The USS Cole Investigation — Yemen, October 2000
Colleagues describe the significant obstacles O’Neill faced as the investigation’s on-scene commander in Yemen: a U.S. ambassador who arguably wanted full control, uncooperative Yemeni officials, a generally hostile environment, and ultimately, the failure of FBI headquarters to fully support O’Neill. Drawn from the full interviews with Richard Clarke, Mary Jo White, Barry Mawn, Clint Guenther and Chris Isham.
Richard Clarke, NSC Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001
I think there were two things going on in Yemen. The first thing was the government of Yemen didn’t want us to know all the details; in part, because that would reveal that some low-level people in the Yemeni government may have been part of the conspiracy; in part, because it would have shown that the Yemeni government didn’t really have control over a large section of Yemen; in part because it would have shown that Yemen was filled with terrorists from a whole variety of different organizations. So Yemen didn’t want to cooperate fully, didn’t want us to see everything that was there.
The other thing that was going on was that you had an U.S. ambassador who wanted to be fully in control of everything that every American official did in the country, and resented the fact that suddenly there were hundreds of FBI personnel in the country and only a handful of State Department personnel. She wanted good relations with Yemen as the number one priority.
John O’Neill wanted to stop terrorism as the number one priority, and the two conflicted. Almost all of us who were following the details in Washington, whether we were in the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House, State Department, the Defense Department — almost all of us thought that John O’Neill was doing the right thing.
But the State Department has to support its ambassador. State Department doesn’t have a lot of assets. It doesn’t have a lot of airplanes or a lot of guns. It’s basically got its ambassador. It’s got a letter to every ambassador from the president of the United States saying, “You, Ambassador, are my personal representative in the country. You’re in charge of everything the United States does.” So when the ambassador makes the decision, the State Department feels, for institutional reasons, that they have to back her up.
So I think even though the people we were working with in the State Department who were following the case thought the ambassador was wrong, nonetheless, they decided to back her up.
Barry Mawn, Head of the FBI’s New York office, 2000-2002
Were Washington headquarters or the FBI happy that O’Neill was going [to Yemen]?
My recollection is that I got questioned on it, “Is John the best guy to send?” I had no hesitancy, and said, “Absolutely, he’s the best guy to send.”
But soon there’s friction between the U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Barbara Bodine, and O’Neill.
Initially, some of the main areas of disagreement were security, amounts of people that were over in Yemen, as well as, potentially, who was in charge and who was running it.
That being said, with the FBI and with John, there’s no question that we recognize the ambassador is the person in charge, the president’s representative in a foreign country; the person, overall, responsible for everything that happens with U.S. citizens over there.
But we also take a view recognizing that, if there’s an investigation, that we’re in charge of the investigation. We don’t cut in people just for the sake of them being in the know. We realize, obviously, the ambassador should be briefed as to what’s going on, what’s happening and, in particular, if we’re encountering any difficulties.
To a certain extent, some of the reporting that John told me is that she became very involved, and wanted to know exactly what was going on, when and where. And that’s kind of contrary to our thinking. If there’s a need to know, or if it’s something that’s obviously going to impact on those country authorities then, obviously, we’d tell. So that’s one issue.
There was also, in John’s mind, security — [in] which I fully supported him — that we go over as a big group. What we like to do is send over either a hostage rescue team or some of our SWAT fellows to provide security for the agent investigators, for the bomb techs, for the folks doing the Evidence Response Team. We like to have an in-house security. So we go as a pretty big package.
When we initially responded, we were probably a couple hundred in strength. Being fair to the ambassador, she maybe got some flack from Yemen authorities as to the overwhelming U.S. government response to this particular incident, that we didn’t need to be as strong as we were.
Again, I fully believed and supported John as far as security. Yemen is a tough country. I guess there’s more guns than people. I don’t know if it was particularly friendly to the U.S. investigators, so we wanted to be secure with our people. I didn’t want to send anybody over there and get them hurt.
What is your sense of O’Neill’s feelings as he comes up against these obstacles?
I think he was very frustrated in that he wasn’t being allowed to do his job, that he wasn’t getting support, and that she was supporting the Yemen authorities, as opposed to the investigators and himself. Of course, our view on that is you’re the U.S. ambassador. We understand your position. But you need to be weighing in for us more so than the Yemenis, and she had her own ideas. She basically wanted to have a smaller contingent of people over there as possible. That’s not how we operate. Things just continued to escalate.
I really think it became a personality conflict between the two of them. Whether she viewed John as coming in and trying to take over and was usurping her as the head U.S person or not, I don’t know. But I think that was probably part of it. Again, I don’t know. With these two individuals, I think from the get-go, they probably rankled one another, and it went from bad to worse.
In the upper echelons of the FBI, this may be confirming people’s worst fears about O’Neill?
There may have been people at FBI headquarters that were going, “See, I told you so. John does upset people, and get them upset. And maybe he wasn’t the right guy.” But that’s all childish gossip and rumoring, as far as I’m concerned.
But it proved to be true in some ways.
In some ways. But at the same time, I’d balance that against, “Who is the right guy to go? What do we need to get done, and who’s going to know what to do?” In that regard, there are very few in the FBI that had the criteria to go over and do the job that he did.
I should tell you the story. When I went over there, one of the complaints against him is that John didn’t have any knowledge, that he was a cowboy; he was upsetting the Yemenis; he didn’t know how to get along, and that they were all making complaints about him. Initially, I found that very hard to believe. I had seen John in New York with a lot of people from the Arab countries come in and visit with him. I know he had gone over there. I knew he was well thought of by Arab intelligence agencies and law enforcement. I knew he was well thought of by other U.S. ambassadors. So I had a hard time accepting this.
I was there for about a week and half. One of the evenings that I went — [the head of the PSO], which is the equivalent of the director of the FBI that we’re talking to –he, unsolicited, said that when the USS Cole first happened, he said the entire government response was pretty large. He was referring to not only the FBI, but the State Department, the agency, and primarily the military. The military responded there in very big fashion, obviously, because the ship had been bombed. They had people hurt. So they came in there.
I said, “Did you have a problem with our presence?” He said, “No, I never cared about the FBI. You could have a thousand FBI here, because we’re both working to do the same thing. We’re looking to get who’s responsible for this. No, I have no problem with the FBI being here, and you can decide whatever you want as to how many you have here.”
So that refuted anything that I heard. It was also said that they didn’t like him. I mean, that was clearly not observed by me in going with these visits every night.
Then January 2001 comes, and O’Neill wants to go back to Yemen. But Ambassador Bodine wouldn’t give him clearance.
What it told me is that, clearly, the ambassador had the upper hand, she was backed by the State Department, and that we had to find another way of addressing it.
How did O’Neill handle it?
I think John was upset. This didn’t help him. She was badmouthing him. She had caused a stir at headquarters. I actually think John was more disappointed that our headquarters didn’t back us as far as sending him back, and taking a stronger stand with the State Department. Eventually, our headquarters said, “Let’s try and work around.”
What did that say to you about headquarters and John O’Neill?
On that particular issue, they decided that they weren’t going to take that on. They got to make that their other options, as opposed to having a turf battle with State Department. They may have been right; I’m not saying they were wrong there. But I felt the investigation was important.
Did we lose anything by not sending John O’Neill back into that place?
I felt that we didn’t progress as quickly as we could have by John not going back. John kind of held their feet to the fire. He had developed the relationship with the head of the PSO. By John not going back, we lost contact with the head of PSO. The director of the PSO is not going to see John’s deputy or lower-level people. So there’s that protocol situation.
If we had sent him back, I think the information and progress in the investigation would have gone quicker and smoother. I think we were somewhat frustrated. There was a deliberate slowing down. I think John could have kept that on track.
Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, 1993-2002
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.
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?
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.
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.
Clint Guenther, Former FBI Agent NYC – Counterterrorism
Do you remember his first phone call back to you where he mentioned [Ambassador] Bodine and what his reaction to all this was?
One of his first calls back where you knew that he was having problems with the ambassador was when he had gotten his people into Aden and realized that there were no facilities available for them to stay. There was no hotel available. A lot of other government agencies had sent people over there. A lot of intelligence groups had sent people, and there was absolutely no place for FBI personnel to stay. The ambassador basically just said, “Let them sleep on the floor in the ballroom, because we’re not finding additional facilities for them.”
And John, being a guy who always took care of his troops was just incensed that she would not try to find some sort of accommodations so that he could make his people as comfortable as possible also. Right then and there, you knew that there was going to be strife between the two, because John was going to take care of his people, and he was going to do everything he possible could to make sure that they had what they needed to conduct their investigation.
So what was the next problem with Bodine?
The next thing with her was guns, weapons. She couldn’t understand why our personnel needed to be armed. She wanted the weapons sent out of the country immediately. As a matter of fact, I think she even commanded that they turn in their weapons the next military flight that came through, they would all be shuttled out of the country. John wouldn’t stand for that. He stood his ground on that and did win the fight.
The next battle that I recall that they had was over manpower. The ambassador decided that there were absolutely too many people involved in this investigation. She made an arbitrary decision as to how many she thought that O’Neill would need to conduct his investigation. If memory serves me right, I think 27 was the number or something like that. She came up with this number. I don’t know how she derived that number, but she did.
Therefore, John was only allowed to have 27 people in the country at a time and, if he wanted to bring in, say, five additional specialized investigators, well then five people would have to leave. This became impossible for John O’Neill to comprehend, because he wanted his people there. He wanted them there now. He didn’t want to have to give up people. He didn’t want to give up security personnel in order to bring investigators in. But that’s what she was forcing him to do was to make these compromises and he was incensed by that.
So what did he do?
He did learn to play her game to some degree. Every time he wanted to try to get some personnel in, they would be in negotiations to try to say, “Well, I can’t lose five people. Can I send out three people for the five?” Depending on any given day or argument, he would win certain concessions. That’s the way he had to play to game.
So what was this doing to the investigation?
It was bogging it down. I mean, surely we could’ve used all the manpower. It would’ve helped to have had as many people as possible early on. It would have benefited her also, because we could’ve gotten accomplished what needed to be done as far as evidence recovery, going over the crime scene, and moving on.
Tell me about the phone call that he was talking about with his dealing with the ambassador.
It was sometime early on in his stay over there. But it was after he had several encounters with Madame Ambassador that he called back one time and I got him on the phone. I think we were getting ready to do a conference call. He says in the impish way that he could have, “Clint. I have tried everything in my power to win this woman over with my O’Neill charm, but it just isn’t working. I don’t understand this.” So he laughed at himself and went on.
That was the way it was. I don’t think that he ever hated the woman or had any real dislike for her. He just couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get her to see his way and to deal with him.
To some extent, perhaps headquarters helped or didn’t help enough in clearing it up and standing behind John O’Neill?
I think the stance in Washington at all levels was that Ms. Bodine was coming to the end of her tenure over there and would be rotating out in August of last year anyway, so let’s just let it flow and have the transition occur normally. That didn’t help O’Neill’s case at all, because there was still a lot of investigative time between present, when they were having the problems, and when she was going to be leaving.
They were out for months?
They were out for a month or a little bit more than a month. Probably around July that we started focusing on coming up with a plan and working with the embassy over there to try to establish a reentry. That’s when John said, “Well, I’ll go over and sit down with the ambassador and we’ll work out the details,” and she denied him entry into the country.
John kind of wore that as, I think, a badge of some type. He was very amused that it was determined that he was persona non grata. He never got furious over it. He was kind of tickled by it.
Now we know the connections. There were connections between some of the individuals there in Yemen and the Malaysian meetings and some of the [9/11] hijackers. There were dots to be connected. What did we lose by, months before 9/11, having to pull out the best people to investigate the case, having to pull them out of Yemen?
That’s hard to say, what we lost. We could’ve lost a lot. We could’ve lost the intelligence that could’ve connected that dot to the World Trade Center. I don’t know that to be a fact, but a lot of the Al Qaeda people are coming out of Yemen. A lot of the Yemenis are involved. I think if we could have had better investigative effort over there, had been able to build the confidence of the local law enforcement, we may have been able to find people, interrogate them, and get a lot more intelligence that would have shown us something going on.
Chris Isham, Senior Producer, ABC News
This was a case that he was really pushing hard on. He understood that Yemen was critical to [Al Qaeda]; that this wasn’t just a venue where they set off a bomb; that there were connections between Yemen and East Africa, and Yemen and Afghanistan, and Yemen and Europe; and that this was very much of an important operational base for these guys. If he could illuminate that base, he could begin to really put a dent in this network. That is one of the reasons he was pushing so hard on the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole.
He felt enormously frustrated in that investigation as well because of the complex nature of the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government was divided, and you had good guys and bad guys. The depth of support for bin Laden and the bin Laden network was very serious in Yemen. There were deep tentacles that that organization had, going back many, many years.
O’Neill understood that. He understood that this was a very important challenge, that it was critical for the United States to try to really get at what happened in Yemen, and he was blocked from doing that. He was blocked from doing that by the Yemeni government or by elements of the Yemeni government. But he didn’t feel that he had the backup from the U.S. government that he needed to really do the job.
I also think that there were some unfair raps about John in Yemen. He actually had forged very good relationships with many of the Yemeni officials and had a very good relationship with many of the Yemenis. At one point, he had a Yemeni delegation up in New York and he was taking him up in helicopters and flying him around. There was a whole group of people in Yemen that were really doing everything they could to try to move that investigation forward.
The problem is there were other guys in that government who were trying to do everything to prevent that investigation from going forward. And unfortunately, the U.S. government wasn’t giving John the kind of backup that he needed to move the thing forward.
We don’t know what would have happened if John could have done his job in Yemen, if John had been able to do his job in Yemen and had really had the full backup to go and to really push in Yemen, to walk those tracks back, to investigate fully who the perpetrators were of the attack on the USS Cole and what kind of networks he could have exposed.
But we do know that there were Yemenis involved in the attacks of Sept. 11. We know that at least one of the hijackers was a Yemeni. We know there were other Yemenis that were involved. So is it possible that if he had been able to really open up that network and really expose that network that he could have, in some way, deterred the tragedy of Sept. 11? I don’t think we know. But it’s sad, because we won’t know the answer to that. I think he would have at least had a fighting chance, if he had been able to do his job. …