John P. O'Neill

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In August 2001, John P. O'Neill resigned from his post at the FBI. O'Neill became the security chief of the World Trade Center - where he died during the events of 9/11. [1]

O'Neill was the FBI's Chief of International Terrorism Operations[2]; and Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Counterterrorism and National Security [3]. In the 8 October 2002 testimony of former Director Louis J. Freeh, O'Neill "was FBI's counterterrorism chief who helped forge what became the excellent and unprescedented FBI-CIA relationship in counter-terrorism".

"All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden's organization can be found in Saudi Arabia," John O'Neill, the FBI's former top bin Laden investigator, said shortly before his death in the World Trade Center. O'Neill explicitly referred to interference from US policymakers concerned about U.S.-Saudi relations. He "complained that the F.B.I. was not free to act in international terror investigations because the State Department kept interfering," according to a New York Times account of O' Neill's interview with French journalist Jean-Charles Brisard shortly before his death. O'Neill "explains the failure in one word: oil." [4]

Richard A. Clarke writes on page 14 in Against All Enemies. Inside America's War on Terror (March 2004) that John O'Neill was his "closest friend in the Bureau and a man determined to destroy al Qaeda until the Bureau had driven him out because he was too obsessed with al Qaeda and didn't mind breaking crockery in his drive to get Usama bin Laden. O'Neill did not fit the narrow little mold that Director Louis Freeh wanted for his agents. He was too aggressive, thought outside the box. O'Neill's struggle with Freeh was a case study in why the FBI could not do the homeland protection mission. So, O'Neill retired from the FBI and had just become director of security for the World Trade Center complex the week before."

Most of the victims of the September 11 attack seemed tragically random -- they were just going to work. Not John O'Neill. Until last August [2001], he'd been the FBI's top expert on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a lead investigator of the USS Cole and African embassy bombings. Leaving the Bureau in frustration, he'd taken a job he thought of as retirement: World Trade Center security chief. But when he died it became clear: His own life contained as many mysteries as his enemy's. -- Robert Kolker, New York Metro.com


an abridged chronology taken from "The Counter Terrorist" by Lawrence Wright for The New Yorker Issue of 2002-01-14 (8000 words) subtitled "John O'Neill was an F.B.I. agent with an obsession: the growing threat of Al Qaeda.":

O'Neill was worried that terrorists had established a beachhead in America. In a June, 1997, speech in Chicago, he warned, "Almost all of the groups today, if they chose to, have the ability to strike us here in the United States." He was particularly concerned that, as the millennium approached, Al Qaeda would seize the moment to dramatize its war with America.
The Jordanians in December 1999 discovered an Al Qaeda training manual on CD-ROM.
What followed was, according to Richard A. Clarke, the most comprehensive investigation ever conducted before September 11th. O'Neill's job was to supervise the operation in New York.
After the millennium roundup, O'Neill suspected that Al Qaeda had sleeper cells buried in America. "He started pulling the strings in Jordan and in Canada, and in the end they all led back to the United States," Clarke said. "There was a general disbelief in the F.B.I. that Al Qaeda had much of a presence here. It just hadn't sunk through to the organization, beyond O'Neill and Dale Watson"--the assistant director of the counter-terrorism division.
Clarke's discussions with O'Neill and Watson over the next few months led to a strategic plan called the Millennium After-Action Review, which specified a number of policy changes designed to root out Al Qaeda cells in the United States.
In Yemen for investigation of the [12 October 2000] USS Cole bombing, Michael Sheehan, who was the State Department's coördinator for counter-terrorism at the time, made clear to Barbara Bodinein, the American Ambassador to Yemen, "in a cable under [then Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright's signature saying that there were three guiding principles," Sheehan said. "The highest priorities were the immediate safety of American personnel and the investigation of the attack. No. 3 was maintaining a relationship with the government of Yemen-- but only to support those objectives."
After two months in Yemen, O'Neill came home feeling that he was fighting the counter-terrorism battle without support from his own government. He had made some progress in gaining access to evidence, but so far the investigation had been a failure. Concerned about continuing threats against the remaining F.B.I. investigators, he tried to return in January of 2001. Bodine denied his application to reënter the country. She refuses to discuss that decision. "Too much is being made of John O'Neill's being in Yemen or not," she told me. "John O'Neill did not discover Al Qaeda. He did not discover Osama bin Laden. So the idea that John or his people or the F.B.I. were somehow barred from doing their job is insulting to the U.S. government, which was working on Al Qaeda before John ever showed up. This is all my embassy did for ten months. The fact that not every single thing John O'Neill asked for was appropriate or possible does not mean that we did not support the investigation."
In March, 2001, Richard Clarke asked the national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, for a job change; he wanted to concentrate on computer security. "I was told, 'You've got to recommend somebody similar to be your replacement,' " Clarke recalled. "I said, 'Well, there's only one person who would fit that bill.' " For months, Clarke tried to persuade O'Neill to become a candidate as his successor.
In July 2001, O'Neill decided to retire the following month from the FBI and take the job of chief of security for the World Trade Center.
Meanwhile, intelligence had been streaming in concerning a likely Al Qaeda attack. "It all came together in the third week in June," Clarke said. "The C.I.A.'s view was that a major terrorist attack was coming in the next several weeks." On July 5th, Clarke summoned all the domestic security agencies--the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the F.B.I.--and told them to increase their security in light of an impending attack.
When O'Neill told ABC's Isham of his decision to work at the Trade Center, Isham had said jokingly, "At least they're not going to bomb it again." O'Neill had replied, "They'll probably try to finish the job." On the day he started at the Trade Center--August 23rd--the C.I.A. sent a cable to the F.B.I. saying that two suspected Al Qaeda terrorists were already in the country. The bureau tried to track them down, but the addresses they had given when they entered the country proved to be false, and the men were never located.

See also, an account of O'Neill's view of the mujihadeen who were regrouped by Osama bin Laden into al Qaida.


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