The Man Who Knew
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: John O'Neill.
The former head of the FBI's flagship antiterrorism unit in New York City, O'Neill had investigated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen. For five years, he led the fight to track down and prosecute Al Qaeda operatives throughout the world. But his flamboyant, James Bond style and obsession with Osama bin Laden made him a controversial figure inside the buttoned-down world of the FBI. Just two weeks before September 11th, O'Neill left the bureau for a job in the private sector--as head of security at the World Trade Center. He died there after rushing back into the burning towers to aid in the rescue efforts.
On Thursday, October 3, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE kicks off its 20th anniversary season with "The Man Who Knew," a special 90-minute documentary chronicling John O'Neill's quest to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
"America has been hunting bin Laden for a decade, but before 9/11 few really understood the magnitude of the threat he posed," says FRONTLINE producer/director Michael Kirk. "John O'Neill was one of the few who did. His fight to root out Al Qaeda--and to convince the FBI bureaucracy to react to the threat--offers important insights into America's fight against terrorism, both its successes and its failures."
In exclusive interviews with many of O'Neill's closest friends and associates, FRONTLINE pieces together the compelling narrative of O'Neill's struggle to convince the FBI to pay attention to the threat posed by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
"He was obsessed by him--he wanted to know what made him tick," says ABC producer Chris Isham, a friend of O'Neill's. "He wanted to know where he was, what he was doing, and what his approach was, and where his assets were. He was completely obsessed by the guy, no question about that."
O'Neill's first introduction to the world of counterterrorism was a baptism by fire. On his first day at FBI headquarters as chief of counterterrorism, O'Neill was called on by the White House to develop a rush plan to apprehend one of the world's most wanted terrorists: Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the ringleader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
He immediately sprang into action. "Over the course of the next two or three days, [O'Neill] never left the office," says Richard Clarke, head of counterterrorism for the National Security Council under President Clinton. "He worked the phones out to Pakistan, he worked the phones to the Pentagon, he worked the phones at the State Department."
Former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White credits O'Neill with quickly grasping the danger Yousef and other terrorists represented to America.
"Yousef is one of the most dangerous people on the planet--also very smart," she says. "Getting and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue. And John O'Neill recognized that and was not about to take 'no' for an answer before he was taken into custody."
In 1997, O'Neill was promoted to special agent in charge of the national security division in the bureau's New York office. Observers say O'Neill grabbed at the chance to head the team that was investigating and prosecuting most major international terrorist cases. The job would also be the perfect base from which to continue his pursuit of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But while John O'Neill had succeeded in winning allies among CIA and international intelligence agents, not everyone within his own agency was so enamored of him. A fixture on New York's celebrity social circuit, O'Neill's flamboyant style and his unconventional personal life--he had several longtime girlfriends and a wife he never divorced--had long raised eyebrows within the FBI.
O'Neill's sometimes aggressive, impatient manner also won him few friends among FBI colleagues and officials. "You have to be a little bit of a minimal threat to the organization and the director and the management structure," says Joe Cantamessa, former special agent in charge in the FBI's New York office. "John, because of his aggressive posture, his aggressive nature, his willingness to go forward when it may not be politically correct, I think a few people were uncomfortable with...John's aggressive style."
In "The Man Who Knew," FRONTLINE gives viewers an insider's view of O'Neill's investigations as well as the internal debates among the FBI, the State Department, and the White House over how to deal with the terrorist investigations in East Africa.
"[O'Neill] believed the New York field office had the greatest depth of expertise of anybody in the country on this issue, and if it's Al Qaeda, how could you send anybody else but the people who know the most?" recalls Fran Townsend, former head of the U.S. Justice Department's office of intelligence policy.
The FBI, however, decided that its Washington field office would run the investigation. O'Neill, Townsend says, was devastated.
"He was angry, disappointed, hurt," she says. "This is the World Series and he's gotten benched. And that's exactly how he feels about it."
Several weeks later--when O'Neill's belief that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks was confirmed--the bureau reversed its decision and gave the investigation to O'Neill's New York team. O'Neill, however, was not allowed to travel to the scene of the bombings in Africa; instead, he was forced to lead the investigation from New York.
It would not be the first time, insiders say, that FBI infighting and international diplomacy would prevent John O'Neill from pursuing Al Qaeda. In "The Man Who Knew," FRONTLINE recounts a heated political battle over the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole. Former government officials recount how O'Neill's desire to show the Yemeni security forces--which he viewed as being less than cooperative--that the FBI meant business angered U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine--so much so, that when O'Neill made a brief trip home to New York for Thanksgiving, Bodine denied his visa, preventing him from returning to the investigation.
"John was upset," says Barry Mawn, O'Neill's supervisor at the FBI's New York office. "[Bodine] was badmouthing him; she 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."
Insiders tell FRONTLINE that O'Neill's removal from the scene in Yemen seriously limited the Cole investigation--an inquiry that some speculate might have led O'Neill to the September 11 hijackers in time to foil their plans.
"The Man Who Knew" chronicles O'Neill's increasing frustration with Washington's lax attitude toward the threat posed by bin Laden, including the possibility that Al Qaeda sleeper cells were already operating within the United States.
"What John O'Neill was trying to do was get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells--to look for the connections which frankly most FBI offices were not doing," Clarke says. "It was not one of the priorities in most FBI field offices."
By the summer of 2001, O'Neill had been so marginalized by FBI officials that key clues of the looming September 11 plot apparently were never passed on to him. His 25-year career with the FBI would come to an end following bureau investigations into his temporary loss of a briefcase containing a classified report and charges that he used an FBI car to give a ride to his girlfriend. In August 2001, while the allegations were pending, O'Neill opted to retire from the bureau at age 49. Just eight days after he started his new job as director of security at the World Trade Center, the terrorists he had long pursued struck the towers.
O'Neill's critics contend that his personal failings proved fatal to his FBI career. His supporters, however, believe his main failing was refusing to conform to the standard-issue FBI mold.
"John was somebody that bureaucrats were not always pleased with because they felt he wasn't marching to their tune--that he was too ambitious and that he operated out of the box too often," ABC producer Isham tells FRONTLINE. "And this was an FBI that believed very much under the [FBI Director Louis] Freeh regime of operating within the box. This was a guy that was constantly pushing the envelope when the envelope didn't want to be pushed. So the envelope fought back."
Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at www.pbs.org/frontline for extended coverage of this story, including:
"The Man Who Knew" is a FRONTLINE co-production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The writer and producer/director is Michael Kirk. Co-producer and reporter is Jim Gilmore.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.Press contacts:
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FRONTLINE XXI/October 2002
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