SECTION FOUR

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COLUMN 110, OCTOBER 1, 2004
(Copyright 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist) 

THE MAN WHO KNEW

Dedicated to John O?Neill who went to extraordinary measures

Some have speculated that the man who knew the most about the terrorist network Al Qaeda died on the day of the September 11th attacks.  They may be right.  For years John O?Neill warned against the heightening dangers of Al Qaeda.  He has been described as a man who was fervently dedicated to his work at the FBI that led him into a direct and personal war against those who threatened the United States.  Some have even suggested that it went farther then that " that it became an obsession.  One thing is for sure; John O?Neill went to extraordinary measures.  He worked late hours, sometimes staying up for days.  Moreover, John O?Neill was a perfectionist.  He was a person who literally pored over every detail.  There are some reports that O?Neill often worried over letting others handle the details of operations for fear that they might passively gloss over some detail he otherwise would not have missed.  This was the type of worker that describes John O?Neill.  He literally was absorbed by his work.  He was a man who was determined not to fail, and his constant striving for perfectionism was well understood by him that the security of the American people could afford no less.         

John O?Neill began his career with the FBI in 1976 and quickly worked his way up its ranks by fighting organized and white-collar crime.  It would be years after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 that he would become directly involved in the counterintelligence field.  Not until a phone call from head of counterterrorism Richard Clarke at the National Security Council would O?Neill become directly affected.  As Clarke recalls it, they ended up with a narrow opportunity to capture Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan.  Yousef was headed over the border into Afghanistan, and once that happened the opportunity would be lost.  Clarke recounts calling O?Neill at the Washington office on a Sunday, heretofore O?Neill had just completed an all night drive from Chicago after being transferred and was now steadfastly working when the phone rang.  John O?Neill had not even stopped at his new home when he answered the phone.  "Who's this," Richard Clarke demanded.  "Well, who the hell are you?  I'm John O?Neill," he chimed back.  Clarke then proceeded to explain to O?Neill the situation in Pakistan.  With the issue pressing, O?Neill worked around the clock for the next three days to throw together an unusual group of FBI, DEA, and State Department diplomatic-security bureau agents who raced to get Yousef as he boarded a bus to cross into Peshawar in Afghanistan.  On Tuesday, February 7, 1995 they were given the word that they indeed had the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing in custody. 

Over the next several years O?Neill immersed himself in counterterrorism.  He studied and read everything that he could get his hands on.  He was one of the first people to connect Ramzi Yousef to Osama bin Laden.  In fact, it was O?Neill who was one of the first people who began stirring up the bureau with the idea that bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network were striving for much more than was commonly assumed.  O?Neill was convinced that bin Laden was out to plainly attack the United States of America.  Many in the bureau who had heard of bin Laden thought only of him as some backdoor-type financier.  Yet O?Neill was determined, and his often-brash style caused a build up of jealousies and hostilities that would plague his career.  No matter how much friction sprung up around O?Neill, he never wavered from his work.  He was determined that Al Qaeda was trying to set up a network around the world based out of Afghanistan, and he brought it up every chance that came his way.  O?Neill was convinced that a new brand of terrorism was headed in the direction of the United States.

It was no secret that John O?Neill was a maverick.  He was by no standards your typical FBI agent, even though being an agent was what he had wanted to be since boyhood.  Noteworthy was his impeccable appearance.  In particular, he wore expensive suits, his fingernails were polished, and often after work he smoked cigars and drank whiskey at many of the establishments of Washington D.C. " often inviting a few of his colleagues and discussing work.  Yet it wasn't just his appearance that made enemies within the bureau.  Often it was the way that he went about conducting business.  He was determined.  As some of his coworkers had termed him, he was too "intense."  He was accused of having 'sharp elbows," another way of saying that O?Neill often stepped on a few toes to get his work done.  Yet this did not bother O?Neill, because at the end of the day it was getting the job done that mattered, and this was much of the beginning of many of his problems.  One of the enemies he had made happened to be director of the FBI Louis Freeh.

One of the things that O?Neill pushed for was a working together of the FBI with the CIA, even though both agencies were very much opposed to the idea of it.  Because of his intensity he managed to set up a CIA station codenamed "Alex? that not only tracked bin Laden, but also kept track of his training centers, followed his funding, kept an eye on his bases of operation, and understood his capabilities.  Yet for all of his aggressive tactics, O?Neill was often viewed as being extremely difficult to live up to his standards, and this was even directed toward his superiors.  Even after one informant directly described Osama bin Laden's desire to directly hurt Americans, the State Department refused to list Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization.  

On June 25, 1996 a bombing at the Khobar towers, which housed American military, killed 19 Americans and injured over 500 others, including Saudis.  A team of Americans was quickly assembled to fly over to Saudi Arabia and begin inspecting the scene for evidence, and this included both John O?Neill and director Louis Freeh.  At first, O?Neill saw this as an opportunity to get on with Freeh, but as the circumstances played out things only worsened.  From the beginning many U.S. officials suspected that the bombing was linked to the Iranian government.  The Saudis, on the other hand, feared that a direct link of the explosion to the Iranians would spark American retaliation, therefore fueling the consternation of many in the Arab world.  Almost from the beginning O?Neill felt as though the Saudi government was not particularly being forthright with what they knew.  The rift between Freeh and O?Neill therefore grew, as Freeh seemed eager to overlook the lack of cooperation.  Freeh and many others within the government were not particularly eager to link Iran, which seemed to be relaxing its attitudes toward the west, especially among its younger population.  It is reported on one occasion that on a plane ride back to the United States after Freeh had turned to O?Neill to report on how happy he was that the Saudis were being so cooperative, O?Neill bluntly told him that the Saudis were merely "blowing smoke up your ass."  It was further stated that Freeh and O?Neill did not speak for the remainder of the twelve-hour trip home. 

Louis Freeh has denied that the conversation ever took place, but things only seemed to have gotten worse for John O?Neill at the Washington bureau after the purported incident.  It appears that they had gotten so bad that the toll of O?Neill's job began having an effect on him.  The idea that many top officials simply were not listening to him caused him a tremendous amount of stress.  Even though it later turned out that O?Neill was right and that the Saudi government was trying to play down the matter of the Iranian involvement in the bombing, this did not make matters any easier for O?Neill.  Even though the blast turned out not to be the work of bin Laden, still he continued to warn many in the government that in fact bin Laden's network was growing stronger by the day, and in fact they were looking to cause much higher casualties than at the Khobar Towers.  Eventually things seemed to have gotten so intense at the Washington bureau that John O?Neill transferred to the New York office. 

In January of 1997 O?Neill took a promotion at the New York office where he became the assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism.  He was put in charge of about 350 agents.  There he worked relentlessly trying to connect the dots to bin Laden.  Through captured informants he uncovered the fact that bin Laden was behind the downing of two black hawk helicopters in Somalia, and that he was also interested in developing chemical weapons and buying weapons-grade uranium.  Steadily they were uncovering plots and finding evidence of the Al Qaeda network around the world.  O?Neill was convinced that in all likelihood this suggested that there were Al Qaeda cells within the United States as well.  He speculated that it only made sense for Al Qaeda to setup shop within the country that they were targeting.  Yet he still had trouble trying to convince others within the government that bin Laden had put together this network with the special intent of attacking the United States.  He was becoming obsessed.  He watched all the footage he could find on Osama bin Laden.  He read everything he could get his hands upon.  He was being faxed with documents while at home.  The war between O?Neill and bin Laden was becoming personal. 

Then the embassy bombings in Africa happened.  The two simultaneous attacks in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people and injured thousands.  As soon as O?Neill saw it on CNN he was convinced that it was the work of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  Right from the onset there was a bureaucratic struggle over which headquarters should lead the investigation " Washington or New York.  John O?Neill was intent on becoming the on-scene commander, but political infighting within the agency delayed immediate action.  Members at the Washington bureau were intent on keeping the investigation out of the New York bureau's hands, even though O?Neill was


'. . .It was determined that al Qaeda was responsible and that John O'Neil was right. . .'


convinced that the New York office offered the greatest expertise on Al Qaeda.  Initially the decision was made by Thomas Pickard who was head of the criminal division of the FBI and a member of the inner circle of Louis Freeh.  He had decided that the Washington office should get the lead and that O?Neill was out of heading the investigation.  John O?Neill was furious.  It just so happened that that day Deputy Director Robert "Bear? Bryant was on vacation and out of cell phone range, so Pickard was next in charge.  The decision seemed to stem from purely political motives.  John O?Neill had never been a typical product of the establishment, yet Pickard was quite the opposite.  Thomas Pickard would later become acting FBI director for a period of roughly three months in 2001. 

However, a few weeks later the decision was reversed.  It was determined that Al Qaeda was responsible and that John O?Neill was right.  The New York office was put in charge of the operation, yet O?Neill was not sent to Africa.  He had to be content to stay in his New York office studying information relayed back to him from agents in Africa.  On the walls of his office he developed complicated lines connecting suspects and phone numbers within the Al Qaeda network.  Eventually the FBI learned of numerous threats.  They learned that Al Qaeda had surveyed hundreds of locations around the globe which had been approved as targets, and also that they were planning on sending operatives to the United States for flight lessons.  They also learned of a safe house in Yemen that acted as a type of telephone relay system where operatives could communicate with bin Laden.  O?Neill believed more than ever that the Al Qaeda threat was imminent.  Richard Clarke explains that while O?Neill was pressing the issue, many within the government took a more complacent stance by writing them off as, 'the cost of doing business? around the world.  And even though many within the government believed that Al Qaeda was becoming a more serious threat, still O?Neill could not persuade many officials in his belief that there were already operatives living within the United States.  Through his many police contacts all over Europe he was already being given information that the network was spread across the continent.  He was convinced that if they had set up in Europe, why not the United States?  Yet wire taps and domestic issues plagued the investigation into terrorism within the United States and made tracking Al Qaeda at home one of the hardest places to find them on the globe.  Therefore it was O?Neill's wish to get the FBI motivated about looking for these cells.  He and "Bear? Bryant had longed hoped for a reorganization of the FBI that would better harness the capability of the FBI in devoting resources to tracking and analyzing Al Qaeda's future operations.  The intention was to reassess the priority the FBI had currently been giving to the network, and which both Bryant and O?Neil both felt was off the radar of most offices around the United States.  The reform plan was never enacted.

On December 14, 1999 an incident at the Canadian border by an Algerian man trying to cross over into Port Angeles, Washington changed the minds of many who doubted that terrorist cells were plotting attacks within the United States.  Ahmed Ressam was captured trying to flee the border by hijacking another car after a border guard had stopped his vehicle.  Inside the trunk what they found were four timers, one hundred pounds of urea, and fourteen pounds of sulfate, which could produce a bomb the equivalent of something along the lines of the Oklahoma City bombing.   They also found a map within Ressam's car with a circle around Los Angeles airport.  His arrest eventually led to many more which included a plot in Jordan to blow up a Radisson Hotel frequented by Westerners, and another Algerian man named Abdel Ghani Meskini living in Brooklyn who had met with Ressam.  Many people for the first time began to realize that O?Neill had been right.

Yet for all of those who were beginning to believe in John O?Neill's efforts, there were still those who were creating obstacles for him in part due to his years of making enemies at the bureau.  When the position of head of the New York office opened up, O?Neill lobbied for the job.  O?Neill believed that this opportunity would give him the power to fully implement his ideas for fine tuning the bureau's efforts directed toward investigating counterterrorism.  It was the one job that he had always hoped of attaining, but a few minor incidents from years before hampered his advancement.  First, there was the issue of losing a bureau cell phone and palm pilot.  The next involved his car breaking down.  O?Neill found an FBI safe house where he picked up a bureau car, and while at the safe house he allowed his girlfriend to use the bathroom.  Both taking the car and allowing his girlfriend the use of the bathroom was a violation of procedure.  He was accused of unauthorized use of government property and the use of the bathroom was a security breach.  An investigation was initiated, and later when it came down to promoting O?Neil to director of the New York office, it was Thomas Pickard and Louis Freeh who decided not to give the job to John O?Neill.  Pickard had just been promoted to deputy director of the FBI and had replaced "Bear? Bryant, O?Neil's biggest supporter within the bureau. 

Just as the incident with the car seemed to be blowing over, O?Neil was ordered to attend an FBI conference in Florida.  In a room filled with agents, O?Neill received a phone call and stepped outside to take it, leaving his briefcase behind.  When he returned it was gone.  Again O?Neill had once again violated FBI procedure, only this time he had taken some files with him that were more sensitive than he had realized.  The matter was much more serious, and O?Neill realized it.  An hour later he got the briefcase back, but the damage had been done.  Although a fingerprint dusting had revealed that none of the classified documents had been touched, it was too late.  It was a crushing blow.  He knew that the incident would be used against him, and even more hurtful to O?Neill was the fact that his constant striving toward perfection was tainted.  Immediately he hired a lawyer in an effort to keep his job.  The FBI had become his life.  For those above him it was a sign that O?Neill was becoming sloppy.  O?Neill quickly became fearful, and for good reason.  It would be used against him, he was certain. 

While O?Neill was being investigated over the briefcase incident, he and other agents noticed an increase in activity out of the safe house in Yemen developed for communication within the Al Qaeda network.  An intercepted message that was later confirmed by Ressam stated that bin Laden was planning a "Hiroshima? type of occurrence.  An Egyptian informant later told the FBI that Al Qaeda was targeting an American war ship.  On October 12, 2000 the U.S.S. Cole was hit by a suicide attack at Aden Harbor in Yemen.  Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and thirty-nine others were hurt.  Immediately, as before, O?Neill rushed to action.  He went directly to Barry Mawn who was the new director of the New York office, and convinced him that the bureau should lead the investigation.  Mawn agreed, but again there were reservations from the Washington office.  Mawn eventually convinced Louis Freeh that the New York bureau needed to handle the investigation with John O?Neill as on-scene commander.  Freeh gave in.  O?Neill was soon on a plane part of the rapid deployment team to assess the situation.

The situation in Yemen could not have been any more impossible from the beginning.  As soon as the American team got there they soon realized that they were in an extremely hostile place.  O?Neill himself was well aware that Yemen was an environment sympathetic to jihadists.  Whenever they decided to go anywhere to conduct investigations they inevitably had to go out in caravans with a huge protection squad that announced their presence.  Furthermore, the Yemeni government was questionable over an American presence in their country, to put it lightly.  The accommodations were crude and the weather was hot.  Yet O?Neil was there to get things done, and this stirred up trouble with American ambassador Barbara Bodine.  Right from the start the two clashed. 

The problem resulted from the fact that Bodine viewed the situation purely from a diplomatic standpoint, while O?Neill was simply there to get his job done.  Right from the start she was upset that O?Neill had brought in as many as three hundred investigators, support staff, and marines.  She claimed that she had only agreed that he bring fifty.  What angered her even more was that they were all heavily armed.  She had wanted them there unarmed.  O?Neill felt that a strong presence should be demonstrated for the protection of the investigators, while Bodine worried about maintaining good relations with the Yemeni government.  Problems soon escalated even more between the two.  O?Neill wanted to be able to directly talk to Yemeni officials, while Bodine felt that she should supervise all such meetings.  She worried that since Yemen had twice been occupied, once by Britain and then again by Russia, it was important to demonstrate that the United States was sensitive to its perception.  This simply was not O?Neill's style.  He was well aware that Al Qaeda was becoming more brash, and that the attacks were coming in waves.  As Richard Clarke states, 'she wanted good relations with Yemen as the number one priority.  John O?Neill wanted to stop terrorism as the number one priority." 

Yet O?Neill seemed to be doing an exceptional job.  After being accused by Bodine of being insulting to the Yemenis, Barry Mawn personally flew out to assess the situation.  After talking with a number of agents and watching O?Neill in action, he concluded that he was doing an "outstanding? job.  He was doing his best to collect evidence and interrogate witnesses.  He built up alliances with many of the Yemeni authorities, who it is reported seemed to have taken up a genuine liking of him.  It was one of the things O?Neill did best.  He was able to build up confidence in others and rally their support.  He was working the Yemeni law enforcement just as he had done countless other times around the world.  It was a gift he possessed. 

Still, however, things were far from easy for O?Neill.  His team of Americans were constantly under the threat of violence.  Eventually they moved to the U.S.S. Duluth after receiving a bomb threat.  Bodine tried to use the incidents as a way to get O?Neill to lessen his presence within the region.  He refused, and things soon got worse.  At one point problems between Bodine and O?Neill escalated to the point where Janet Reno and Louis Freeh were both drawn into the dispute.  As a result, it became an extremely taxing situation for O?Neill to contend with.  Moreover, O?Neill began to feel that the Yemenis were not being particularly forthright.  He felt that they knew much more than they were telling investigators.  It felt like the Khobar Towers incident all over.  There was also some speculation that some low-level Yemeni officials may have helped target the Cole. 

Yet something potentially big was about to happen.  The Yemeni government agreed to let the FBI join the interrogation of one of the Cole's most prominent suspects.  His name was Fahad Al Quso.  O?Neill and his agents were pretty sure that Al Quso could clue them in on a lot of the links they were looking for to tie the attack to bin Laden, and probably a lot more.  But O?Neill needed a break.  He was burning himself out.  He had dropped a substantial amount of weight.  He decided that he would return to New York, and then on his return back to Yemen he would interrogate Al Quso.  Yet even back in New York he had invited a Yemeni police delegation to join him.  He took them out to popular hotspots around the city, working them, trying to get unfettered access to Al Quso.  All the while in New York he was planning his return, but little did he know that he would not make it back. 

When O?Neill tried to reenter Yemen ambassador Bodine denied his visa.  O?Neill was furious, yet there was very little he could do.  Bodine had been talking to Louis Freeh, and in the end the FBI supported her decision.  It was a fatal blow for O?Neill.  This was the kind of opportunity that someone like John O?Neill was born to do; yet in an instant it was all over.  With O?Neill out of the picture the investigation into the attack on the U.S.S. Cole ground to halt.  Al Quso was left on the back burner.  And fearing attacks on many of the agents still over in Yemen, O?Neill pressed Barry Mawn to pull them out.  It was a disaster.  With the inauguration of a new administration the investigation seemed to be completely forgotten.  Many people felt that the new administration wanted nothing to do with the Cole " that it belonged to the prior administration, and it simply was not a priority.  And with less media coverage, and a lack of interest from Congress, the issue almost completely disappeared. 

By the summer of 2001 other intelligence agencies were telling the Bush administration that every indication suggested that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the United States.  In June a memo was sent to the Whitehouse that said a major attack by Al Qaeda would take place in many weeks.  Although the intelligence could not specify when the attack would take place, and suggested that it might take place in Saudi Arabia, when Richard Clarke asked if it was possible whether it could take place in the United States the answer was that it could not be ruled out.  O?Neill was also convinced that another Al Qaeda attack was on the way, but problems were mounting for him.  He was becoming increasingly marginalized at the FBI.  When the Phoenix memo was issued that stated there was a possibility of terrorists training at flight schools within the United States, it was never passed on to Barry Mawn or John O?Neill at the New York bureau.  Neither was the case of Zacarias Moussaoui who became the alleged 20th hijacker.  The New York office that was most equipped to deal with terrorism was essentially becoming frozen out. 

Things at the FBI only got worse for John O?Neill.  When Richard Clarke proposed to O?Neill that he go in for his old job of head of the National Security Council at the Whitehouse, O?Neill knew that he would have to be confirmed by the Senate with a recommendation by the FBI.  He knew the chances were slim.  Even worse the briefcase investigation was still open, and as it happened a carefully planted leak to the New York Times was about to end his career.  It soon became clear that the Times was going to run the story, even though many within the FBI told the newspaper that it was personally motivated.  It is reported that the person who leaked the story was Thomas Pickard.  Pickard has fully denied the accusation. 

In August John O?Neill effectively resigned from the FBI, but as his last piece of official business he made sure that the last thing he was to do was to sign a piece of paper ordering the agents back in to Yemen. 

O?Neill now needed to find a new job.  He had acquired an expensive lifestyle, and now being out of the bureau he found an opportunity to make almost double what he had made as an agent.  He took a job of special interest to him as chief of security at the World Trade Center.  O?Neill was happy with the way things were going, and many of his friends could sense it.  When Chris Isham, a close friend and producer at ABC News, joked with him, 'that will be an easy job.  They're not going to bomb that place again."  O?Neill responded, "Actually, they've always wanted to finish that job.  I think they're going to try again."

On September 10th John O?Neill took the escalator up to his new office on the thirty-fourth floor in the north tower.  He rode up with his friend Robert Tucker as they talked security measures.  After that they went up to a bar at the top of the tower and had a drink.  Later they met another friend Jerry Hauer at Elaine's where O?Neill frequently went.  Hauer remembers talking to O?Neill where the discussion quickly turned to terrorism.  "We're due, and we're due for something big," he stated.  He noted that things were shifting in Afghanistan and that things seemed to be lining up for a major attack.  When Hauer asked O?Neill when he thought this might occur, O?Neill responded, "I don't know, but soon."  It would be the last time that Hauer would talk to John O?Neill. 

The next morning after coming home late, John O?Neill offered to drive his girlfriend Valerie James to work as a way to make up for his late return the previous night.  He dropped her off at 8:13 and proceeded to work.  At 8:46 American flight 11 crashed into the North tower.  O?Neill's son who was on his way into New York saw the smoke and called his father.  He was all right, and was on his way outside to assess the damage.  At 9:17 he called Valerie James to confirm that he was again all right.  A second airliner had hit the south tower.  Then again at 9:25 he called Anna DiBattista and confirmed that he was okay and that he was out of the building.  Wesley Wong, who was an FBI agent, arrived on the scene to set up a command center.  O?Neill quickly approached him outside and began asking questions.  Wong told O?Neill that he didn't have a lot of answers, but that he would catch up to him later.  Wesley Wong would be the last person to see John O?Neill alive.  He later recalled seeing him walking toward the tunnel to the second building.  They later found John O?Neill's body under some debris in a stairwell leading up the south tower. 

Looking back at Al Quso is like drawing back a bow and hitting a bull's-eye.  It was later determined that Al Quso had links leading back to a meeting in Malaysia where it is believed that both plots for the 9/11 and U.S.S. Cole attacks were planned.  Furthermore, two men who were being tracked by the CIA were also at that meeting.  The two men were Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi " both were hijackers of flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th.  Even though both men were under careful surveillance by the CIA, the FBI was never informed about it.  The CIA tracked both men to Los Angeles, but failed to add their names to a terrorist watch list.   It wasn't until June 11, 2001 did the CIA sit down with those at the FBI New York office and show them pictures taken of men at the Malaysia meeting.  By this time, John O?Neill was gearing up for retirement " he was not at the meeting.  Another thing that John O?Neill and the FBI did not know was that another man named "Khallad? was being watched by the CIA because of his connection at the Malaysia meeting " someone who the FBI believed helped spearhead the Cole attack. 

Yet for the entire breakdown in the CIA's failure to share information, still the question begs: what if John O?Neill had been allowed to go back to Yemen and finish his investigation?  It was well known that he had many connections within the CIA, and his often-brash style collided with any impediment to conduct a full investigation.  The question can never be answered, but John O?Neill's close friend Chris Isham may have said it best.  '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. ..."

To gain deeper insight into THE MAN WHO KNEW go to Frontline and get a more in-depth look: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/knew

Also see the story in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020114fa_FACT1  ##  


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