Mary Jo White
As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993-2002, White prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 “day of terror” plot against New York landmarks, and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. In this interview she describes working on the apprehension of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and investigating the embassy and USS Cole bombings with John O’Neill. This interview was conducted on May 2, 2002.
Ms. White, would you give me a sense of the New York FBI office? …
New York has always been — it is still, I think — sort of the flagship office of the FBI. Certainly in the last 10 years, it has really been involved, much more so than the other offices, in international terrorism. They obviously do every other kind of investigation of every other kind of crime, as well. But New York is a little more autonomous, I think. They are bigger. They have a lot of agents that they deploy internationally. …
What everybody is telling me is New York was very much the cowboys, and Washington [headquarters] was very much the analysts. Before we get very specific about all kinds of other things, I’m trying to get a sense of where was John O’Neill most comfortable? Where did he belong?
… I think why John was so unique in the counterterrorism arena is that he had both the headquarters experience and the field experience. By virtue of the headquarters experience, he not only knew how his hierarchy worked; he made lots of invaluable contacts in other branches of our government in Washington — the White House, the intelligence agencies, the Defense Department.
But also, by virtue of having been in headquarters for a number of years in the terrorism arena, and that’s the security arena, he made lots of contacts all around the world with his fellows in law enforcement and in the intelligence agencies — building a coalition, year after year after year, to call upon when he needed them; when a terrorist plot was afoot, or he was trying to get the evidence to prosecute a terrorist. He brought all that to New York when he came, which was something that had not been there to that degree before. Then he continued to build on that.
He was right about how essential these worldwide contacts were. He spent a lot of time cultivating them around the world. He would bring over to my office, the U.S. Attorney’s office, these countless visitors from around the world, just to make sure we all knew each other got to know each other. Then when the occasion presented itself, we could call on that person to help out an investigation.
I think you see the fruits of that still today in a very positive way. My own view is that the world coalition in this war against terrorism is the single most important thing we have going for us. John O’Neill, probably more than anyone else, built that. It is continuing to be built and expanded. But he really was on the ground around the globe, both from his headquarters position and from his New York position.
When you first laid eyes on this character, describe the John O’Neill you saw, you met and you witnessed in action.
Confident. Very knowledgeable about terrorist groups — all of them, not just Al Qaeda. Said all of the right things to me so that we would work together from the beginning in a partnership. You could almost see it on his face — he wanted to get to know me as the person he was talking to, so that he could make that relationship work. We were different kinds of people, but certainly united in the main mission, which was counterterrorism. He knew that about me before he came.
I had a reputation of being fairly autonomous also, and not being afraid to rattle cages to get things done. He had that reputation, too. So when he came to New York, he wanted to try to get us both off on the right foot and not have those two cage-rattlers working at counter-purposes.
So what was the first occasion [that you dealt with O’Neill]?
He certainly was very involved, as was I, but from different spots in the apprehension and rendition of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the  Trade Center bombing. But we didn’t really work directly together on that. So really the first direct contact that I had with him of any consequence was after he came to New York. …
So what would it have been?
The East Africa embassy bombing investigation. Before he himself eventually went over to Africa, he really was the person in the United States running that investigation from New York. He and I worked very closely together on that to get through whatever walls we needed to make the right contact, to get the right foreign government to allow interviews of, not only suspects, but witnesses around the world. …
Lewis Schiliro told us that the bombings happen, and he’s sitting in his office kind of wondering what’s going on. Within about 20 minutes, O’Neill is in his office saying, “It’s Al Qaeda. It’s bin Laden.” Is that the way you remember the story?
I have certainly heard that said. I’m sure it did happen, and I know from my own reaction, I had the same immediate reaction. What I did was to call both Lew Schiliro and the attorney general at the time to say that. Others were thinking it, too. But certainly, I think John O’Neill and I in particular, having been enmeshed in bin Laden and Al Qaeda, [it] was our immediate reaction. I happened to see it on a network and just [had an] instantaneous reaction, as John O’Neill had. …
Yet Lew tells us the story that it was Director Freeh and Washington who took it first, said, “We’ll get over there. We’re going. You can come, Lew.” But O’Neill didn’t get to go for a little while, and was quite upset about it.
I think he would like to have been on the ground himself. Although, as I said earlier, he really did run that investigation — not from the get-go, but nearly from the get-go, from New York. But he did not go over first. …
One of the things that John O’Neill and I tried to do — not as a matter of power, but as a matter of who knew the most — is to get the New York folks very much leading the on-the-ground investigation, because they were the ones who knew what they were looking at, what they were hearing. They could most easily and effectively take the next steps. But it didn’t begin that way, and there were some efforts that had to be applied by John and others to bring that about.
Because historically, both the FBI and actually the Justice Department have been structured [such that], when an event of terrorism occurs abroad, Washington headquarters, Washington metropolitan field office and typically the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia will be, in effect, the jurisdiction that deals with that.
That changed in the 1990s by virtue of the fact of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and then all of the follow-on cases that occurred in New York. So you essentially had with John O’Neill the New York FBI office in New York, and the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s office, a switch of the locus of the counterterrorism efforts, from the point of view of law enforcement. But still the structure was, when something happened abroad like this, Washington went into gear. So I think that’s why. …
I know O’Neill was chafing at the bit to get over there. Did we lose anything by waiting just a while for him, whatever it was, a couple of weeks, to get on the ground?
It was a little less than a couple of weeks before the New York folks got on the ground. I worry a little bit about that in the first week, because the New York field office of the FBI wasn’t in charge until maybe two weeks into it; certainly, 10 days into it. We may have. We may have lost a little bit in those early days.
Well, again putting together both halves of the Jell-O box to figure out we should go after this person whose name has appeared or someone has mentioned his name. If the New York agents had been running it, we might have moved a little faster. I think that’s the sense that some of us had. … One or two of the suspects — without identifying who — at least one of those ultimately indicted for the embassy bombings was still a fugitive. So would we have caught him if it had been different? You can’t really say that, but perhaps.
How did you come to the conclusion, and when did you come to the conclusion that Al Qaeda, and especially bin Laden, was a major player in this world?
We learn more every year. I think the first time that he came up on our radar screen to any significant degree — and it wasn’t a hugely significant degree — was the end of 1995, as someone in the terrorism arena, certainly from the financial end. It seemed like he and his organization supplied the funding for a guesthouse [where] Ramzi Yousef actually was ultimately captured in Pakistan. But really not until late in 1996, from my point of view, did it become apparent what a big force he was in world terrorism.
This is after al-Fadl in Somalia gives the road map, or before that?
No question that al-Fadl’s information and his providing it to us was the big step forward.
Did you ever talk to O’Neill about when he sort of signed on and said, “The main bad guy is bin Laden?”
I think about that same time frame of late 1996 into 1997. When one looks back and now puts together all the pieces — you know the phrase is “benefit of hindsight.” But you learn more every day. …
One of the things that John and again I shared, as it turns out, was recognizing and never letting go of the view of how dangerous bin Laden was and is. You heard in the media and elsewhere, and in some quarters, that maybe he wasn’t such a big force in terrorism. You heard that as late as during the embassy bombings trial, which didn’t end until May 2001, that really we had made too much of him. He wasn’t as big a player as law enforcement, John O’Neill, the U.S. Attorney’s office, Director Freeh, and Attorney General Reno thought he was; that really, we were making too much of him.
You don’t want to raise his profile so that he has a greater following. But in terms of how major a player he was and is, John O’Neill certainly recognized that as early as anyone, and maintained that view until John died. It was very sad.
I know that there has been a controversy about Ramzi Yousef and who he really was: was he an [Iraqi] Mukhabarat agent? Was he a bin Laden guy? Could he have been both things? What was he? What have you come to be believe?
We don’t know all the answers about Ramzi Yousef, and we may never know all the answers about him. …
He is one of the most dangerous people on the planet, also very smart. We know where he was educated. We know what his degrees were in. We know something about his family. He is frighteningly bright, as are a number of the other terrorists that we have both prosecuted and are still looking for.
How important was the arrest of Ramzi Yousef and O’Neill’s role in effecting that arrest?
Both critical. And by virtue of my assistants being elsewhere around the globe, I ended up being the person in our office who was dealing with the apprehension and arrest and rendition of Yousef on my end. I was very concerned that it might not happen. John shared that, too. There were things, again, I can’t discuss that he made possible, keeping together that world coalition I talked about, so that [Yousef] was apprehended. All efforts were made to make certain that he was [apprehended], and then turned over to the U.S. government for trial.
Had he not been, he would have been around the globe doing other things. The story is now well known. But when he fled from the Trade Center bombing in 1993, among the places he went really right before he was apprehended in Pakistan was to the Philippines, where he was mixing the bombs to blow up 12 jumbo jets in a 48-hour period. [He] was not far away from at least attempting to carry out that plot which would have resulted in thousands of deaths in two days.
He would have continued to do that, had he not been apprehended. So getting him and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue. John O’Neill recognized that, and was not about to take no for an answer anywhere before he was taken into custody.
You knew it, as well? You knew the importance of this?
Yet the O’Neill you’re talking about is not the O’Neill of four years later, who has had plenty of time to get to know all of these people in the world of counterterrorism. He is a guy who is fresh to the job from VAPCON, from whatever it was he was doing before that.
But very much a “will not take ‘no’ for an answer.” Very intelligent, quick study, had elbows. I liked that. I recognized — really, in very short order from what he was being told by others who had been with it longer — what a danger it was to have Yousef walking around the globe. [O’Neill] wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way, if he could help it, of seeing to it that that didn’t happen. …
I know he was ambitious. We talked to his son last night, who said the guy was like burning ambition. Everybody we’ve talked to said he was burning with ambition, and why not? He’s a smart guy in an important job. That he came to New York, because those elbows weren’t working in the world of the Washington bureaucracy. This was really the next step, and it was really important for him to be here. Your take on that?
I think John’s goal was to be head of the New York office. He needed to come to the New York office to do that. In terms of whether his elbows were too sharp for Washington, I actually hadn’t heard that, but it wouldn’t surprise me either. He very much wanted to come to New York with the aspiration to be the assistant director in charge of the New York office, which he regarded as the most important FBI post. So he certainly had that ambition. I think in his own mind, he knew he had to come to New York, if that were to even possibly be in the cards for him. …
But he cut a kind of profile, as I understand it, that was different than a lot of the FBI agents, certainly that I’ve ever known over the last 20 years or so. He did not look like the cardboard cutout G-man, right?
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. When he needed something to do his job well, he wanted the right person to want to do it, to help him do it. …
What actually did O’Neill and the FBI office yield for you from the East Africa bombings? What came forward that was important in this fight on terrorism?
I can’t overstate it. First, four of bin Laden’s followers have been convicted and put in jail for the rest of their lives as a result of what John O’Neill and the FBI did. Another 20 have been identified and indicted as part of the Al Qaeda network, broadly defined. They are defendants and fugitives in that case. We have had information that we never had before as a result of those prosecutions, made possible by the work of John O’Neill and the FBI.
If you look at the indictment in that case, it was the road map for the military, in many ways, when we did respond after the Sept. 11 attacks. It defined the Al Qaeda organization; its structure, many of its players; certainly many, if not nearly all in the leadership of Al Qaeda. We know who to look for, how they operated, where they operated, in terms of the training camps. Most of that information came out of — again, it’s a joint effort. It’s not just the FBI or John O’Neill or the New York FBI. But it’s also our intelligence agencies working with the FBI.
But it kind of came to a point in the embassy bombing investigation and prosecutions. As I say, if you look at the indictment, you see what we at least used as the blueprint to know what to do after Sept. 11.
How awesome and frightening was it to you that these two things could go off four minutes apart? By then, and in the process of the prosecution, you discovered the size, scope, nature and orientation of Al Qaeda?
The fact that they were simultaneous bombings was quite significant and very alarming, in terms of what it said about the sophistication, the danger, the possible scope of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The 1993 Trade Center bombing was obviously frightening. It could have been much worse than it was.
But both that case and the players in it — at least that we had identified and prosecuted — as well as what I call the follow-on plot and the “Day of Terror” plot headed by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and the dozen defendants convicted for that plot — which was the plot to blow up the bridges and the tunnels between New York and New Jersey, the FBI building and the UN building — obviously a very frightening plot. But the players and the operatives in the 1993 Trade Center bombing and in the Day of Terror plot, as dangerous as they are, were not evidence of this level of sophistication and planning. …
So then you all must know the millennium is coming; the change of century, Times Square. From your perspective, does it feel like a kind of clock is ticking, a fuse has been lit, as we approach that time period?
Absolutely. I think that was a shared view certainly by John O’Neill and many in our government that were closest to this. …
The millennium — not only because of what that represented symbolically, which, again, raises its danger value tremendously but also because of intelligence we were getting throughout our government — had us all extremely concerned.
Ahmed Ressam, who fortunately called attention to himself coming across from Canada to Seattle with a bomb to blow up the LA airport, was part of that. Arrests were made in Jordan that … had they not been uncovered, the plot had not been uncovered, and those arrests made, we could have had terrific tragedies around the millennium.
When those of us who don’t know very much about how this business works hear about a Ressam or hear about this or that we say to ourselves, “My God, they must be everywhere. There must be all kinds of things. There must be some kind of luck, isn’t it? Thank God we had a kind of lucky break on this.” But is it really as deep and as broad? Is it only that, or is it deeper and broader than that? What would you say about that?
Again, before Sept. 11, a lot of plots that none of us know about — well, some of us know about, but the public doesn’t know about — have been thwarted, sometimes by luck. The Ramzi Yousef plot from the Philippines, thank goodness, there was a fire there; Ressam perhaps calling suspicion to himself, although you also had a very alert Customs agent there. But a lot of plots are thwarted by intelligence and law enforcement behind the scenes. So that has been going on for a while, and successfully so, but with no one thinking ever that we can stop them all either before 9/11 or after 9/11.
In terms of the breadth of the threat of Al Qaeda itself — it’s not the only terrorist organization, and it works with others as cells around the world in at least 60 countries. You potentially are talking about tens of thousands of followers who can be conscripted into service to carry out a terrorist plot. So you can’t have a more serious situation than that.
I have this image of O’Neill. His son talks about the fact that, at home, he didn’t have videotapes of old movies or anything. He had videotapes of bin Laden speeches and bin Laden moments and bin Laden training tapes, and his father used to watch them all of the time. Were you all becoming — the word “obsessed” is not the right word — but focused by him, in a big way, by then?
I think “obsessed” is perhaps the right word; very concerned. Very concerned about not the “if,” but the “where, when, and what.” Would it be future attacks? John O’Neill certainly lived and breathed that 24/7, as we would say, as did some of the rest of us, as well.
You’re constantly trying to put more pieces together, so that you could learn more, stop more, prevent more, but clearly knowing — and I think John O’Neill said it certainly before Sept. 11 — we’re due for a big one, and very worried about that. When you’re as worried about that level of risk and danger, as he was, and we were, you spend most of your waking hours — and most of your hours are waking — worrying about that, and trying to learn more.
So obsessed is probably the right word. But obsessed for a very good and real reason, not beyond what the facts and the circumstances or the danger should have had us all doing.
Did he ever indicate to you that he was frustrated at his inability to convince others of the importance of this?
From time to time. But clearly a lot of people within the FBI and within our government did recognize how dangerous the risk was, and were working hand in glove with John and others on that risk and trying to learn more. But occasionally he would express, “They don’t seem to get it,” without any specificity.
But for the most part, I think our government did grasp pretty early on, partly because John educated them about how serious the risk was. But no one I can think of breathed it, lived it, breathed it, worried about it more than John O’Neill.
There is this sense that certainly, from what I’ve read, speeches he’s given, people I’ve talked to that he believed earlier than many and couldn’t really convince as many people as he felt he needed to that Al Qaeda was here, that there were the sleeper cells in the United States, that we really needed to focus on getting these people in the United States — that this was not some plot from Afghanistan or someplace. Is that your memory of it?
To an extent. But again, I wouldn’t isolate it to sleeper cells in the United States. This is a global problem, a global risk. A lot was occurring from abroad, and not in the United States. I think John recognized that. What he wanted to be sure of is that everybody realized it could also be occurring in the United States. So whenever anyone flipped up on the radar screen of interest, we should pursue them very vigorously, even if major portions of the plot were being directed from abroad, which I think he recognized, too.
Again, if ever he confronted anyone who he thought was not taking this seriously enough, he would rattle that cage and make a believer of them. …
Did it surprise you that he left the FBI?
No. In one sense, he obviously was getting toward the senior end of his career, and to the extent that he was not advancing in the immediate term. He always was going to go into the private sector, and he adopted and loved New York City. He had a very attractive opportunity with the Trade Center. So that, plus that he wasn’t achieving at least imminently his life’s dream to head the New York FBI office — it didn’t surprise me that he left when he did. …
There is this sense that some people have articulated to us that, if you are arresting people in the process of prosecuting, in effect what you’re doing is letting other terrorists go to school on our methods, on our intelligence-gathering methods, on our other things. Was this kind of a problem of his period, in the sense that we may have helped others in the terror world with our prosecutions of these kind of lower-level characters?
First thing, we prosecuted at all levels; some lower level, some not. There is always a risk there, still, that through our criminal justice system, by virtue of our rules, we have to turn over certain what are called “discover” materials to the defense. That can include very sensitive intelligence sources of information that you would rather not turn over.
Having said that, I think — and I think it’s nearly the unanimous view, if not the unanimous view — that we managed in all of those prosecutions to safeguard national security information and intelligence sources by getting protective orders from the court. [Those orders] would allow us not to turn over certain information, or to turn it over in a way that was not troubling, from an educational point of view.
But it’s a constant concern. We may not be as successful in the next case or the next one, which is why I think the military tribunals that haven’t been used yet, and may not be, offer distinct advantages in that way. …
The other thing the prosecutions do that people forget sometimes is the intelligence that they give to us, from cooperating defendants’ materials that you get when you do searches. That helps us prevent future attacks. But there is no one-size-fits all. There is no silver bullet in this war.
When Sept. 11 happened, when did you hear about John O’Neill’s death? Where were you?
I heard on Sept. 11. I was in really constant contact with Barry Mawn, the head of the New York office, from 30 seconds after the first plane hit, for about six weeks. I was in the command post with the FBI for about that period of time.
Some time during Sept. 11, pretty early on, everyone at the bureau and therefore I was privy to it, was very concerned that he had died in the Trade Center. As is known, he had made phone calls to his son and friends and the New York FBI office between the two planes, or between the collapse of the towers. But someone saw him go back into the tower, and then no one heard from him again. So the concern was almost immediate that he had died.
Within certainly 48 hours, I think everyone had really not expressed it, but had given up hope that he had survived. We knew he would get in touch with his son and his colleagues and his family if he conceivably could have. If anybody conceivably could have even if buried in the rubble, he would have found a way. So I think within 48 hours, the reality really hit.
In some ways, the reality didn’t hit or hit differently when his body was found, which was some days later. Then it had an impact that’s hard to describe on everybody. The irony of it — here is this man who was the champion of our counterterrorism efforts, the unsung hero in leading those efforts. One week into the job at the World Trade Center as the director of operations, and he dies in the worst terrorist attack that there has ever been, but by the same people he has been so effective in finding out and investigating and helping prevent other attacks.
The Trade Center itself held, and holds a special place, I think, in the hearts and minds of people in law enforcement — the fact that it did not fall in 1993. Ramzi Yousef’s goal was to topple the twin towers into each other so that more people died than had died at Hiroshima. The fact that he didn’t succeed in that meant an awful lot to John O’Neill and all of us in law enforcement — not in an arrogant way, but in a special way.
When we would see the Trade Center and the towers standing still, including on the morning of Sept. 11 in that very clear blue sky, it gave us a very special positive feeling. So that it was the Trade Center John was in and died in and that he was in charge of the security of — how do you describe the irony and the depth of feeling, because it was there and because he was there? It really is impossible to describe. It’s something that none of us who knew him certainly will ever, ever get over or ever forget. …
Did you ever think it was kind of personal between O’Neill and Osama bin Laden or about Osama bin Laden?
I think it as personal between John O’Neill and every terrorist. He loved this country; a patriot, [he] loved the FBI. Anybody who fell into the category of terrorist, let alone a terrorist leader like bin Laden, John had only one view of: evil.
Sometimes, it’s sort of a thought, possibly, that we missed something; we ignored the lessons from your prosecutions, that we didn’t connect the dots well enough. Was there a possibility that, if we had connected the dots better, the dots that O’Neill and you guys are dealing with all of the time, that things would be different?
You ask every conceivable question after Sept. 11, in terms of what more could have been done, what could have been done differently. My impression from working on these cases and investigations for almost nine years was that an awful lot of people were working over time to connect dots. A lot of dots were connected, therefore a lot of plots were thwarted. A lot of attacks did not happen.
But I will never know the answer to that completely — whether more could have been done, something different could have been done. Certainly John O’Neill did everything in his power to see to it that, not only did he do everything that could be done, but that everyone else around him or near him did. …
The only other thing I can think of that we didn’t talk about is Yemen. The obstacles he hit, the Cole — what was that all about?
My sense in Yemen, to the extent I can talk about it, is that it was a difficult relationship, although it improved over time with the Yemeni officials, unlike Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam after the East Africa embassy bombings, where you had a model of almost instantaneous cooperation. That was not the situation on the ground in Yemen. So it was a harder nut to crack in that way, in terms of getting full access to witnesses and so forth.
I think there is no question that the State Department had a different view of what was necessary to do, and how to go about it, than John O’Neill did. So it was a difficult situation from beginning to end, where people were not in agreement as to how best to break through the barriers that were there.
But John gained the respect, and he was on the ground over there for a substantial period of time. He gained the respect gradually of the president of the highest government officials over there, and we’ve seen the fruits of those relationships — and we still are. After Sept. 11, the cooperation improved even more, and that has been explicitly attributed to their respect for John O’Neill and the fact that he died.
But I have this sense — tell me if I’m wrong about this, because of course there were many reasons why Sept. 11 happened and it was complicated. But some of O’Neill’s own, as you say euphemistically, the “sharp elbow” quality — is it as simple in Yemen as the fact that Ambassador Bodine did not like John and John didn’t like her, and they just didn’t connect in some way? And yes, there were other issues, but his personality [and] her personality yielded an impasse?
I don’t think personalities meshed. But I think the difficulties went far beyond that. It was difficult, irrespective of how that relationship would have been. And no question, there were some differences — as there typically can be — in points of view between our diplomatic side of the brain and our law enforcement side of the brain. I think that certainly was present in Yemen.
But it would be over-simplifying to really a significant degree to say it was a personality clash that was the problem over there. There was an element of that, but the problem went much deeper. It involved earning the confidence of the Yemeni authorities, too, which is still an ongoing process.
[There are people] who say maybe John O’Neill harmed the effort more than he helped it. To those people you say again it’s not that simple?
No, I say not a chance they’re right. His elbows made more things happen, not fewer things happen. That’s not to say that, as to a particular individual, he might not have been more successful getting their cooperation with a different approach. But in the long term and across the board, he needed those elbows, and I’m glad he had them.
So it is really laying way too much on the personality on the other side, the clay feet, the Achilles heel of anybody, to say this is all about we missed because John O’Neill wasn’t a classic G-man?
Absolutely wrong. Again, he is one of the biggest unsung heroes in our counterterrorism efforts, and he accomplished as much, if not more, than anybody in safeguarding it.