John O’Neill and the FBI


October 3, 2002

In many ways John O’Neill was always engaged in a double war, says his friend Valerie James — “He was fighting terrorism, and fighting his own people too.” Here are the observations of his friends and colleagues about the clash of personalities and politics throughout O’Neill’s FBI career. Those interviewed: Chris Isham, Fran Townsend, Barry Mawn, Mary Jo White and Valerie James.

Chris Isham, Senior Producer, ABC News

Since I knew him, John always had a problematic relationship with the FBI hierarchy or FBI bureaucracy. He loved the FBI; he really, really loved the FBI. I think that everybody that knows John knows how much he really loved it since he was young. He just adored the FBI.

But at the same time, it used to make him really angry. The bureaucracy made him angry, and the bureaucrats made him angry. He felt that the bureaucrats were always trying, in some way, to crush good work. It was so hard for good work to get done in the FBI, because the bureaucrats were running the show, and that was a source of continuing frustration for him.

I think it was one of the reasons why John would sometimes rub people above him the wrong way. Sometimes people above him would get irritated with John, because he was irritated with them. There was always a lot of friction in that relationship. But he loved the FBI.

When he spoke to you about [the stolen briefcase incident in July 2000 and its consequences] how did he characterize what had happened?

This was, he felt, another example in a chain of incidents with the bureaucracy in which the bureaucracy was basically taking its revenge on John unfairly. He felt, once again, it was unfair.

It had been a mistake, but he had left a briefcase in a room unattended. It had been lifted by an employee. They recovered it very quickly, and all the contents were there. There was no indication that there was any kind of espionage or any kind of criminal activity whatsoever other than shoplifting. Apparently the employee who did the lifting of the briefcase was somebody who was known to be a kleptomaniac of some kind. So it was what it was. It was unfortunate, but it was in no way any kind of violation of national security, and in no way was any classified information compromised.

Yet he felt that he was getting clobbered by the bureau. He felt that it was another example, such as the suspension when he gave his girlfriend a ride in his bureau car, that were relatively minor infractions that did not [need] to be applied with as much vigor as they were.

Is it as simple as interoffice politics? It’s as simple as they didn’t like Valentino suits and evenings at Elaine’s and a guy who just didn’t fit the mold?”

I don’t think John was entirely blameless in all of this. John had a way of irritating people. He would not tolerate fools, and he would be in a meeting with people and would make it very clear to them that they were just so ignorant that it was a waste of time for him to be talking to them. So [laughs] I think that his own character — a lot of the things that made John great and made him so effective and made him such a good manager in many ways were also the very things that used to drive people above him crazy.

I never worked for John, obviously. But one of the things that I was always very moved by was talking to people who worked for him — and people who were not always treated that well sometimes by John, because John had a short fuse sometimes and he could blow up and did blow up — yet the guys that worked for him, even the guys that sometimes got banged around by John, completely loved the guy. So he had something that people appreciated below him. Above him, those very qualities drove people nuts.

Read the full interview

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

He had supporters and he had non-supporters at the executive management ranks of the FBI. He had a number of people that probably did not want him to have that job, and I am sure they spoke against him.


John’s personality. I think he, being aggressive, had probably ticked some people off along the way. I think some of them were of the opinion that they didn’t want John to be an equal, which he would have been as an assistant director in New York. There, the assistant director is the highest you go, except for deputy director and director. So it would have put him on equal footing with a lot of people.

I just think it was his demeanor, his style. He could make people feel uncomfortable, and by that, I mean people in the executive ranks that probably did not have his background and his understanding.

John knew his topic or subject matter. He was probably our most learned expert when it came to Al Qaeda. He had been following them. He knew them. He was concentrating on them both within the agency as well as outside with his liaison contacts, the international. So John had a very good handle on it. He would sometimes speak up, “This is what we need to do,” and sometimes that would embarrass higher-ups.

So in the end, it was his style which hurt him? Was O’Neill just way too James Bond for anybody’s taste inside the FBI?

Probably it would be his James Bond-type style, as opposed to the substance. The sharp elbows and being abrasive, this didn’t particularly bother me. But I think it bothered some people. John liked to be viewed as the guy in charge. I had heard stories, probably before I got there, that he was “Mr. New York.” He was the FBI in New York. If you needed anything or wanted anything, you had to go through John. I think he also enjoyed having the contacts, liaison, being a power broker, the Elaine’s.

I think some people were a little bit uncomfortable with that, and to a certain extent, I understand that. If you get a guy that becomes a little bit too flashy or too full of himself, then sometimes he will promote himself at the expense of the agency. By that, usually what happens is that an individual starts giving out information, or he starts doing favors that he shouldn’t be doing — he’s compromising himself, as far as being an FBI agent. So I think there was, sometimes, concern and worry about that with John.

Read the full interview

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

[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 [Clarke], 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.

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.

Read the full interview

Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, 1993-2002

He cut a kind of profile, as I understand it, that was different than a lot of the FBI agents.

Right. More elbows, more imposing in some ways. I think the fact that he did in order to make this contacts have what appeared to be a social life, too, is very unlike FBI, very unlike New York FBI, certainly. So he was different in that way. Again, that worked to his advantage a lot of the time. Sometimes it didn’t, because people would say, “What’s he up to, and is this really the way to go about it?” But I think from his point of view, and from what I could see, it was very effective.

Read the full interview

Valerie James, John O’Neill’s friend and companion

What was the attitude towards John O’Neill from headquarters?

… He was very controversial there. You’ve got to know that. He was very controversial at headquarters.

And he got that?

He got that, loud and clear.

Did he battle that?

Very much so.

Did he ever rant and rave about this? Did he fixate on this?


What would he say?

John became very paranoid the last year, year and a half of his life. I would say to him, “John, I feel like you’re paranoid.” But you know what? He wasn’t paranoid. They were out to get him. There were a handful of people in D.C. that were out to get John O’Neill.

But why? This guy knew so much. He was so good at what he did. Nobody says he did a lousy job. Why? Was it because of his demeanor?

O’Neill liked to do things his way. He was a little rough around the edges as far as politics. But I think it annoyed him when he knew the right way that something should be done and he couldn’t get it done. Or he didn’t care how he got it done.

And what we’re talking about here is not a job.

We’re talking about saving our country.

Tell me about after the decision for retirement.

Well, it was a very, very painful decision for John. John needed to make some money, too. Let’s not forget that the FBI does not have the biggest entertainment budget in the world. One of John’s greatest skills was liaison. He paid for a lot of that himself out of his own pocket. He needed to make some money. He had some debt to pay off.

John actually is not the happiest person in the world with this great new job. He wasn’t excited about it. If John had his druthers, he would have stayed with the FBI. He [rather] would have still been assistant director in New York.

Tell me about The New York Times article and about the briefcase.

We knew before we got The New York Times that it was going to be in the paper. John was absolutely distraught over it. Number one, it was a ridiculous thing. He had to go to a retirement seminar. It is a mandatory seminar. You must go. It is in Florida. He went down for a few days, and then we were meeting for the weekend. So I flew down on a Friday afternoon. I was supposed to meet John.

We were meeting in Bal Harbor at the Marriott. John came in. I don’t remember seeing John as distraught as he was this night. What has happened? He told me he left his briefcase in this room of 150 FBI agents and got a phone call. Couldn’t hear on his cell phone, so he just walked outside to take his call.

Walked back in, his briefcase was gone. He was completely freaked. They found the briefcase within 20 minutes. There was nothing missing from the briefcase other than a Mont Blanc pen and a lighter. Anyhow, that story, interestingly enough, died for 18 months. John went to Yemen. All of that happened, and then, all of a sudden, this story was dragged up again.

And that was the final nail in John O’Neill’s coffin that they were going to use to have him retire.

Read the full interview

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

In Public, the World Health Organization Praised China’s Early COVID Response. In Private, They Had Concerns.
The Associated Press obtained leaked recordings of WHO internal meetings and shared them with FRONTLINE and the BBC; they are heard in the new documentary “China’s COVID Secrets.”
January 26, 2021
“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