John P. O'Neill Sr. The Man Who Knew

When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 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 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 Sept. 11, 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. http//www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/knew/etc/synopsis.html When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 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 six 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 Sept. 11, 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. FRONTLINE's The Man Who Knew, chronicles John O'Neill's story -- a story that embraces the clash of personalities, politics and intelligence, offering important insights into both the successes and failures of America's fight against terrorism. Drawing on exclusive interviews with many of O'Neill's closest friends and associates, this report opens with O'Neill's introduction into the new world of terrorism -- the capture in 1995 of one of the world's most wanted terrorists -- Ramzi Yousef, the ringleader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. 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. O'Neill immersed himself into learning everything he could about global terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist militancy. 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 terrorism 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 agencies, not everyone within the FBI 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. The Man Who Knew, gives viewers an insider's perspective on O'Neill's investigations as well as the internal territorial debates among the FBI, the State Department, and the White House over how to deal with U.S. terrorist investigations in East Africa in August 1998 and the Yemen in October 2000. [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. O'Neill's New York FBI team was at the center of bureacratic arm-wrestling over who would head the 1998 investigation into the embassy bombings in East Africa. O'Neill again was the focus of a heated political battle over the investigation of the 2000 attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. Current and former government officials such as Richard Clarke, counterterrorism chief in the Clinton administration and Barry Mawn, former head of the New York FBI office, 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 was one of many issues in the investigation which angered U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine. Finally, when O'Neill made a brief trip home to New York for Thanksgiving, Bodine denied his re-entry visa, preventing him from returning to the investigation. Insiders tell FRONTLINE that O'Neill's removal from the scene in Yemen may have seriously limited the Cole investigation -- an inquiry that some speculate might have led O'Neill to the Sept. 11 hijackers in time to foil their plans. The Man Who Knew also 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, 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 Sept. 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 Chris 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. -ABOUT MY INTERVIEW WITH JOHN O'NEILL By Barbara Newman 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. 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. Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk. Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online during the 2001-2002 season to discuss "Did Daddy Do It?"; "American Porn"; "Gunning for Saddam"; and "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy. More http://www.hereinreality.com/johnoneill.html http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/knew/john/ http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/sept11/features/5513/ http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020114fa_FACT1 http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/KUP206A.html Email to:drk@dyrec.com Click here to send me a letter.