John Patrick O'Neill
(February 6, 1952 –
September 11, 2001)
was a top American
anti-terrorism expert, who worked as a
special agent and eventually Assistant Director in the Federal Bureau
of Investigation until late 2001. In 1995, O'Neill began
to intensely study the roots of the 1993 World Trade
Center bombing after he assisted in the capture of Ramzi Yousef, who was the leader of that
subsequently learned of al Qaeda and
Osama bin Laden, and investigated
the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing
Arabia and the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.
to personal friction he had within the FBI and federal government,
O'Neill left to become the head of security at the World Trade
Center, where he died at age 49 in the September 11, 2001
In 2002, O'Neill was the subject of a
named "The Man Who Knew."
Early life and education
was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey and had a desire to become an FBI special agent
from an early age.
As a youngster, his favorite television
show was The F.B.I.
, a crime drama
based around true cases that the
bureau had handled. After graduating from Holy Spirit High
School , he went on to college, first attending American
University in Washington,
DC in 1971.
While there, O'Neill also started
working at the FBI's Washington headquarters, first as a
fingerprint clerk and later as a tour guide. He gained a degree in
administration of justice from American University in 1974 and
later obtained a Master's degree in
forensics from George
O'Neill was hired on as an agent at the FBI in 1976. Over the next
15 years, O'Neill worked on issues such as white-collar crime
, organized crime
, and foreign counterintelligence
while based at the
Washington bureau. In 1991, O'Neill received an important
promotion and was moved to the FBI's Chicago field office where he was assistant special agent
While there, he established the Fugitive Task Force
in an effort to
promote interagency cooperation and enhance ties between the FBI
and local law enforcement. O'Neill also supervised a task force
investigating abortion clinic
Returning to the Washington headquarters in 1995, he became chief
of the counterterrorism
his first day, he received a call from Richard A. Clarke,
who had just learned that Ramzi Yousef
had been located in Pakistan.
O'Neill worked continuously over the next
few days to gather information and coordinate the successful
capture and extradition of Yousef. Intrigued by the case, O'Neill
continued to study the 1993 bombing Yousef had masterminded and
other information about Islamic militants. He was directly
involved in the investigation into the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
Frustrated by the level of cooperation from
the Saudis, O'Neill purportedly vented to FBI director Louis Freeh
, saying that they were "blowing
smoke up your ass".
In 1996 and 1997, O'Neill continued to warn of growing threats of
terrorism, saying that modern groups are not supported by
governments and that there are terrorist cells operating within the
United States. He stated that veterans of the insurgency by
against the Soviet
Union's invasion had become a major threat.
1997, he moved to the FBI's New York office, where he was one of the agents in charge of
counterterrorism and national
By 1998, O'Neill had become focused on Osama bin Laden
. When his friend Chris
Isham, a producer for ABC
, 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
that year, two United States
embassies were bombed in quick succession in Nairobi, Kenya, and
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's rise through the ranks at the bureau began to slow as his
personal style chafed others and he made a few slip-ups by losing a
bureau cell phone
and Palm Pilot
, improperly borrowing a car from a
, and losing track of a
briefcase with sensitive documents for a short period. After being
passed over for multiple promotions, O'Neill was pleased to be
assigned as commander of the FBI's investigation into the USS Cole
bombing in October 2000.
upon arriving in Yemen, he
complained about inadequate security.
As his team
investigated, O'Neill came into conflict with Barbara Bodine
, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
The two had widely divergent views on how to handle searches of
Yemeni property and interviews with citizens and government
officials, and they only grew further apart as time
After a month in Yemen, O'Neill returned to New York 20 pounds
(9 kg) lighter than when he left. He hoped to return to that
country to continue the investigation, but was blocked by Bodine
and others. He continued to investigate the Cole
but eventually decided that the FBI investigation in Yemen must be
pulled out due to inadequate security.
A New York Times
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". The Times
O'Neill was expected to retire in late August.
New job at the WTC
started his new job at the World Trade Center on August 23 2001.
(Lawrence Wright, The New
Yorker, January 14 2002) He was appointed by Kroll Associates
, namely by the managing director
. 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
World Trade Center bombing.
O'Neill replied, "They’ll probably try to
finish the job."
O'Neill's remains were recovered from the World Trade Center site
on September 22
There is extensive coverage of John O'Neill's anti-terrorist work
at the FBI and insights into his character and his private life in
the book The Looming
(2006) by Lawrence