Robert M. “Bear” Bryant
He was deputy director of the FBI under Louis Freeh from 1997 to 1999. In 1998 he initiated a strategic plan to overhaul the organization so it could better address counterintelligence and counterterrorism. In this interview he talks about his working relationship with O’Neill, O’Neill’s contributions to the counterterrorism effort, and O’Neill’s career problems within the FBI. This interview was conducted on July 2, 2002.
Mary Jo White said O’Neill was one of the first guys she remembers who was thinking about Al Qaeda and bin Laden as more than just another kind of Hamas/Hezbollah terrorist group. Is that the way you remember it?
The first time I ever heard the name Osama bin Laden was from John O’Neill. It goes back to probably the early 1990s, like 1994 or 1995. At that time, bin Laden was a refugee from Saudi Arabia. He was in the Sudan, and he was doing certain things that would come to our attention. John O’Neill was very much aware of who his group was, Al Qaeda, which was really started in 1988 — how much money this person had, and who he was and where he was and what he was doing.
How did he do that?
Daily you would get reports in the terrorism section from all over the government. You’d get them from everything from public source to source reporting to other agency reporting, CIA, NSA, and so forth. John really sifted through those, and came with issues that he considered important.
We had a morning briefing every morning at 7:30, and we would basically go over what happened during the night. If there was a bombing, if there was something of significance, John would bring it up. But John was really the focal point of the terrorism information, domestically, for the government.
Regarding that 7:30 in the morning meeting. John O’Neill had a penchant for nightlife, and there’s the story about the pajamas. What’s that story?
Sometimes he would come in late, and I told him I wanted him there; I don’t care if he came in his slippers and pajamas — be there. And he was. He worked both ends of the candle pretty hard.
I would generally leave around 7, 7:30 at night, and probably the last call I’d make I’d call down there — I still remember the extension — I’d call down there and say, “What the hell is going on?” He’d grumble and gripe and complain a little bit. Occasionally we’d go have a drink and smoke a cigar at his favorite place, but that probably wouldn’t happen too much, just how things were going. But his liaison with intelligence services, his liaison with former associates in Chicago and various places, his liaison with a Catholic priest who was a very good friend of his — he worked very hard toward FBI objectives. But he also worked very hard to basically move around in the areas and learn about what various people were doing.
So those late nights out, it was work?
Absolutely. He knew more about what the intelligence services were saying about terrorism issues, and some of that he learned informally. He just was very social. He could be extremely charming. He was charming.
How did the dapper John O’Neill wash inside FBI headquarters?
John’s professional ethic and his work ethic were well regarded. And his nightlife issues, some of it wasn’t really known. Some of it wasn’t really a matter of anybody’s business.
How did it go with you?
He was a person that I had immense personal regard for. We could argue like a couple of thieves in the night over issues, because we were both hardheaded. We were both a little bit Irish, he much more so than I. We had strong opinions about things, and we could get into it really quick. But it was never a personal issue, because there was always that professional respect, I think, for each other.
What kind of arguments would you have?
Tactical issues, about whether we should deploy people in harm’s way, and how to do certain things. John always had a definitive plan and he was always professing this and that, and sometimes I told him, “One, I’ve got the gold pen and I’m responsible. And I don’t do funerals well.” And he said, “Neither do I.”
So we basically would work out compromises on issues. Sometimes, if it was the agent’s safety, he was like I was; he was very conservative. But sometimes you take risks. Sometimes it was a tactical issue on whether to approach a person to do something, to try to get information. We talked all the time.
So someone like O’Neill, they need a guy to champion the cause, or champion his argument, or champion the work. Is that who you were?
Probably. Let’s face it, John was a bit of a maverick. He had a lot of detractors, and he was a bit of a maverick. But I worked with John a lot of years, and had great personal regard for him. He always produced what I thought was an excellent product. We had disagreements over dealing with the CIA.
I wanted to put a liaison officer from the CIA in the terrorism section, to be his deputy. John initially opposed it, and we fought. When we put our liaison officer as John’s deputy and we put an FBI agent in as the deputy out at Langley, we did this in 1995, so there wouldn’t be anything to slip through the cracks. We bought in some CIA people. John initially opposed that. Then basically they became friends, and it worked very well. I was kind of proud of that, because John even admitted this worked really well, because we basically leveraged our resources.
That’s not the FBI way or the CIA way.
Well, you know, we’d been through the Aldrich Ames case, and you don’t want a spy to win twice. Working together between the CIA and FBI, there are still issues, obviously. We see it today. But the point of it is, there’s got to be a close exchange of information about issues of national security threats.
Who were the detractors, and why were they detractors?
John’s probably strong ways. He was pretty straightforward with his subordinates sometimes. He was a very strong leader, and some of his subordinates probably didn’t care for his style. But most of them really came on, after they got to know him. He worked people hard.
Why does O’Neill move to New York?
Because it was a promotion for him. He goes from running the terrorism section to running the counterintelligence/counterterrorism for New York. [New York] is one of our most important offices. You talk to Kallstrom, he’d say it’s the most important office. I would say there are 55 other important offices, too. But as far as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, it had Mary Jo White up there, who was very aggressive at bringing prosecutions on Ramzi Yousef, et al.
So there’s always a lot of activity in New York. It’s one of the prime offices for counterintelligence/counterterrorism in the FBI world.
At the end of his two years in Washington, what did we know?
When John left in 1997, certainly we knew more about Al Qaeda, and we knew more about Osama bin Laden. There was some positive activities that were being looked at. That’s really about all I want to say.
… He goes to New York and the East Africa bombings occur. … There is a dispute, almost right away, about whether the Washington field office and Washington and headquarters should get all over that case, or whether New York should. … But there was always a degree of competition between New York and Washington. And Washington, that normally had the statutory authority to be the prosecuting part of the — if there was a terrorism case developed criminally, I think the regulation was [that] it would come to Washington.
… But our view was, well, who could do the best job? Sometimes you’d use resources from both, and that’s really where we came out.
What do you figure was lost, or gained, in that decision on who got the embassy bombings case?
Well, I think what would be said by the critics would be that they [Washington] lost the knowledge and the historical background of prosecutions over a period of years. I would hope that that would not be the case. I don’t know actually what was lost. I mean, I think it worked out.
Can you imagine O’Neill, when he hears that Washington’s going?
Yes. I imagine he was upset, to the point that he would call the deputy director and probably the director. I don’t know if he called Louis [Freeh] or not.
And he likely said what?
That the cases ought to be investigated by the New York field office of the FBI. I was deputy director at the time.
… He doesn’t give up easily, but that’s all right. I understand that. But the point of it is, you’re going to do what’s right. My facts are a little hazy on this, but I do remember talking to him about it, and he was extremely upset. I said, “We’re going to do the right thing, John. We’re going forward. Let’s get this thing done. There’s a lot of work to be done out there.” At one time, we had 500 to 600 agents in Africa. We had agents from both offices.
So when you say, “Do the right thing,” what does that mean to you?
Just sit tight and hang on. We’ll do this thing right, but we’ve got to do some logistics issues. One, getting transportation. Two, getting gear. Three, you have to get a chain of command set up. If you put 500 agents on the ground, how are you going to support them in an economy where it’s questionable whether you can live off the economy?
How hard is it for him, during East Africa, to sit there at this desk?
It’s terrible, it’s terrible to sit at a desk at headquarters. I mean, John always had the feeling if there was something going on he wanted to be there. And he wanted to be part of it. I mean, that was where he felt he could do the most good, for good purposes.
Here’s the first guy you heard the word Al Qaeda and bin Laden from. Shouldn’t he be there?
Well, he wasn’t.
That wasn’t your decision. I’ve got a feeling that wasn’t your decision.
Well, he wasn’t there.
It wasn’t your decision, was it?
He wasn’t there.
By 2000 or so, O’Neill knows bin Laden and his group of people are determined to do real damage to the United States. Did you ever hear him talk about that?
Well, it was patently obvious. We had the attacks that go back to Saudi Arabia; we had the attacks that were in Africa; we have the USS Cole. We had the Ressam guy that was intercepted at the [Canadian] border. I mean, these issues were coming toward us, and John knew it.
Frankly, I think a lot of people in government had concerns about Al Qaeda and what they were trying to do, and these attacks, whether to call it intelligence or law enforcement or whatever. There was a lot of information gathered regarding who these people were and what their motives were. We saw the jihad films, and so forth.
You’re at the top. But do the other guys know and get it, too? Do some come later to the party than others?
You mean was there a general consensus that Al Qaeda was a threat to the United States of America? Yes, I think so. We saw the attacks, and particularly after the Cole and some of the other issues. I mean, this was all falling in a line of pattern.
Were there points of disagreement at the upper echelon of the FBI about all of this?
I don’t think there was too much disagreement. It was a question of what are we going to do about it? How do you leverage a domestic agency that 80 percent of its resources go to domestic law enforcement, and probably 15 percent to 20 percent of it go to terrorism and counterintelligence? How do you protect America?
You do that by trying to build a better analytical piece, by basically making sure you have liaison with the CIA and the NSA and trying to make sure that you’re there to develop predictive intelligence. And it’s hard for the FBI to do that. The FBI’s probably the greatest collector of information in the world. But its analysis and dissemination needs a lot of help, needs money.
What did O’Neill argue for?
Sometimes, there was relationship issues with other agencies where he was disliked, and he was a very strong personality. There were some of those issues. Certainly he wanted resources, and I think he primarily got them. But the question was where they were going to use them. That was always an issue I had — whether they used the resources they had. But the thing that was needed was really an analysis in automation. You’re trying to fight an international fight on information systems that were 10-12 years old.
We reorganized the FBI in 1999. We made counterintelligence and counterterrorism the top priority. We created basically a collection mechanism, and it was, frankly, never funded. John understood that if you’re going to do predictive intelligence, you’ve got to have the automation, you’ve got to have the analysts, and you’ve got to have the information pulled together. You’ve got to have people that look at it that are not tied to investigation, but have a free range of thought as to what’s going on here.
So what happened to that idea?
I think it was never funded. It was put in the back burner somewhere. I left in December 1999.
Is it funded now? Is it supported now by Mueller?
I think it’s being funded. … I think a good part of that is going forward. He did away with what we call the information support group. He has created an intelligence thing, but it’s the same thing. But you have to know what you know. See, the trouble with the FBI — it never knew what it knew. It had information, but it never got to the right places, and that goes to automation; that goes to analysts. It goes to a lot of things.
So with regard to the so-called Phoenix letter, or even the Moussaoui case, it’s information that would have come in, but nobody could follow it or send it anywhere?
Until you have somebody’s job there which is to look at the big picture and not be tied to the Cole investigation or Ressam or something like that; until you have somebody there that’s a strategic analyst that’s pretty smart, that understands the culture, that understands the language, that understands the nuances; until somebody’s there and you have an automation system that can put that there, that’s what you’re dealing with.
I’m not defending whatever the issues are with those other things. I’m not sure what happened. But my view — John and I talked about this for hours — you have to have smart people that understand what the issues are, what the information coming is, and making an analysis, making correct inquiries, to have predictive intelligence. And it’s still about a 50 percent chance, but it’s a chance.
As you and O’Neill and others talked about it, the momentum didn’t seem to be going in that direction. What happened?
I don’t find fault with this. We’re trying a major sea change for the FBI, and that’s what we were trying to do, because we could see it. We saw it with Oklahoma City. We saw it with what was happening in the world. And, put aside the Israeli-Palestinian issues, we could see this man living in Afghanistan who we sent missiles into. Basically, he was getting funding, he was getting support from certain groups in the Arab world. We had to have some type of mechanism that worked very closely with the intelligence agencies, and try to come up with predictive intelligence. It’s very difficult to do. The funding issues and those types of things, I don’t think ever got off the ground.
… In trying to figure out someone like O’Neill, he’s someone who you tell, “If you do that, you’re going to get in trouble, that guy’s not going to like you anymore, he’s going to kick–“
You better not get a nosebleed. But my daddy always said, “Don’t kill your mavericks. They might save your life someday, and they’re the ones that will always have the great ideas. So try to take care of them.” And John was a maverick, a brilliant maverick.
But maybe there’s no room for–
There’s always room, because good ideas, whether they’re successful today or tomorrow, will eventually prevail in government. When the idea is created by John O’Neill or anybody else, if it’s a good idea and it’s solid, it’ll pick up advocates and will basically become policy or law or whatever. I have great faith in that. It doesn’t go on one personality or two personalities. It goes on basically the idea — does it stand the test of criticism and critics and little minds?
Did you ever actually sit down with him and say, “Lighten up?”
I used to tell him, “Relax. You’re going to have a stroke.” He was so intense. Because he worked hard, he lived hard. … I used to tell him, I said, “Relax. John.”
And he would say?
Then he would go back into his comments about what the issue was and put forth a very forceful view, which generally would be very persuasive. But he was very intense.
It wouldn’t surprise you to hear that Attorney General Reno used to call O’Neill all the time, as a kind of back channel. Why would she do that?
She was just checking on what she was hearing. She was shopping for opinions, which I think is good judgment on her part. She was always very straightforward about it, and it’s her privilege and prerogative. If I were in that position, I’d shop for opinions, too. She talked to John a lot. She respected his intellect and his opinion. I would ask, if John got a call, did he tell me? And she would always tell me. So I was all right. So I generally knew what was going on, or Fran [Townsend] would.
It bothered others.
Well, that’s their problem.
He wanted the Gallagher job. He wanted the Watson job, and especially the Mawn job. What do you figure happened?
I don’t know. That was pretty much after I left. I think John got some issues, Some issues regarding a vehicle and a [stolen] briefcase and all that stuff. I think that just kind of rode him down. … I just really don’t know. I never did inquire.
Let me just go into one thing, just be very clear with you. I recommended John to replace John Lewis when he retired as assistant director of the national security division. He was my choice. I recommended him to the director and I recommended him to the attorney general. There was an issue that came up on the use of a vehicle that was questionable, and it went on and on and on. It was never really resolved. Finally, Louis selected Gallagher. The person that I wanted to see on that job was John O’Neill, and he didn’t get it. Then after that, really, I retired a couple of months later. John wanted that job, and he certainly wanted the Mawn job. He didn’t get it.
I think what happens in the FBI, it’s a very militaristic society and you have to — if you’re being investigated by OPR, Office of Professional Responsibility, and there’s a question they don’t want to promote somebody that’s got a cloud over them, even a minor thing, like a vehicle.
So you lose your PDA, or you take a lady friend in a company car, that’s enough to do it for someone like John O’Neill?
I think it was. …
How do you feel about that?
I think the country lost. It lost his leadership.
Did he ever talk to you about it?
I don’t know the answer to that question. He was terribly upset about it.
Why does he leave? Why does he go at exactly that moment?
I don’t know. Like many public servants, I don’t think John had a lot of money, and he lived a very long, successful, sometimes frustrating career. Maybe he thought it was time to go. I don’t know. I didn’t really talk to him then.
… Sometimes, you get really frustrated, and you get tired. You live under the constant pressure for 25 or 30 years. You give your all, and you sacrifice your family. You sacrifice your health. You have a credit card debt of X amount of dollars which you’re paying pieces of. Although the FBI agents are very well paid, there’s a financial side of it. If you put three kids through college and law school, you look at the tail end of a career and you don’t have much money. That’s one thing.
Certainly, the frustration of trying to prevail on issues of policy and substantive issues, which John faced, would be very frustrating. I think every chance he got to go higher positions of power and authority, he was frustrated by, sometimes, a discipline process. I’m sure that was very frustrating. I think he saw that the time was, maybe if they don’t appreciate me that much, then I’ll go.
So, ironically, he takes a job at the World Trade Center. When you heard that he had taken that job, what did you think?
I didn’t think much about it until Sept. 11. We got his cell phone number and called it and called it, and there was no answer. The irony was just amazing. … Probably the person in the United States that knew as much about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden died in the rubble of the Trade Center that morning.
People tell the story about how he came out from the World Trade Center building, but then went back in.
Sure. I think it’s vintage John. I think he was trying to go back in to help some other people. John had a deep religious belief that was very interesting. He carried his religion very quietly and behind the scenes, but when you see tragedy and you’ve been in law enforcement or intelligence work or whatever, it becomes very elementary to try to help people that are less fortunate than you. I think that’s what he was thinking.
He was, in lots of ways, a living example of — for lack of a better word I would call it the Bryant plan — the idea of a disciplinary approach; reach out to lots of different guys, different agencies, an understanding of the world, the whole analytical framework. He was the personification of that, yes?
Yes. He was very much so, through the liaison, the hard work, the intellect, the thought processes, the working with subordinates and superiors, to try to get his thoughts into action and policy. He was extremely influential with me, and I think with Director Freeh, and I think with the attorney general. I think he was even more influential with people that were subordinates. There was always issues of style and method and so forth. But in the end, I think that his views were for the right reasons.
When we lost John O’Neill, what did we lose?
We lost a great citizen who cared very much about making this country safe. That’s about the nicest thing I can say.