Video: A 1997 Interview With O’Neill
It was near Christmas in 1997 that I interviewed John O’Neill, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge of National Security Programs at the FBI’s New York Office. He had recently been appointed to this post and was part of a two-hour program I produced on the FBI’s New York Office for A&E’s Investigative Reports series. When I first broached the idea of doing the program with John he immediately became its champion. He understood how intriguing a story like this could be. John introduced me to his boss, Jim Kallstrom, the Director of the New York Office. I still remember sitting outside Jim’s office with Gayle Gilman, my Executive Producer from A&E, when Jim took a phone call from FBI Director Louis Freeh, hung the phone up and told us “Approved.” In one fell swoop, John and Jim had short-circuited the sometimes ponderous FBI bureaucracy. It’s an action I found later to be very natural to both of them.
Agents who weren’t allowed to tell even their wives what they were doing talked about cases and themselves; why they joined the FBI, where they grew up, what their dreams and aspirations had been. The idea was to turn a red-hot beam on a very closed, but vital part of our government. Our host was John’s National Security Division, the most secret of all parts of the FBI. I ended up spending almost an entire year filming the show, commuting to New York from Washington on Mondays and returning on Fridays. The piece was a total success from a journalistic point of view and a morale booster for the agents and their families.
It’s pretty illustrative of John to go out on a limb and champion a documentary on the FBI, allowing access to its premises, including undercover and secret agents. It was one of the first projects he undertook with his new position in New York. He had arrived there only a few months after we started our research.
I knew John well before I interviewed him, from the time he was in Washington as a section chief in the National Security Division. I had first met him there after I produced a documentary called “The New Face of Terrorism” for A&E’s Investigative Reports in 1993. I profiled the “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel Rahman, and reported on the threat his teachings and followers posed to U.S. security. The day after I delivered the show to A&E, a bomb exploded at the World Trade Center. Rahman’s protege, Ramzi Yousef, was the mastermind of this attack. An international hunt tracked down a group of Muslim extremists who executed the attack. A few years later, in October 1995, Rahman was convicted of conspiracy against the U.S. for his part in the plot to blow up bridges, tunnels, the U.N., and the FBI’s New York office. Rahman, in prison, is a martyr to the cause of extremism, and his sons are leaders in Al Qaeda.
I had covered terrorism stemming from the Middle East since 1980, when I was a producer for ABC’s 20/20. John and I shared an interest in this area and a belief that the U.S. could suffer a tremendous blow from those who espoused a hatred of us and our society. Some found his zeal shrill and annoying. I found it reassuring.
John could be utterly charming or totally devastating. He could wither with a look, suffering fools badly. He was openly contemptuous of people he didn’t think pushed the envelope or themselves. He thought so quickly he often finished my sentences. I knew when he disagreed with me by catching an amused flicker in his eyes.
John had old-fashioned values. He was patriotic. He was religious, never missing a Sunday mass. He told me that he was so poor growing up, he had done every job, including cleaning bathrooms. He went to the FBI at age 18 and became a tour guide. The Bureau was his life; they sent him to college at American University.
Behind the bluster, John was a gentle soul. He might not admit it, but I think he would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.
John and I were friends. We were able to communicate directly, without artifice. We trusted each other and knew each other’s limits. For years John had told me that Osama bin Laden was an enormous threat to the U.S. and that I should do a documentary about him. And for years I told him that Americans weren’t interested. We were both right.