The Man Who Knew

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11, I urge you to read up on John P. O'Neill and watch the Frontline special on him.

In my opinion, his is one of the most fascinating stories connected to the attacks. It's an inspiring case study in courage, and a somewhat distressing example of the FBI's ineptitude at the time.

He was one of the FBI's leading experts on al-Qaeda, becoming obsessed with the roots of the terror organization in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when he was part of the team that captured Ramzi Yousef, leader of that plot.

After investigating the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen, he began to ring the alarm bell, warning of the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack on U.S. soil.

His warnings bounced fruitlessly off the thick heads of the FBI top brass, a casualty of the turf wars the FBI has often been famous for.

The Wikipedia article on O'Neill describes the rift quite well:

By 1998, O'Neill had become focused on Osama bin Laden. When his friend Chris Isham, a producer for ABC News, arranged for an interview between bin Laden and correspondent John Miller, Isham and Miller used information put together by O'Neill to formulate the questions. After the interview aired, O'Neill pushed Isham hard to release an unedited version so he could carefully dissect it.

Later that year, two United States embassies were bombed in quick succession in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. O'Neill hoped to be involved in the investigation because he had gained a tremendous knowledge of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. However, turf wars and dislike of O'Neill by some superiors in Washington first meant that the FBI's New York office was left out of the investigation, and later that O'Neill was left behind when other New York–based agents were sent to the region to pick up leads.

O'Neill started his new job at the World Trade Center on August 23, 2001, just 19 days before the attacks. He was appointed by Kroll Associates, namely by the managing director Jerome Hauer. In late August, he talked to his friend Chris Isham about the job. Jokingly, Isham said, "At least they're not going to bomb it again," a reference to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. O'Neill replied, "They’ll probably try to finish the job." O'Neill was killed on the day of the attacks

A New York Times report of August 19, 2001 suggested that O'Neill had been the subject of an "internal investigation" at the FBI. The report suggested that O'Neill was responsible for losing a briefcase with "highly classified information" in it, containing among other things "a description of every counterespionage and counterterrorism program in New York". The briefcase was recovered shortly after its disappearance. The FBI investigation was reported to have concluded that the suitcase had been snatched by local thieves involved in a series of hotel robberies, and that none of the documents had been removed or even touched.

Several people came to O'Neill's defense, suggesting that he was the subject of a "smear campaign".

On the PBS page for the Frontline episode for "The Man Who Knew," his actions on 9-11 are described this way:

O'Neill is in his 34th floor office in the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into it. Among others, O'Neill calls Valerie James once he is outside the building. He asks her what hit the building and tells her, "Val, it's horrible. There are body parts everywhere." A few seconds later he tells her, "Okay, I'll call you in a little bit." O'Neill also sends a text message to Fran Townsend to report that he is okay.

In the minutes after the attack, O'Neill makes his way to the command center that had been set up. There he sees FBI agent Wesley Wong. Wong would tell Esquire magazine later, "He was in FBI mode. Then he turned and kind of looked at me and went toward the interior of the complex. From the time John walked away to the time the building collapsed was certainly not more than a half hour or 20 minutes." Wong is the last person to see him alive.

For more about O'Neill's work and character, you should check out "The Looming Tower," a 2006 book by Lawrence Wright that deals extensively with O'Neill.

His is just one of many stories from that day. A lot of people went to their deaths as heroes who ran into the buildings to help people, knowing they were in mortal danger.

But the string of coincidences that led to his date with destiny makes for one of the most compelling stories of all.

--Bill Brenner

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