John O’Neill’s career in service of his country is one spent in frustration and futility. Despite valiant efforts by this sincere and hardworking law enforcement agent, the terror attacks on September 11 2001 could not be prevented. More tragically, John O’Neill himself would perish in the attack as he was then working in the World Trade Centre as a security officer.
John O’Neill has had an impressive career path covering various roles within and without the FBI. Always drawn to the allure of a special agent for the FBI, John’s first job was as a fingerprint clerk and tour guide at FBI Headquarters in Washington. He was barely twenty years old when he started out with FBI in this modest fashion. He climbed up the career ladder steadily thereafter. His appointment as the Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) in Chicago is a notable milestone. But it is the World Trade Center (WTC) bombing at Oklahoma in 1993 that would prove to be a turning point in his career. A year later he was made supervisor of VAPCON in 1994. From this point onwards John was deeply involvement in counter-terror operations for the rest of his life.
In hindsight a lot of warnings given by O’Neill have proven to be right. His fractious relationship with the FBI bosses and his own abrasive personality had created distrust or disregard for the information that he was passing on. Though a lone voice among his colleagues, he kept repeating the threat of terrorist attacks till the very end of his tenure with the FBI. In the last few years of his service, he served as the Chief of Counterterrorism Section within the FBI. Despite this critical position he held within the national intelligence apparatus his words were not given due respect. Every time an important lead would emerge,
“John would fight with Washington to make sure that we constantly took the lead on these investigations. So we would build this intelligence base, and so we would have investigators that had the institutional knowledge and that was the way it was.” (Clint Guenther, Former FBI Agent NYC – Counterterrorism)
Investigating the 911 terror attacks in retrospect, there is nothing inevitable about its occurrence. There were enough indications for the FBI to take preventative action. John O’Neill saw himself as the champion of this cause – one of saving America from a grave security threat. But, unfortunately, those around him, especially the top leaders in the FBI did not concur with O’Neill’s views. More than an odd lapse it is a systematic failure on part of the key national agency. Bureaucratic bungling and red tape have made O’Neill’s desperate attempts to communicate a challenge. Personal ego hassles between O’Neill and his peers and superiors was another mitigating factor. O’Neill’s abrasive personality rubbed off his colleagues the wrong way. As a result, the intelligence reports given out by O’Neill did not get the urgent attention that they merited. One needs to ask how personal favoritism and prejudice can undermine the high profile operations of the FBI.
John O’Neill was quite vocal and persistent about the presence of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States. John had communicated how the terror network had developed capabilities for attacking many strategic locations not just in the United States but anywhere in the world. It was O’Neill who identified Al Qaeda as the foremost threat to America -much ahead of his peers did. As his colleague Richard Clarke recounts,
“I would go around the country to FBI offices and ask, “Is there an Al Qaeda presence in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Boston?” And typically the reaction I would get is, “What’s Al Qaeda?”…But not with John. John knew what Al Qaeda was; he was among the first people to see the bin Laden threat. He believed there was a bin Laden network in the United States even if he couldn’t prove it. So he was constantly trying to prove it…” (Richard Clarke, NSS Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001)
John O’Neill had systematically and meticulously been building a case against Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He was onto this project ever since the Ramzi Yousef case. He even delved deep into the theory and history of jihad that was intrinsic to radical Islamic fundamentalism. But the sad fact is that all this impressive intelligence gathering that O’Neill had dedicated himself had not been duly appreciated. At the outset, the personal ego clashes and the red tape that had hindered information flow and suitable preventative action. But what is also to be blamed is the lackadaisical attitude of some of the FBI officers. Some of them were so out of tune with emerging reality that they were citing Hezbollah or Hamas as the most potent threat to American security. This attitude persisted even as late as the year 2000, when bin Laden was still perceived as a ‘terrorist financier’ and not a direct threat. Where John O’Neill stood out was in his ability to connect the dots and see the big picture. This much is attested by his co-worker Clint Guenther: