the man who knew

photo of val & johnjoin the discussion: What lessons do you draw from the story of John O'Neill, his obsessive pursuit of Al Qaeda, and his struggles within the FBI?

his life and career
what if...
connect the dots


I watched the Man Who Knew after listening to all (or most) of the 9/11 Commission session with Thomas Pickard. I am astonished that not one of the commissioners asked Pickard: a) why the FBI, for petty bureaucratic reasons, drove their foremost expert on Al Qaeda out of the FBI during the very period in summer 2001 when threat intelligence indicators regarding Al Qaeda were rising most rapidly, and b) under oath what role Picard personally played in driving O'Neil out. To the contrary I remember at least one commissioner who complimented Pickard on his distinguished public service.
... I am saddended and angry that the 9/11 Commission has not followed the very clear leads on 9/11 responsibility that Frontline provided.

William Bowen
Salt Lake City, Utah

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

In the 9/11 Commission hearings in mid April 2004, John O'Neill's name briefly surfaced during FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony. And O'Neill was cited by commission member Richard Ben-Veniste in his questioning of Louis Freeh. former FBI director. Here is that excerpt from the transcript.

Ben-Veniste to Freeh: " ìYou have re-emphasized this morning the fact that the New York office of the FBI, which was led by James Calstrom [sic] and then Barry Mawn and John OíNeill, particularly focused on the Al Qaeda terrorist threat. In fact, John OíNeill perished in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, at the hands of cowards who murdered civilian men, women and children, people who John OíNeill had hunted with a determination that sometimes bordered on an obsession. Indeed, in January 2001, OíNeillís concerns stimulated an interagency group white paper urging greater protection of federal buildings in Lower Manhattan. And that white paper noted that, Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda organization and affiliated extremists group currently pose a clear and immediate threat to U.S. interests. Do you recall discussions with John Oíneill about the threats from Al Qaeda or others that might occur within the United States?î

Freeh: ìYes, I do, and particularly in that time frame. . . .î [In the rest of his response, Mr. Freeh does not pick up on the OíNeill reference.]


Even if I didn't live in NY, this would have been a great documentary. The ending brought me to tears. John O'Neill is a true hero, his devotion to saving lives, my life, will be remembered throughout time.

I checked to see what happened to Tom Pickard, FBI Assistant Director who blocked O'Neill from fully investigating the WTC plot. I found Tom had resigned on Oct 31, 2001. I have to wonder what is the story behind that.

roger baker
ny, ny


Like every American who attended civics class and believed in what was being taught us it is very hard to actually accept that every person working in the US government is not working on the premise that the citizens of America are the first consideration in any matter of government business; rather Washington, in tragic de Toquevillian manner, has become a place of pure power grabbing at the expense and sometimes peril, certainly in this tragic instance, of the citizens.

Thank you for your always excellent work.

B Guthrie
Tulsa, Oklahoma


Dear Frontline and Frontline readers,

Last night was one of the few nights where my four children had to put themselves to bed. I saw this show two years ago; and when I realized PBS was airing it again, I jumped for joy, because, Hello, this is what somebody upstairs needs to hear, and by God I hope they do. Because of this show, I will not miss a Frontline segment and have become a Frontline junkie.

During this whole 9/11 congresstional investigation I have kept asking myself why John O'Neil's name has not been brought up; or for that matter, why hasn't anyone who has been affiliated with the John O'Neil's investigation been brought up. And what about Barbara Bodine ?? I thought for sure by now she'd be a household name ?!! I was in class during the presidential speech on 4/12, and immediately when I got home, I asked my husband, who was watching it, if John O'neil's name had been brought up. He said, "Who?" I'm sorry, but John could have very well saved 3,025+ lives and I continue to ask myself "why" and are there any other mavericks out there to help us? I would like to request to Frontline to do a follow up story; this story is too big not to.

Thank you for reading and keep up the fight,

Jeanna Leslie
San Antonio, tx


What bothered me the most about the whole sad story was the fact that FBI Director Louis Freeh allowed himself to be manipulated by career hacks into ignoring the valuable information that O'Neill was gathering on Al Qaeda. If he was allowed to go to Yemen to investigate the USS Cole incident, I'm almost positive he would have come up with information that would have been invaluable to the Bureau in its efforts to determine Al Qaeda's true intentions. The links were there, O'Neill proved it. But there were some in the Bureau who felt he was a threat to their careers and went after him with a vengence.I'm almost certain the "missing briefcase" incident was deliberately orchestrated and individuals who were at the meeting mentioned were involved in the conspiracy to discredit O'Neill and force him out of the Bureau.
He was ambushed by individuals in the Bureau who were jealous of his stature. If more people worked as ahrd as he did, there may not have been a 9/11.

What the FBI did to John O'Neill goes down as one of the Bureau's darkest moments along with COINTELPRO and J. Edgar Hoover's secret files on thousands of Americans. We were doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ronald Shimokaji
Carson, CA


John O'Neal's story is the "Lord Jim" of our time. Like Conrad famously described Jim, "He was one of us,"

O'Neal represented the qualities that an age and culture wanted to recognize in itself: O' Neal was sensitive, openly patriotic, somewhat rebellious, and very much the victim of his own ideals and his "anti-organization" shortcomings. I first read about his story in a New Yorker profile, and was extremely moved and excited by this man who seemed as much a creature of destiny as anything out of literature and our own remaking of history. Like all people who grab at their own greatness, O'Neal did harbor the seeds and circumstances of his own destruction; the terrible thing though is how many other people were only too willing to sow those seeds for him. I am delighted to know more about this man. Thank you.

Perry Brass
Bronx, NY

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

The New Yorker profile and other articles on John O'Neill can be accessed in our "READINGS & LINKS" section of this web site.


I and several of my cowokers traveled to NYC shortly after the attacks and worked digging at the site. Without a doubt, that experience will be with me forever. Even the mere possibility that such an event could have been prevented highlights how tragic political games can end up. The fighting within the FBI, the not sharing of crucial information between agencies and the ambassador's actions in Yemen are all equally unforgivable.

This is still very much the best place in the world to live, raise a family and enjoy the freedoms. I shudder to contemplate this new era we all face, all due to the games a few people opted to play, games that will affect all of our futures.

I have found a new source of informative news reporting in FRONTLINE and hope that reports into this incident do not "go on the back burner".

A followup study on some other issues Richard Clarke has brought to our attention could be very improtant.


ron c
buffalo, new york


The story of John O'Neill demonstrates how the events of 9/11 might have been prevented if only the FBI would have listened to one their most dedicated and experienced Analysts in this field. Departmental politics within the FBI and with the Ambassador to Yemen prevented Mr. O'Neill from possibly preventing the 9/11 attacks. I think those people that stood in his way, and finally forced him to retire from the FBI should be held accountable.

The 9/11 commission stated that they don't want to play the blame game, they just want to learn how to prevent 9/11 from occurring again. That's nice of them, but someone must be held accountable for the almost 3,000 lives that were lost in the 9/11 attack, and now for the thousands of Iraqi civilians, and for the hundreds of American soldiers and coalition forces that continue to die. It is disgraceful that President Bush decided to invade Iraq by using the 9/11 tragedy, trying to make the American people believe that Iraq was involved in these attacks. People must be held accountable for not doing the jobs that the American people entrusted them to do. It was sad that at the end John O'Neill still died at the hands of Al Qaeda!

Maria Rosales


I've been a reporter for more than 20-years and I've never been more impressed with a story.
It made me angry, sad and worried about the security of our country.

At a time when many critics attack the media, Frontline reminds us how good journalism helps make our country great.

bill oneil
greensboro , nc


Thank you for airing this important story. Mr. O'Neill's situation is not new. In fact, it is very similar to a situation faced by Colonel John Boyd, US Air Force, retired. Like O'Neill, Colonel Boyd discovered a way to "do it better".

Like O'Neill, Colonel Boyd was met with resistance at every turn by "enemies" within his own organization. They both had "sharp elbows". They were both geniuses in their field. Like O'Neill, Colonel Boyd's motives were dedication to country, not self. Colonel Boyd wrote the book on air-to-air combat, fighter aircraft design and military tactics. He is most famous for the "OODA Loop" (observe, orient, decide, act). Colonel Boyd's ideas about warfare played a major role in the first Gulf War. Like O'Neill, Colonel Boyd's contributions were only seen in 20/20 hindsight. Like OíNeill, Boyd "bucked the system" by trying to improve it. Their ideas were new and revolutionary and not understood by senior level, decision-making personnel.

Because of this they were treated as threats to the status quo, not valuable assets with clear, sharp, and focused minds. .

Boyd used to ask a now famous question to military officers assigned to his office in the Pentagon, "Do you want to do something, or be somebody"? The implied message is if you really try to do it better, you will buck the system, and your career will suffer. OíNeill chose to do something, and was driven out of the FBI. The irony is overwhelming.

I am inspired by both men and morn their passing. We all can learn from both men.

I ask, as an avid viewed, please prepare a story on Colonel John Boyd. There is a book written on his life called "Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War"

mike jeck
Philadelphia, PA


As usual, I always learn something from FRONTLINE. If it weren't for the Oneill piece, I would have known nothing about this human being! It begs the question: What is happening in all branches of our government, if people like this who care are ignored?

Robert Holman
Flagstaff, AZ


Some call the likes of the FBI leaders and the ambassador who destroyed John O'Neil, morons. I see it differently and i think the Frontline documentary confirms it. In my opinion Pickard ought to be brought on charges of criminally contributinng to the destruction of a man's carreer. If we can't win in court this man ought to be drummed out of government.

Plato Rigos
Tampa, FL


I've held Frontline in high regard for many of their programs.

Michael Kirk did an excellent job of establishing John O'Neill's credibility as the prime expert on UBL and Al Queda.
This begs the obvious question: If this brilliant and dedicated public servant couldn't "connect the dots" by 9/10/01 after over half a dozen years of single focus dedication, with many six and seven day weeks filled with over ten hour days, and a staff of hundreds, then how can we expect Condoleeza Rice and George Bush to put it together ... along with the numerous other items on their plate, ...having barely walked in the door?
It seems to exonerate them from the numerous attacks on their efforts to protect us. THEY are actually DOING something, besides having "daily high level meetings" to TALK about Al Queda, like Clark and Clinton did.

I also question the heavy reliance on Richard Clark as a credible source. His "inside info" has been proven on numerous occassions and by several sources, including most recently Janet Reno, to be completely invalidated.
As just one example, he claims Ms. Rice had a blank look and didn't know what he was talking about when he first mentioned Al Queda and UBL to her, yet we've heard an interview with Dr. Rice months prior to the date Clark claims to have "enlightened" her, where she mentions both by name, displays an enormous familiarity with them and their threat, and even warns that we should prepare for an attack by them. All recorded prior to the election, and long before Clark dates their first meeting.

"Expert" Clark and the Clintons had seven years to do something, starting with the first WTC attack in 1993. Frankly I'm shocked that obvious fact isn't covered more by the media. If Frontline wants to regain my respect and trust, you should do a report on that, and how Clark's numerous self-serving accusations and posturing comments have proven to suffer his credibility.

Why not look into how Clinton's act of defining terrorists as criminals (vs. enemies of the state) tied the hands of the FBI and CIA, and made necessary "arrests" (vs. capture) and created a legal nightmare.
The (Bush) Patriot Act reversed that ineffective policy, and much progress toward protecting this nation has since resulted.

My personal theory that I've espoused since applying to various airlines for a job in the mid 1970's is that the Airlines were in the best position to prevent this particular attack.
They had hijackers in the 1970's and should have produced the grenade proof doors many of us called for back then.
Yet had they done so, Al Queda would have simply found another means. It is impossible to guard the thousands of potential targets. The only way to stop them is to go after them. The only people doing so are Bush and Rice and Co. ...and they're getting back-bitten from the rear for doing so.

This particular FRONTLINE seems to be just another politically motivated boulder tossed along with the many stones cast in 20/20 hindsight, designed to put doubt into the current Administration's effort to combat terrorists, and might have been better served if delivered on a CBS platter. I've come to expect similar distortions from them.
Too bad, it could have been a good story.
I'll be surprised if this side of it gets posted.

I apologize for the length, but you left so much to be addressed.

Thomas Monary
San Diego , CA


After viewing your broadcast of "The Man Who Knew" for the first time it, became even more evident to me of how much trouble we Americans are in if we don't push for more change in our goverment.

As we look for someone to blame for the tradgedies that occurred on that Sept. morning, we Americans must come to realize that it is all of us who are at fault for the deaths of nealy 3000 innocent people. We are the ones who turned a blind eye towards the inevitable in favor of political correctness.

We are the ones that allowed our goverment to float through the 1990's ignoring the dangers that were completely avoidable. What a shame that Mr. O'Neill's knowledge and experience were pushed aside just because he was considered a "Maverick". I can only hope that someday we will have learned from all this so that in the future, we as a people, will be taking our safety and security seriously.

Andrew Marcin


This is the 2nd time I watched this Program. The 1rst time I watched it, was about two years ago. I was able to record it later on Vhs. John O'Neill lived his life for us, he did'nt die in vien. If you were moved by this man's story, then share it with the ones you know and love.Im now buying the DVD at 1-800-playpbs.

John O'Neills story is one all of our children should know. I strongly believe every American should be aware of this mans life. Frontline, Thank you for your outlet, Its been two years since I first became aware of John O'neill and not once have I heard his name on any News Broadcast anywhere. Its up to us, the ones that know to share his story. I see him as Modern day American Hero. His life with us is now over, let his legacy live forever.

Neal Webb
Reno, Nevada


This Frontline was painful to me as it illustrated the rigidity of the thought processes of our elected politicians and career civil servants because that is what an ambassador or FBI director is, a civil servant.

Does anyone is Washington who is in a position of power ever think of the long-term consequences of the decisions they make and the actions they take? Freeh and Bodine, both in positions of enormous responsibilities, epitomize the ìbanality of evilî rampant in the Washington establishment. Both of them were short sighted and far too complacent to see the jeopardy we were all in when the Cole was bombed and as a indirect result of their slackness the Towers were destroyed. Pickard was a petty little man who wanted a big job and I donít think for one moment he deliberated much about Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the terrorists threat to this country when he derailed John OíNeillís career at such a critical time

As for the politicians they are only as good as the people who elected them. As their constitutes we emphasize that we see their shortcomings as well as their strengths and that War in Iraq, a war that the majority of them voted for, will become even more of a problematic fiasco than it already is if they donít start advising more and consenting less.
Thank you for once more airing this program.

Susan Wachenheimer
Riverside, California


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