. I think he was frustrated at the U.S.’s inability to really appreciate and get our arms around this threat in an effective way, as opposed to why isn’t X person doing Y thing that I think needs to be done. It was a different kind of frustration. He definitely thought we were vulnerable in the summer. I think he definitely felt that something was going to happen, something important was going to happen. He knew he was going to be frustrated if he wasn’t there to be a part of it. But I don’t think that there was something specific he thought needed to be getting done that wasn’t getting done.
What happened in the last 24 hours before he left the bureau?
Interesting, because I think they say volumes in a very short snapshot about the person. The night before his last day — and now we’re in the end of August — he called me. I was at my desk and it was late. It had to be 7:00, 8:00 at night, and imagine there’s not a whole lot left to be doing. 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 — an incredibly sort of moving thing.
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 really took personally his responsibility to keep in touch with them. 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.” Curiosity got the better of me. I said, “OK, what is it?” He said, “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.”
That’s why I say to you, 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.
How could he possibly leave, knowing that all that was bubbling that that summer was so ripe with possibilities?
Because I think the cost personally had become so high for him. The New York Times article, the outstanding issue about the missing bag — there had become such a personal cost. I think he had sustained so many blows. 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. …
So tell me about Sept. 11. What happened, and how did you hear about it? Obviously, you thought about him and where he was. Help me understand.
… When the first plane hit, my first instinct was to call John, and I did. I didn’t get through. As I was standing on the phone, I saw the second plane, and of course by then, there’s no doubt of what the issue is. I call again and I don’t get through. I leave a message, because I knew he should have been there by then. Frankly, I’m just concerned as a friend that he’s OK.
I never talked to him that morning. As many people experienced, there were difficulties with the telephones. But after the second plane went into the south tower, he paged me to let me know he was OK. And that was the last contact I had.
There’s an irony which is just screaming about this. How do you see or talk about the irony of what happened to your friend and colleague John O’Neill?
Here’s a guy who devoted himself and his entire life to public service to the security and safety of this nation. As ironic as it is that this happens after he’s left the bureau, when he’s the guy who’s got all the expertise, it was John O’Neill in spades to have gotten out of that building and to have started to work it. He wasn’t getting a paycheck from the FBI. It didn’t really matter where that paycheck was coming from.
It wouldn’t have been John O’Neill not to start to work, not to begin to talk to the police at the command post and the firemen, not to begin to be concerned with the security of the building; to try and find out what was going on and how he could contribute. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he got out and went back in. He loved life. He certainly wasn’t on any death wish. But you couldn’t be John O’Neill and stand outside and watch everybody else. It wasn’t the man; it wasn’t the person. …
Did you go to the funeral in Atlantic City?
Can you describe that scene for us?
One of the guys from the bureau said, “God, he would have loved this.” He was entitled to it, in its own way.
Before I talk about that, one of the things that leads me to think about recognition for what one does. John would say that, in all his years in New York and all the work he did, he never got an S.E.S. — senior executive service award — or bonus for any of the work he did. There were those above him and below him that got awards for working on those cases, and he never did. He was angry about that and he was bitter about that.
Then something extraordinary kind of happened. He had to go to Quantico for a meeting, and then was traveling on he had to drive back to National Airport before he flew down to Norfolk — there was that memorial service for the victims and their families of the Cole. When he was at Quantico, the guys and gals who he was responsible for Yemen, his SWAT people, the special team, made a presentation to him. It was a picture of all the people who had been there at the time, gathered, I think, on the rooftop of the hotel, which is flat. It’s a huge group photograph. They had it framed and had a brass plaque put on it.
For the recognition he might not have gotten officially, nothing meant more to him. I remember him sort of showing this thing to me. I had met him at the airport to talk to him before he continued onto Norfolk, and he’s carrying this thing. He wouldn’t check it; he carried it with him. He said, “You know, I may never get an award or bonus money. But this means more to me, because it’s the people that I served with there. If they respected me, and they thought enough of the job I did over there to give me this, what else do I need?”
So the whole thing of the funeral, I couldn’t help but think having people there attended that he had worked with, that he respected, that people took the time to travel to Atlantic City — it would have been much easier, you probably would have had a bigger crowd if the thing was in New York. But the notion that people took the time to be there — there were British authorities, there were all kinds of people there. It was sort of an incredible mix. There were journalists there who had known him. Prosecutors. Agents. Personal friends. Just sort of an incredible collection of people that spoke volumes about the number of lives he touched, the number of careers he influenced, and the range of people whose thinking he influenced in this area. …
Early on, you had asked me what made him different, what made him special. It was funny, because at one point in a conversation, I had asked him what is it that gave him that fire for what he did. We had a conversation, but he happened to send me something.
I had said to you when you asked me the question that I think the thing that made him different was his passion. I say that because I believe it. I say that because I think that’s what his answer would have been to you. And I believe with all my heart that was his answer, because of something that he wrote to me. These are his words, not mine: “My passion holds all of my wealth and all of my liabilities. It is the best and the worst of me. But it is me. It is my identity. Alas, I know of no more noble cause than to fight for that which one has the greatest of passion for. Rebellions left in the hands of good men will ultimately prevail, and the costs and sufferings of the rebels will be small indeed.”
He paid the ultimate cost. But he never stopped the fight. He never gave up that fire for the fight. Regrettably for this country, we lost him, and we paid a tremendous cost for that.