The USS Cole Investigation: Yemen, October 2000

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Re: The USS Cole Investigation: Yemen, October 2000

Postby admin » Tue Apr 12, 2016 9:26 am

Interview with Mary Jo White
by pbs.org
May 2, 2002

As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993-2002, White prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 "day of terror" plot against New York landmarks, and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. In this interview she describes working on the apprehension of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and investigating the embassy and USS Cole bombings with John O'Neill. This interview was conducted on May 2, 2002.

Ms. White, would you give me a sense of the New York FBI office? ...

New York has always been -- it is still, I think -- sort of the flagship office of the FBI. Certainly in the last 10 years, it has really been involved, much more so than the other offices, in international terrorism. They obviously do every other kind of investigation of every other kind of crime, as well. But New York is a little more autonomous, I think. They are bigger. They have a lot of agents that they deploy internationally. ...

What everybody is telling me is New York was very much the cowboys, and Washington [headquarters] was very much the analysts. Before we get very specific about all kinds of other things, I'm trying to get a sense of where was John O'Neill most comfortable? Where did he belong?

... I think why John was so unique in the counterterrorism arena is that he had both the headquarters experience and the field experience. By virtue of the headquarters experience, he not only knew how his hierarchy worked; he made lots of invaluable contacts in other branches of our government in Washington -- the White House, the intelligence agencies, the Defense Department.

But also, by virtue of having been in headquarters for a number of years in the terrorism arena, and that's the security arena, he made lots of contacts all around the world with his fellows in law enforcement and in the intelligence agencies -- building a coalition, year after year after year, to call upon when he needed them; when a terrorist plot was afoot, or he was trying to get the evidence to prosecute a terrorist. He brought all that to New York when he came, which was something that had not been there to that degree before. Then he continued to build on that.

He was right about how essential these worldwide contacts were. He spent a lot of time cultivating them around the world. He would bring over to my office, the U.S. Attorney's office, these countless visitors from around the world, just to make sure we all knew each other got to know each other. Then when the occasion presented itself, we could call on that person to help out an investigation.

I think you see the fruits of that still today in a very positive way. My own view is that the world coalition in this war against terrorism is the single most important thing we have going for us. John O'Neill, probably more than anyone else, built that. It is continuing to be built and expanded. But he really was on the ground around the globe, both from his headquarters position and from his New York position.

When you first laid eyes on this character, describe the John O'Neill you saw, you met and you witnessed in action.

Confident. Very knowledgeable about terrorist groups -- all of them, not just Al Qaeda. Said all of the right things to me so that we would work together from the beginning in a partnership. You could almost see it on his face -- he wanted to get to know me as the person he was talking to, so that he could make that relationship work. We were different kinds of people, but certainly united in the main mission, which was counterterrorism. He knew that about me before he came.

I had a reputation of being fairly autonomous also, and not being afraid to rattle cages to get things done. He had that reputation, too. So when he came to New York, he wanted to try to get us both off on the right foot and not have those two cage-rattlers working at counter-purposes.

So what was the first occasion [that you dealt with O'Neill]?

He certainly was very involved, as was I, but from different spots in the apprehension and rendition of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the [1993] Trade Center bombing. But we didn't really work directly together on that. So really the first direct contact that I had with him of any consequence was after he came to New York. ...

Image
The world coalition in this terrorism war is the single most important thing we have going for us. John O'Neill, probably more than anyone else, built that.

So what would it have been?

The East Africa embassy bombing investigation. Before he himself eventually went over to Africa, he really was the person in the United States running that investigation from New York. He and I worked very closely together on that to get through whatever walls we needed to make the right contact, to get the right foreign government to allow interviews of, not only suspects, but witnesses around the world. ...

Lewis Schiliro told us that the bombings happen, and he's sitting in his office kind of wondering what's going on. Within about 20 minutes, O'Neill is in his office saying, "It's Al Qaeda. It's bin Laden." Is that the way you remember the story?

I have certainly heard that said. I'm sure it did happen, and I know from my own reaction, I had the same immediate reaction. What I did was to call both Lew Schiliro and the attorney general at the time to say that. Others were thinking it, too. But certainly, I think John O'Neill and I in particular, having been enmeshed in bin Laden and Al Qaeda, [it] was our immediate reaction. I happened to see it on a network and just [had an] instantaneous reaction, as John O'Neill had. ...

Yet Lew tells us the story that it was Director Freeh and Washington who took it first, said, "We'll get over there. We're going. You can come, Lew." But O'Neill didn't get to go for a little while, and was quite upset about it.

I think he would like to have been on the ground himself. Although, as I said earlier, he really did run that investigation -- not from the get-go, but nearly from the get-go, from New York. But he did not go over first. ...

One of the things that John O'Neill and I tried to do -- not as a matter of power, but as a matter of who knew the most -- is to get the New York folks very much leading the on-the-ground investigation, because they were the ones who knew what they were looking at, what they were hearing. They could most easily and effectively take the next steps. But it didn't begin that way, and there were some efforts that had to be applied by John and others to bring that about.

Why?

Because historically, both the FBI and actually the Justice Department have been structured [such that], when an event of terrorism occurs abroad, Washington headquarters, Washington metropolitan field office and typically the U.S. Attorney's Office of the District of Columbia will be, in effect, the jurisdiction that deals with that.

That changed in the 1990s by virtue of the fact of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and then all of the follow-on cases that occurred in New York. So you essentially had with John O'Neill the New York FBI office in New York, and the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney's office, a switch of the locus of the counterterrorism efforts, from the point of view of law enforcement. But still the structure was, when something happened abroad like this, Washington went into gear. So I think that's why. ...

I know O'Neill was chafing at the bit to get over there. Did we lose anything by waiting just a while for him, whatever it was, a couple of weeks, to get on the ground?

It was a little less than a couple of weeks before the New York folks got on the ground. I worry a little bit about that in the first week, because the New York field office of the FBI wasn't in charge until maybe two weeks into it; certainly, 10 days into it. We may have. We may have lost a little bit in those early days.

Like what?

Well, again putting together both halves of the Jell-O box to figure out we should go after this person whose name has appeared or someone has mentioned his name. If the New York agents had been running it, we might have moved a little faster. I think that's the sense that some of us had. ... One or two of the suspects -- without identifying who -- at least one of those ultimately indicted for the embassy bombings was still a fugitive. So would we have caught him if it had been different? You can't really say that, but perhaps.

How did you come to the conclusion, and when did you come to the conclusion that Al Qaeda, and especially bin Laden, was a major player in this world?

We learn more every year. I think the first time that he came up on our radar screen to any significant degree -- and it wasn't a hugely significant degree -- was the end of 1995, as someone in the terrorism arena, certainly from the financial end. It seemed like he and his organization supplied the funding for a guesthouse [where] Ramzi Yousef actually was ultimately captured in Pakistan. But really not until late in 1996, from my point of view, did it become apparent what a big force he was in world terrorism.

This is after al-Fadl in Somalia gives the road map, or before that?

No question that al-Fadl's information and his providing it to us was the big step forward.

Did you ever talk to O'Neill about when he sort of signed on and said, "The main bad guy is bin Laden?"

I think about that same time frame of late 1996 into 1997. When one looks back and now puts together all the pieces -- you know the phrase is "benefit of hindsight." But you learn more every day. ...

One of the things that John and again I shared, as it turns out, was recognizing and never letting go of the view of how dangerous bin Laden was and is. You heard in the media and elsewhere, and in some quarters, that maybe he wasn't such a big force in terrorism. You heard that as late as during the embassy bombings trial, which didn't end until May 2001, that really we had made too much of him. He wasn't as big a player as law enforcement, John O'Neill, the U.S. Attorney's office, Director Freeh, and Attorney General Reno thought he was; that really, we were making too much of him.

You don't want to raise his profile so that he has a greater following. But in terms of how major a player he was and is, John O'Neill certainly recognized that as early as anyone, and maintained that view until John died. It was very sad.

I know that there has been a controversy about Ramzi Yousef and who he really was: was he an [Iraqi] Mukhabarat agent? Was he a bin Laden guy? Could he have been both things? What was he? What have you come to be believe?

We don't know all the answers about Ramzi Yousef, and we may never know all the answers about him. ...

He is one of the most dangerous people on the planet, also very smart. We know where he was educated. We know what his degrees were in. We know something about his family. He is frighteningly bright, as are a number of the other terrorists that we have both prosecuted and are still looking for.

How important was the arrest of Ramzi Yousef and O'Neill's role in effecting that arrest?

Both critical. And by virtue of my assistants being elsewhere around the globe, I ended up being the person in our office who was dealing with the apprehension and arrest and rendition of Yousef on my end. I was very concerned that it might not happen. John shared that, too. There were things, again, I can't discuss that he made possible, keeping together that world coalition I talked about, so that [Yousef] was apprehended. All efforts were made to make certain that he was [apprehended], and then turned over to the U.S. government for trial.

Had he not been, he would have been around the globe doing other things. The story is now well known. But when he fled from the Trade Center bombing in 1993, among the places he went really right before he was apprehended in Pakistan was to the Philippines, where he was mixing the bombs to blow up 12 jumbo jets in a 48-hour period. [He] was not far away from at least attempting to carry out that plot which would have resulted in thousands of deaths in two days.

He would have continued to do that, had he not been apprehended. So getting him and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue. John O'Neill recognized that, and was not about to take no for an answer anywhere before he was taken into custody.

You knew it, as well? You knew the importance of this?

Yes. Absolutely.

Yet the O'Neill you're talking about is not the O'Neill of four years later, who has had plenty of time to get to know all of these people in the world of counterterrorism. He is a guy who is fresh to the job from VAPCON, from whatever it was he was doing before that.

But very much a "will not take 'no' for an answer." Very intelligent, quick study, had elbows. I liked that. I recognized -- really, in very short order from what he was being told by others who had been with it longer -- what a danger it was to have Yousef walking around the globe. [O'Neill] wasn't going to let anything stand in his way, if he could help it, of seeing to it that that didn't happen. ...

I know he was ambitious. We talked to his son last night, who said the guy was like burning ambition. Everybody we've talked to said he was burning with ambition, and why not? He's a smart guy in an important job. That he came to New York, because those elbows weren't working in the world of the Washington bureaucracy. This was really the next step, and it was really important for him to be here. Your take on that?

I think John's goal was to be head of the New York office. He needed to come to the New York office to do that. In terms of whether his elbows were too sharp for Washington, I actually hadn't heard that, but it wouldn't surprise me either. He very much wanted to come to New York with the aspiration to be the assistant director in charge of the New York office, which he regarded as the most important FBI post. So he certainly had that ambition. I think in his own mind, he knew he had to come to New York, if that were to even possibly be in the cards for him. ...

But he cut a kind of profile, as I understand it, that was different than a lot of the FBI agents, certainly that I've ever known over the last 20 years or so. He did not look like the cardboard cutout G-man, right?

Right. More elbows, more imposing in some ways. I think the fact that he did in order to make this contacts have what appeared to be a social life, too, is very unlike FBI, very unlike New York FBI, certainly. So he was different in that way. Again, that worked to his advantage a lot of the time. Sometimes it didn't, because people would say, "What's he up to, and is this really the way to go about it?" But I think from his point of view, and from what I could see, it was very effective. When he needed something to do his job well, he wanted the right person to want to do it, to help him do it. ...

What actually did O'Neill and the FBI office yield for you from the East Africa bombings? What came forward that was important in this fight on terrorism?

I can't overstate it. First, four of bin Laden's followers have been convicted and put in jail for the rest of their lives as a result of what John O'Neill and the FBI did. Another 20 have been identified and indicted as part of the Al Qaeda network, broadly defined. They are defendants and fugitives in that case. We have had information that we never had before as a result of those prosecutions, made possible by the work of John O'Neill and the FBI.

If you look at the indictment in that case, it was the road map for the military, in many ways, when we did respond after the Sept. 11 attacks. It defined the Al Qaeda organization; its structure, many of its players; certainly many, if not nearly all in the leadership of Al Qaeda. We know who to look for, how they operated, where they operated, in terms of the training camps. Most of that information came out of -- again, it's a joint effort. It's not just the FBI or John O'Neill or the New York FBI. But it's also our intelligence agencies working with the FBI.

But it kind of came to a point in the embassy bombing investigation and prosecutions. As I say, if you look at the indictment, you see what we at least used as the blueprint to know what to do after Sept. 11.

How awesome and frightening was it to you that these two things could go off four minutes apart? By then, and in the process of the prosecution, you discovered the size, scope, nature and orientation of Al Qaeda?

The fact that they were simultaneous bombings was quite significant and very alarming, in terms of what it said about the sophistication, the danger, the possible scope of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The 1993 Trade Center bombing was obviously frightening. It could have been much worse than it was.

But both that case and the players in it -- at least that we had identified and prosecuted -- as well as what I call the follow-on plot and the "Day of Terror" plot headed by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and the dozen defendants convicted for that plot -- which was the plot to blow up the bridges and the tunnels between New York and New Jersey, the FBI building and the UN building -- obviously a very frightening plot. But the players and the operatives in the 1993 Trade Center bombing and in the Day of Terror plot, as dangerous as they are, were not evidence of this level of sophistication and planning. ...

So then you all must know the millennium is coming; the change of century, Times Square. From your perspective, does it feel like a kind of clock is ticking, a fuse has been lit, as we approach that time period?

Absolutely. I think that was a shared view certainly by John O'Neill and many in our government that were closest to this. ...

The millennium -- not only because of what that represented symbolically, which, again, raises its danger value tremendously but also because of intelligence we were getting throughout our government -- had us all extremely concerned.

Ahmed Ressam, who fortunately called attention to himself coming across from Canada to Seattle with a bomb to blow up the LA airport, was part of that. Arrests were made in Jordan that ... had they not been uncovered, the plot had not been uncovered, and those arrests made, we could have had terrific tragedies around the millennium.

When those of us who don't know very much about how this business works hear about a Ressam or hear about this or that we say to ourselves, "My God, they must be everywhere. There must be all kinds of things. There must be some kind of luck, isn't it? Thank God we had a kind of lucky break on this." But is it really as deep and as broad? Is it only that, or is it deeper and broader than that? What would you say about that?

Again, before Sept. 11, a lot of plots that none of us know about -- well, some of us know about, but the public doesn't know about -- have been thwarted, sometimes by luck. The Ramzi Yousef plot from the Philippines, thank goodness, there was a fire there; Ressam perhaps calling suspicion to himself, although you also had a very alert Customs agent there. But a lot of plots are thwarted by intelligence and law enforcement behind the scenes. So that has been going on for a while, and successfully so, but with no one thinking ever that we can stop them all either before 9/11 or after 9/11.

In terms of the breadth of the threat of Al Qaeda itself -- it's not the only terrorist organization, and it works with others as cells around the world in at least 60 countries. You potentially are talking about tens of thousands of followers who can be conscripted into service to carry out a terrorist plot. So you can't have a more serious situation than that.

I have this image of O'Neill. His son talks about the fact that, at home, he didn't have videotapes of old movies or anything. He had videotapes of bin Laden speeches and bin Laden moments and bin Laden training tapes, and his father used to watch them all of the time. Were you all becoming -- the word "obsessed" is not the right word -- but focused by him, in a big way, by then?

I think "obsessed" is perhaps the right word; very concerned. Very concerned about not the "if," but the "where, when, and what." Would it be future attacks? John O'Neill certainly lived and breathed that 24/7, as we would say, as did some of the rest of us, as well.

You're constantly trying to put more pieces together, so that you could learn more, stop more, prevent more, but clearly knowing -- and I think John O'Neill said it certainly before Sept. 11 -- we're due for a big one, and very worried about that. When you're as worried about that level of risk and danger, as he was, and we were, you spend most of your waking hours -- and most of your hours are waking -- worrying about that, and trying to learn more.

So obsessed is probably the right word. But obsessed for a very good and real reason, not beyond what the facts and the circumstances or the danger should have had us all doing.

Did he ever indicate to you that he was frustrated at his inability to convince others of the importance of this?

From time to time. But clearly a lot of people within the FBI and within our government did recognize how dangerous the risk was, and were working hand in glove with John and others on that risk and trying to learn more. But occasionally he would express, "They don't seem to get it," without any specificity.

But for the most part, I think our government did grasp pretty early on, partly because John educated them about how serious the risk was. But no one I can think of breathed it, lived it, breathed it, worried about it more than John O'Neill.

There is this sense that certainly, from what I've read, speeches he's given, people I've talked to that he believed earlier than many and couldn't really convince as many people as he felt he needed to that Al Qaeda was here, that there were the sleeper cells in the United States, that we really needed to focus on getting these people in the United States -- that this was not some plot from Afghanistan or someplace. Is that your memory of it?

To an extent. But again, I wouldn't isolate it to sleeper cells in the United States. This is a global problem, a global risk. A lot was occurring from abroad, and not in the United States. I think John recognized that. What he wanted to be sure of is that everybody realized it could also be occurring in the United States. So whenever anyone flipped up on the radar screen of interest, we should pursue them very vigorously, even if major portions of the plot were being directed from abroad, which I think he recognized, too.

Again, if ever he confronted anyone who he thought was not taking this seriously enough, he would rattle that cage and make a believer of them. ...

Did it surprise you that he left the FBI?

No. In one sense, he obviously was getting toward the senior end of his career, and to the extent that he was not advancing in the immediate term. He always was going to go into the private sector, and he adopted and loved New York City. He had a very attractive opportunity with the Trade Center. So that, plus that he wasn't achieving at least imminently his life's dream to head the New York FBI office -- it didn't surprise me that he left when he did. ...

There is this sense that some people have articulated to us that, if you are arresting people in the process of prosecuting, in effect what you're doing is letting other terrorists go to school on our methods, on our intelligence-gathering methods, on our other things. Was this kind of a problem of his period, in the sense that we may have helped others in the terror world with our prosecutions of these kind of lower-level characters?

First thing, we prosecuted at all levels; some lower level, some not. There is always a risk there, still, that through our criminal justice system, by virtue of our rules, we have to turn over certain what are called "discover" materials to the defense. That can include very sensitive intelligence sources of information that you would rather not turn over.

Having said that, I think -- and I think it's nearly the unanimous view, if not the unanimous view -- that we managed in all of those prosecutions to safeguard national security information and intelligence sources by getting protective orders from the court. [Those orders] would allow us not to turn over certain information, or to turn it over in a way that was not troubling, from an educational point of view.

But it's a constant concern. We may not be as successful in the next case or the next one, which is why I think the military tribunals that haven't been used yet, and may not be, offer distinct advantages in that way. ...

The other thing the prosecutions do that people forget sometimes is the intelligence that they give to us, from cooperating defendants' materials that you get when you do searches. That helps us prevent future attacks. But there is no one-size-fits all. There is no silver bullet in this war.

When Sept. 11 happened, when did you hear about John O'Neill's death? Where were you?

I heard on Sept. 11. I was in really constant contact with Barry Mawn, the head of the New York office, from 30 seconds after the first plane hit, for about six weeks. I was in the command post with the FBI for about that period of time.

Some time during Sept. 11, pretty early on, everyone at the bureau and therefore I was privy to it, was very concerned that he had died in the Trade Center. As is known, he had made phone calls to his son and friends and the New York FBI office between the two planes, or between the collapse of the towers. But someone saw him go back into the tower, and then no one heard from him again. So the concern was almost immediate that he had died.

Within certainly 48 hours, I think everyone had really not expressed it, but had given up hope that he had survived. We knew he would get in touch with his son and his colleagues and his family if he conceivably could have. If anybody conceivably could have even if buried in the rubble, he would have found a way. So I think within 48 hours, the reality really hit.

In some ways, the reality didn't hit or hit differently when his body was found, which was some days later. Then it had an impact that's hard to describe on everybody. The irony of it -- here is this man who was the champion of our counterterrorism efforts, the unsung hero in leading those efforts. One week into the job at the World Trade Center as the director of operations, and he dies in the worst terrorist attack that there has ever been, but by the same people he has been so effective in finding out and investigating and helping prevent other attacks.

The Trade Center itself held, and holds a special place, I think, in the hearts and minds of people in law enforcement -- the fact that it did not fall in 1993. Ramzi Yousef's goal was to topple the twin towers into each other so that more people died than had died at Hiroshima. The fact that he didn't succeed in that meant an awful lot to John O'Neill and all of us in law enforcement -- not in an arrogant way, but in a special way.

When we would see the Trade Center and the towers standing still, including on the morning of Sept. 11 in that very clear blue sky, it gave us a very special positive feeling. So that it was the Trade Center John was in and died in and that he was in charge of the security of -- how do you describe the irony and the depth of feeling, because it was there and because he was there? It really is impossible to describe. It's something that none of us who knew him certainly will ever, ever get over or ever forget. ...

Did you ever think it was kind of personal between O'Neill and Osama bin Laden or about Osama bin Laden?

I think it as personal between John O'Neill and every terrorist. He loved this country; a patriot, [he] loved the FBI. Anybody who fell into the category of terrorist, let alone a terrorist leader like bin Laden, John had only one view of: evil.

Sometimes, it's sort of a thought, possibly, that we missed something; we ignored the lessons from your prosecutions, that we didn't connect the dots well enough. Was there a possibility that, if we had connected the dots better, the dots that O'Neill and you guys are dealing with all of the time, that things would be different?

You ask every conceivable question after Sept. 11, in terms of what more could have been done, what could have been done differently. My impression from working on these cases and investigations for almost nine years was that an awful lot of people were working over time to connect dots. A lot of dots were connected, therefore a lot of plots were thwarted. A lot of attacks did not happen.

But I will never know the answer to that completely -- whether more could have been done, something different could have been done. Certainly John O'Neill did everything in his power to see to it that, not only did he do everything that could be done, but that everyone else around him or near him did. ...

The only other thing I can think of that we didn't talk about is Yemen. The obstacles he hit, the Cole -- what was that all about?

My sense in Yemen, to the extent I can talk about it, is that it was a difficult relationship, although it improved over time with the Yemeni officials, unlike Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam after the East Africa embassy bombings, where you had a model of almost instantaneous cooperation. That was not the situation on the ground in Yemen. So it was a harder nut to crack in that way, in terms of getting full access to witnesses and so forth.

I think there is no question that the State Department had a different view of what was necessary to do, and how to go about it, than John O'Neill did. So it was a difficult situation from beginning to end, where people were not in agreement as to how best to break through the barriers that were there.

But John gained the respect, and he was on the ground over there for a substantial period of time. He gained the respect gradually of the president of the highest government officials over there, and we've seen the fruits of those relationships -- and we still are. After Sept. 11, the cooperation improved even more, and that has been explicitly attributed to their respect for John O'Neill and the fact that he died.

But I have this sense -- tell me if I'm wrong about this, because of course there were many reasons why Sept. 11 happened and it was complicated. But some of O'Neill's own, as you say euphemistically, the "sharp elbow" quality -- is it as simple in Yemen as the fact that Ambassador Bodine did not like John and John didn't like her, and they just didn't connect in some way? And yes, there were other issues, but his personality [and] her personality yielded an impasse?

I don't think personalities meshed. But I think the difficulties went far beyond that. It was difficult, irrespective of how that relationship would have been. And no question, there were some differences -- as there typically can be -- in points of view between our diplomatic side of the brain and our law enforcement side of the brain. I think that certainly was present in Yemen.

But it would be over-simplifying to really a significant degree to say it was a personality clash that was the problem over there. There was an element of that, but the problem went much deeper. It involved earning the confidence of the Yemeni authorities, too, which is still an ongoing process.

[There are people] who say maybe John O'Neill harmed the effort more than he helped it. To those people you say again it's not that simple?

No, I say not a chance they're right. His elbows made more things happen, not fewer things happen. That's not to say that, as to a particular individual, he might not have been more successful getting their cooperation with a different approach. But in the long term and across the board, he needed those elbows, and I'm glad he had them.

So it is really laying way too much on the personality on the other side, the clay feet, the Achilles heel of anybody, to say this is all about we missed because John O'Neill wasn't a classic G-man?

Absolutely wrong. Again, he is one of the biggest unsung heroes in our counterterrorism efforts, and he accomplished as much, if not more, than anybody in safeguarding it.
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Re: The USS Cole Investigation: Yemen, October 2000

Postby admin » Tue Apr 12, 2016 9:26 am

Interview with Clint Guenther
by pbs.org
June 28, 2002

Guenther was an FBI agent in the New York office for 22 years. He worked under John O'Neill in the counterterrorism division. In this interview he describes the problems O'Neill encountered in Yemen while investigating the bombing of the USS Cole. This interview was conducted on June 28, 2002.

Explain who John O'Neill is. What kind of guy was he?

That's a difficult question. But I would say John O'Neill probably should have been a leprechaun, because he always had that little bit of impishness about him. There was always that little twinkle in his eye that kind of indicated that he was about some mischief. But that was really him.

He was a good, fun-loving, hard-working person. He loved the people he worked with. He was what I would consider an agent's supervisor. His people loved him. At times, they could hate him, too, but there was always that love relationship there with him, because he always stood by his people. He was the type of person who didn't administer from behind a desk. He wanted to be out with the troops. If there was a hot investigation going, he wanted to be out there managing out and assisting in any way he possibly could. He was a perfectionist. He didn't like anybody that didn't want to go the full measure. He wanted to make sure that you did your job to the utmost.

I think that the one thing that he feared more than anything -- especially in the game of the war on terrorism -- was that we would make some mistake that would cost us dearly. I guess that came to fruition with the World Trade Center. It wasn't because we made any mistakes; just we were not able to get the information in time and do anything with it. But John always feared that somehow we would miss something. He would be after his investigators to make sure they covered every base and he would leave no stone unturned. Woe be you if you failed to cover everything.

What would happen? Tell me that side of the John O'Neill.

There was the dark side of John. He was a fiery Irishman and he would go after you with full measure. He'd just dress you down and start firing questions at you. "Why didn't you do this? How come this wasn't done? How come you didn't cover this?" But he didn't hold grudges. He would move on, as long as he realized that you realized your mistakes and went back and made the corrections.

So John always said that, in his career, "I've never hurt anybody." I think that's true that he never tried to hurt anybody in his career in order to move up in his career. Even though people may have made mistakes and he may not have like the way they'd done things, he never tried to intentionally hurt anybody.

A lot of people say he was equally as hard on people that worked for him, people that he worked for, and on himself. What was that about John O'Neill?

Well, some people would say he was a tyrant, but I don't think that was the case. I think that he had values and he was dedicated to those values. He didn't want people above him trying to tell him how he was going to run his investigations.

He would work hand in glove with his superiors. But he was adamant about the way he thought things should be done, and unless somebody could prove to the contrary, he was going to take that road. I think that's where he possibly ran into a lot of problems with his superiors. With people that worked for him, he expected the same excellence that he expected from himself, and everybody that worked for him knew that. You either marched that line or you'd find yourself somewhere else.

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He was the type of person who didn't administer from behind a desk. He wanted to be out with the troops.

How did you meet him? What was your first impression?

... I'd heard stories about him, but I'd never seen him before. I kind of thought he was kind of a dandy. He was impeccably dressed. His fingernails were polished. His hair was smoothed back. A bunch of us started to call him the "Prince of Darkness." He was always in dark suits and starched white shirts. ...

He liked being dapper. He liked being out in high society. He liked his favorite bar, Elaine's, where he could hold court and be with people that he enjoyed being with. I guess that was part of that mystique that he liked having about himself. ...

The nightlife, the hanging out at Elaine's, how did that tie in to work?

He had the opportunity to meet with a lot of people. He did a lot of networking while he was in the social scene. If he had people coming in from other agencies or other countries, he would introduce them to this scene. They could feel free to talk and deal with a lot of the problems that they may be having in working together, and iron these things out more on a social level.

He made people feel very comfortable that way. It wasn't, "I'll only deal with you in my office setting." He liked taking people out. I think he felt that that's where he got more accomplished, because that's where people relaxed and got to know one another a little bit better.

So he got it in the way that he understood how people dealt with each other. He thought the job he was doing was a bigger thing than any bureaucrat could really sort of--

You know, the definition of an FBI agent is you're an agent 24 hours a day, and John fully believed that. He utilized his 24 hours as best he could to do as much of that job as he could. ...

So John O'Neill comes to town in, I guess, January 1997. How does he view the job at that point?

I think his view was that he wanted to try to get away from being only a reactive entity and start to be more proactive; on investigations, try to develop assets or sources within these various groups so we could start to develop a better intelligence base as to what was going on and try to get ahead of the power curve. I think his real goal was to try to make that happen.

This is domestic?

Both domestically and internationally. He realized that there was probably going to be some sort of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations having the operational base in this country. And we didn't have very good relations, or we hadn't developed good sources within that community, where we could start to understand what was going on in the various Muslim communities. ...

He developed good working relationships with intelligence agencies in other countries like Great Britain, a lot of the Middle Eastern countries. He worked very hard at making sure that they knew exactly who he was and how he wanted to fight this. He wanted to make it a team effort. ...

Did he get this before a lot of others? Was he on to this really quick and perhaps dragging other people along?

He knew full well that this was something that was mammoth in size. He knew that it was only a matter of time before something like the World Trade Center was going to happen. He had no way of knowing it was going to be the World Trade Center again.

But he knew that this Al Qaeda network was preparing to do some more devastating operations. He tried as hard as he could, with the resources he had, and tried to identify what was going to happen. But, again, there just weren't enough resources. The intelligence was not coming in to give him that opportunity to get a grasp on what was going on.

One of the things Dick Clarke told us was that, early on, he got the fact of the danger of there being domestic cells of Al Qaeda and fundamentalists being in the country, while the FBI and the rest of the world didn't believe it. The official line was that it wasn't a possibility. Was that true? If that was the case, what was his thought?

Yes. That was true. He fully believed that they had moved in and had cells here for a long time. On a daily basis, we were coming up with information that kind of leaned towards the fact that groups were coming in from various parts of the world. We couldn't really find out what they were about, but we could see movements of groups into this country. ...

Bin Laden -- how personal a fight was this? Did he personalize the fight?

... I think what he realized is you have to know your enemy in order to be able to fight him well. I don't think that he was personalizing anything. He just realized that he really needed to know and understand this man's thoughts, his ideologies, and where he thought bin Laden would be looking and moving next. He was very academic about that. ...

Take us on sort of the trip here over the years, where a bit of information would come in and then another piece, then another piece; where John O'Neill and all of you sort of started understanding the full threat that bin Laden and Al Qaeda represented. What were the first clues, and then what were the puzzle pieces that started falling into place?

Initially when all of these incidents began happening, probably the consensus was that most of these incidents were unrelated; that they were an Islamic terrorist group, but they may be a cell of some type. But under John's investigative leadership, I think he realized what was going on here. He pressed his investigators to try to look for the ties, look for any connectivity between these organizations.

I'm speaking now of the Khobar Towers attacks, the embassy bombings, the Manila air terrorism attempts. In getting out there, sending his people actually out to these various countries and working with the local law enforcement and local intelligence agencies, we started to see the picture of, even if there were loosely associated groups, there sometimes was some connectivity on back to a larger picture. This larger picture turned out to be Al Qaeda.

It sounds like the essential greatness of John O'Neill is that he was a storehouse for all this information. He was good at three-dimensional chess and he was able to complete the pictures and see where the connections were. Aren't there a lot of people like that in the FBI? Or was he something special?

No. I think John realized or started to see the big picture and he started to see the connectivity, since his investigative team had been the first to investigate a lot of these cases. The Washington field office had also been involved in some of these investigations, but John was able to get process on a lot of these people, including bin Laden early on. Because of that, every time an incident thereafter occurred, 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. New York agents had the most knowledge out there on these groups.

Why is that important?

It's important because then you don't have to go back and reinvent the wheel. We didn't have, and still don't have, the databases that we really need to do the job. Until those databases are in place, it's going to be very hard for an investigative team, say, from Los Angeles or Miami or anywhere else to grab ahold of one of these cases and be up to speed right away. It's the group and the grassroots -- those investigators who you send out there who've seen the picture before. Once they hear a name, they know the relationship that he has with all the other loosely affiliated groups.

So it sounds like a John O'Neill was the perfect guy to have working for you in Yemen and the perfect guy to be in East Africa?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. He was a man that kind of thrived on crisis. He could walk into a crisis situation and make everybody there feel very, very comfortable. They immediately recognized his presence, his leadership, his command, and readily accepted it and followed it.

Was he ever frustrated by Washington not getting the fact that New York had this ability, or was he ever frustrated by inaction or inactivity or not moving along quickly enough? What were John O'Neill's frustrations?

All of those. Yes, John was frustrated when he got into those parochial firefights as to who was going to be in control or how things were going to be done. John was very aggressive. He stepped to the plate anytime there was a major crisis and was willing to carry the battle flag. ...

With the Cole investigation, that attack occurred, I think, 11:20 in the morning Yemen time, which would have been about 3:00 in the morning New York time. By the time we realized what was happening, 6:30-7:00 in the morning, that it was another terrorist attack, that it very well could be something perpetrated by the bin Laden group, John immediately seized on the opportunity to say, "New York should have the team going." ...

I was the team leader of the rapid deployment team in New York. "Get out people ready. Get our equipment ready. We're going." That was like 7:00 in the morning.

So throughout the day, I'm moving to get our people identified, who they're going to be in the various components and get them suited up and ready to go. John spent the remainder of the day fighting with headquarters in Washington about the fact that Washington wanted to send the Washington field office, their rapid deployment team. So those folks were going through the same process of standing up, getting their people and their resources together. This food fight went on all day long.

It wasn't until later in the afternoon when O'Neill was able to convince FBI headquarters that, yes, there was intelligence out there prior to the event from bin Laden's organization that, yes, they were going to attack a U.S. ship in such a manner. They finally relented and said, "OK, if it's a bin Laden event, it should be New York."

But by that time, the aircraft had been delegated to fly to Washington. The Washington investigators had already taken their equipment and loaded on all of the Washington headquarters people and the hostage rescue team, and everything else. In the final analysis, the plane took off with only maybe four or five New York investigators on board. That was at 4:00 in the morning, more than 24 hours after the event occurred.

Those types of things frustrated John O'Neill. John O'Neill would have wanted to have been out the door within hours after the event and on his way. He was delegated as the on-scene commander, and readily accepted that task and wanted to move forward. But again, he didn't leave to start moving towards Yemen until 2:00 the following afternoon. ...

The effects of the figuring out who, what office was going to be in control? What were the effects on the investigation? Were there detrimental effects?

Well, I'm sure there were. It bogged down the ability of our rapid deployment team being able to move forward on a timely basis. By the time we were able to get our investigative component, our security components, all of our other technical people out, they were only able to go as far as Germany and then we ran into problems.

Mr. O'Neill ran into problems with the Madame Ambassador, Barbara Bodine, in Yemen. By the time we got the New York people as far as Germany, the ambassador determined that she was not going to allow any more FBI personnel or investigators into her country, because she felt that it was a small invasion that was occurring. I don't think she ever realized what was needed to conduct one of these investigations. I don't think that she realized the severity of the incident. So she made a determination that there would be no more FBI personnel or FBI investigative support personnel into the country until she determined how many people should actually be there. ...

Do you remember his first phone call back to you where he mentioned Bodine and what his reaction to all this was?

One of his first calls back where you knew that he was having problems with the ambassador was when he had gotten his people into Aden and realized that there were no facilities available for them to stay. There was no hotel available. A lot of other government agencies had sent people over there. A lot of intelligence groups had sent people, and there was absolutely no place for FBI personnel to stay. The ambassador basically just said, "Let them sleep on the floor in the ballroom, because we're not finding additional facilities for them."

And John, being a guy who always took care of his troops was just incensed that she would not try to find some sort of accommodations so that he could make his people as comfortable as possible also. Right then and there, you knew that there was going to be strife between the two, because John was going to take care of his people, and he was going to do everything he possible could to make sure that they had what they needed to conduct their investigation. ...

So what was the next problem with Bodine?

The next thing with her was guns, weapons. She couldn't understand why our personnel needed to be armed. She wanted the weapons sent out of the country immediately. As a matter of fact, I think she even commanded that they turn in their weapons the next military flight that came through, they would all be shuttled out of the country. John wouldn't stand for that. He stood his ground on that and did win the fight.

The next battle that I recall that they had was over manpower. The ambassador decided that there were absolutely too many people involved in this investigation. She made an arbitrary decision as to how many she thought that O'Neill would need to conduct his investigation. If memory serves me right, I think 27 was the number or something like that. She came up with this number. I don't know how she derived that number, but she did.

Therefore, John was only allowed to have 27 people in the country at a time and, if he wanted to bring in, say, five additional specialized investigators, well then five people would have to leave. This became impossible for John O'Neill to comprehend, because he wanted his people there. He wanted them there now. He didn't want to have to give up people. He didn't want to give up security personnel in order to bring investigators in. But that's what she was forcing him to do was to make these compromises and he was incensed by that.

So what did he do?

He did learn to play her game to some degree. Every time he wanted to try to get some personnel in, they would be in negotiations to try to say, "Well, I can't lose five people. Can I send out three people for the five?" Depending on any given day or argument, he would win certain concessions. That's the way he had to play the game.

So what was this doing to the investigation?

It was bogging it down. I mean, surely we could've used all the manpower. It would've helped to have had as many people as possible early on. It would have benefited her also, because we could've gotten accomplished what needed to be done as far as evidence recovery, going over the crime scene, and moving on. ...

Tell me about the phone call that he was talking about with his dealing with the ambassador.

It was sometime early on in his stay over there. But it was after he had several encounters with Madame Ambassador that he called back one time and I got him on the phone. I think we were getting ready to do a conference call. He says in the impish way that he could have, "Clint. I have tried everything in my power to win this woman over with my O'Neill charm, but it just isn't working. I don't understand this." So he laughed at himself and went on.

That was the way it was. I don't think that he ever hated the woman or had any real dislike for her. He just couldn't understand why he couldn't get her to see his way and to deal with him.

And it got worse. Eventually, he can't get back into the country?

Yes. Eventually it did get worse. It was in July when we had extracted our people from Yemen due to threats that we had received. The threats were serious threats against the team while it was in Aden. We had been able to extract them from Aden up to Sana, which is the capital.

That was another problem that he had with the ambassador. John wanted his people moved. He wanted them moved immediately because he took this threat as being real, and so he says, "We need to get an aircraft, get in there, and pick these people up." I think there were probably about 18 FBI personnel, and then I think we had something like a 20-man Marine force protection group with us. So the closest possible aircraft that we would have would be military.

When we started to line up military aircraft to come in to pick them up, the ambassador said, "No. No military aircraft allowed in. You'll have to have your people leave via commercial air out of Yemen," which would have taken days to get two or three or four people out on each flight. There was only maybe two or three flights leaving a day. Again, John just was beside himself as to why she wouldn't allow the military aircraft to come in and take everybody en masse.

Finally, she conceded that military aircraft would be able to fly in. I think it came in from Dubai or somewhere close, picked up the entire [group] and all of our equipment, moved the entire operation out of Aden and up to Sana.

Once they arrived there, the ambassador said the military force protection group will no longer be needed especially here in Sana, because everything is safe here. So she refused to let them off the military aircraft, and ordered the military aircraft out of the country as quickly as everybody could disembark.

Once again, John tried to fight that issue, thinking that he wanted that military force protection unit to continue with our investigators. He lost that battle. ...

To some extent, perhaps headquarters helped or didn't help enough in clearing it up and standing behind John O'Neill?

I think the stance in Washington at all levels was that Ms. Bodine was coming to the end of her tenure over there and would be rotating out in August of last year anyway, so let's just let it flow and have the transition occur normally. That didn't help O'Neill's case at all, because there was still a lot of investigative time between present, when they were having the problems, and when she was going to be leaving.

From that time we landed our people in Sana and started to set up an investigative stance there, starting with work with local law enforcement in the capital, it went for several weeks. Then the intelligence again started coming that the same group that had been targeting our team in Aden was now targeting us again in Sana. At that point in time, since all our investigative team was staying in a hotel, not on the embassy compound itself, we felt that we weren't going to be able to give them the protection that they would need.

So it was decided that we would pull the entire investigative team out until such time as things settled down and we could figure out a way to provide better protection to the team when it re-entered the country.

They were out for months?

They were out for a month or a little bit more than a month. Probably around July that we started focusing on coming up with a plan and working with the embassy over there to try to establish a reentry. That's when John said, "Well, I'll go over and sit down with the ambassador and we'll work out the details," and she denied him entry into the country.

John kind of wore that as, I think, a badge of some type. He was very amused that it was determined that he was persona non grata. He never got furious over it. He was kind of tickled by it.

If there had been full cooperation with the embassy, do you think the FBI would have pulled the investigators out?

No. I don't think that they would have. I think maybe any other ambassador probably would have allowed that force protection Marine unit to stay with the investigators. Probably we could've found accommodations closer to the embassy where we would be able to set up a better protective perimeter. I don't think he would've moved out.

But we were operating with three SWAT personnel as our only support as far as security goes, and an open hotel just wasn't going to work. We couldn't provide protection for our people. We just decided it was better to regroup and rethink this thing.

Now we know the connections. There were connections between some of the individuals there, the Malaysian meetings, and some of the hijackers. There were dots to be connected. What did we lose by, months before 9/11, having to pull out the best people to investigate the case, having to pull them out of Yemen?

That's hard to say, what we lost. We could've lost a lot. We could've lost the intelligence that could've connected that dot to the World Trade Center. I don't know that to be a fact, but a lot of the Al Qaeda people are coming out of Yemen. A lot of the Yemenis are involved. I think if we could have had better investigative effort over there, had been able to build the confidence of the local law enforcement, we may have been able to find people, interrogate them, and get a lot more intelligence that would have shown us something going on.

I think we'll never know whether it would have made the difference over there, but I know that when the team did go back in, by that time there was a new ambassador in place, and the working relationship was vastly improved. That investigative team remained in the country from the end of August until mid-November, and they accomplished a lot while they were there. ...

Did there ever come a point in Yemen where John sort of said to you, "Game's over here. There's things to be done, but we just can't do it. It's just impossible." Did he ever come to a point where he just sort of threw his hands up?

No, John wasn't the type of person to throw up his hands. No, he could become frustrated, but he would just attack the problem from another angle. As long as that investigation was still there and still needed to be conducted, he was going to find ways to do it. He'd work around the obstructions that were there.

In Yemen, in the investigation, what was happening? How was the relationship beyond all the politics of it all? How was he doing as far as his connections with the Yemeni officials? What were the frustrations there?

The frustrations there were, again, they were sandbagging him to some degree. They had made arrests and they would not allow him to have his team have access to these people to talk to them. Every inch of the way of the investigation was negotiations to try to get them to understand what we needed -- that we needed to interview witnesses or we needed to talk to these people that had been apprehended to try to see if our investigation was in line with their internal investigation. ...

So John did a lot of diplomatic work in getting these folks to understand what we're about and how we were trying to approach this. He brought a couple of the top investigators over to this country and took them down to Washington and let them see what our operation was, how we processed evidence and the whole mechanism of what we went through in order to conduct an investigation. He tried to provide them with equipment that they may need, equipment and training. On several occasions, we sent people over to Yemen to give them the specific blocks of instruction that would help them with their investigations. So John was about teamwork and partnerships.

Was the O'Neill charm working here? Was he winning this battle?

I think he was winning that battle. Yes, I do. Again, when he brought them to this country, it was rounds of meetings and sit-downs, but then, "Let's go out to dinner. Let's take the conversation into a social setting and a more relaxed environment." The reports that I had heard was that they enjoyed themselves and a lot was accomplished through this approach. ...

Let's talk about the millennium a little bit. What was the feeling around the office at the point? The millennium was coming up and the red flags were up. What was John O'Neill thinking? What was going on?

With the millennium coming, we started to focus or re-focus on New York City itself, knowing full well that we had a lot of large events that were going to be happening, especially Times Square on New Year's Eve. Then a lot of threats started coming in locally. This caused most of our domestic terrorism people to be focused within the division. But John also knew that. His antenna was up by this time, knowing that the millennium really was something that he thought that they were going to be focusing on. His thoughts were really, "What did they mean by the millennium?"

Of course we meant as soon as we went from 1999 to 2000, we considered that to be the millennium. But John never really thought that that's the way that the extremists were thinking. He thought more down the road that 2001 might be what they considered to be the millennium. So even after we were able to successfully get through the 2000 New Year's Eve festivities, he never stopped thinking about the fact that they were probably still going to do something. ...

What were his frustrations, though, around the millennium time?

Well, he's feeling frustrated over the fact that he doesn't have enough manpower to cover everything that he possibly thinks may be important to cover. We had so many threats that were coming in. Most of them were unfounded threats, but John wouldn't let you just walk away from them. Whether they be unfounded or not, whether you thought up front they were unfounded, it didn't make any difference. He wanted you to give that threat the same level investigation that you'd give something you thought was a serious threat. It became a situation where you couldn't cover everything, although you were required to.

Tell me about the telephone. Tell me about how he operated.

Well, John always had at least two telephones on him. He had a Nextel Worldphone, which was an FBI-issued phone, and he always carried his own personal little Motorola StarTAC. He spent probably more time on that phone than he did on any other. I think that he felt that, if he was under scrutiny by his superiors, he didn't want anybody misconstruing what any of his phone calls were. Even if a lot of them may have been or could have been established to be business-related phone calls, he didn't want anybody questioning them. So he'd always pick up his own phone and make his phone calls that way, and pay his bill and probably wrote it off as a tax deal at the end.

But he spent an inordinate amount of time on that little phone. It seemed to be, like, affixed to his ear. I remember one time that we had the Royal Canadian Mounted Police down for a week-long meeting on our efforts with the Egypt Air disaster and TWA 800. They were investigating the SwissAir 101 disaster up in Nova Scotia. So we had a week-long working seminar with these folks, exchanging ideas and investigative techniques. At the end John decided that we were going to take the RCMP guys out to dinner, and he was going to take them to a steakhouse out of town. We were all supposed to meet at, say, 6:00, and we're all standing there at the bar. John shows up punctually at 6:00 also.

But he's standing out on the street, and here he's got this StarTAC glued to his ear, pacing back and forth. It was an hour and a half that everybody waited for John O'Neill to get off that telephone, because it was just one call after another, of receiving or sending calls out. But he had to get all that business out of the way, and we all just obediently sat there and waited for him. But then he came in and he was at the top of his game, really happy that he was able to once again take partners in law enforcement out and spend some quality time with them. ...

There's a common belief that O'Neill used his elbows. That was one of his tools. When he felt something that was important and he needed to get the attention of Washington or whoever, too, he used his elbows. How successful or unsuccessful was that tactic for John O'Neill with Washington?

I tend to think in retrospect that it was probably unsuccessful, because that established order in Washington does not play that way. I think that's probably why John O'Neill had very few friends down there. He was very aggressive and he stood up for what he thought was right, and was not going to be put down by people who maybe didn't have the clear picture, didn't understand the way it really was in reality. John O'Neill didn't back off for anything, especially when he knew he was right. ...

Did he ever sort of say, "Goddamn it, why doesn't Washington stand behind me on this? They're drowning me over here." I mean, did he ever show any anger or any frustration or any--

If he did, I was not privy to it. John was a professional. He wasn't going to flare up and make an incident over something in front of people that were working for him. I think that he wanted to make sure that you were true to him, but he wasn't going to air his dirty laundry in front of anybody. If he was frustrated, he may have talked with other bosses about it; he may have shown his frustration there. But with the rank and file guys, no, he was a trouper and he wasn't going to air his dirty laundry. ...
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Re: The USS Cole Investigation: Yemen, October 2000

Postby admin » Tue Apr 12, 2016 9:28 am

Interview with Chris Isham
by pbs.org
May 31, 2002

A close friend of John O'Neill, Isham is a senior producer at ABC News and head of the investigative unit. In 1998 he set up an interview for ABC's John Miller with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. In this interview he recounts O'Neill's desperate pleas to see the footage of the entire bin Laden interview. He calls O'Neill "one of those rare birds inside the government who had access to highly classified information, and yet also understood that talking to a journalist was not necessarily a violation of any rules. It could actually be helpful on both sides." This interview was conducted on May 31, 2002.

So let's start with first impressions -- first meeting, first everything with John O'Neill.

We met through other friends of mine who were in the FBI. We met at a dinner here in Washington. He struck me as unusual for an FBI agent, because he was direct, and he had a kind of a wit about him that was unusual, a bit of a playful side of his character which was, again, unusual. He was also obviously highly informed by what he was doing. In our first meeting, he was very careful -- and was always careful -- but clearly informed, interesting, and interested. ...

He always made it very clear to me that there were certain red lines that he wouldn't cross and he never did, obviously pertaining to classified information. He understood very well that there were red lines. But he also understood that there was a great deal in the public record and public domain, and that one could discuss these things in such a way that could be helpful without crossing those red lines.

That was, I think, the basis of our relationship. He was one of those rare birds inside the government who had access to highly classified information, and yet also understood that talking to a journalist was not necessarily a violation of any rules. It could actually be helpful on both sides. ...

So he goes into this job. Dick Clarke tells us the now-famous story of the phone call on a Sunday morning. O'Neill has not gone to his apartment. He's taken his bags, he's gone into the [FBI] building, he's involved in the Ramzi Yousef arrest in Pakistan. So he comes in and he dives in. Why does everybody tell that story about him? Is that pretty typical of the John O'Neill, the FBI agent that you knew?

Yes. He was a guy that he jumped into things and wanted to take control. He wanted to take control because he felt he was the best person to take control at that particular given time and was the only person that could take control. Whether or not it was necessarily his role or not, he would always do it. ...

Did you know him well enough during those years when he was here to get from him any observations about where he fit in the hierarchy? A lot of people have told us it was not an easy fit for him.

Since I knew him, John always had a problematic relationship with the FBI hierarchy or the FBI bureaucracy. He loved the FBI; he really, really loved the FBI. I think that everybody that knows John knows how much he really loved it since he was young. He just adored the FBI.

But at the same time, it used to make him really angry. The bureaucracy made him angry, and the bureaucrats made him angry. He felt that the bureaucrats were always trying, in some way, to crush good work. It was so hard for good work to get done in the FBI, because the bureaucrats were running the show, and that was a source of continuing frustration for him.

I think it was one of the reasons why John would sometimes rub people above him the wrong way. Sometimes people above him would get irritated with John, because he was irritated with them. There was always a lot of friction in that relationship. But he loved the FBI. ...

In those early Washington years, was Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden on his radar screen in any way that you remember?

Osama bin Laden began to be somebody we sort of talked about in sort of the 1996-1997 time period. There were questions. Of course, the Riyadh barracks were traced back to bin Laden. Bin Laden had been in the Sudan. He had been implicated in an attempted bombing in Yemen in the early 1990s. He was definitely on John's radar, and we had several discussions about him. ...

The picture was still fuzzy. I mean, it was by no means sharp. ... There were clues and there were indications that were emerging that this guy was somebody that we needed to start taking seriously; that there was an emerging global Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network that was becoming more and more engaged in the objective of attacking American targets. At first there were military targets such as the barracks in Riyadh, and then it began to transform into attacking civilian targets.

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The fact that there were no informants inside [Al Qaeda] was a source of real concern for [O'Neill]. He felt that there was no really good human intelligence coming in from the bin Laden network

But we're talking from mid-1990s, 1996-1997 into 1998. The picture of bin Laden as the head of an organization which was becoming increasingly dangerous to Americans was certainly emerging. ...

How would O'Neill work something like Al Qaeda, from your perspective? What would he have done? Is he one of those guys who steeped himself and buried himself in books about Islamic fundamentalism and became obsessed?

No. John was a guy who threw himself into something and he absorbed everything he could get his hands on. Obviously a lot of this had to do with intelligence that was coming in from sources in the U.S. intelligence community. But he reached out. John reached out to other services such as the Jordanians who knew a lot about this guy. He reached out to the British. He reached out to other services like the Egyptians, who knew about the Egyptian fundamentalist movement. ...

John would throw himself into trying to absorb as much information as he could from all sources, including myself, because he understood that as a journalist, there were certain things that I had access to that he didn't have access to. I could go to Afghanistan; he couldn't. So he reached out to everybody. I know he was, in that time period, trying to absorb as much information as he could.

Did he ever mention to you that he was unhappy, felt thwarted, wasn't well received? I'm not talking about style differences here. His knowledge about bin Laden and a building threat, to the extent that it was knowledge yet -- was it the kind of thing that he would talked about to higher-ups and others in the FBI, and that information either not been well received or acknowledged as being important?

The first time I really felt frustration on the part of John was during the investigation of the bombing of the barracks in Al Khobar, which was not a bin Laden operation, at least not that I think is known to this day. There may have been some connections, but not that's known.

The Saudi government clearly had a great deal of information about the bombing: who conducted it, who was behind it, how it was organized. They also had a number of individuals in custody -- I think at least four men who were in custody, and these individuals were being questioned. John very much [wanted] to get access to these guys, either indirectly or directly. He felt it was essential for the United States to have access to these detainees, since this was a crime against Americans. He tried on several occasions to get that access, and failed.

He felt that the Saudis were protecting something; he wasn't sure what. But he felt enormously frustrated by that. I also think that he felt that the U.S. government wasn't being as forceful and wasn't using its full weight on the Saudi government to obtain the kind of access that he felt was necessary to solve that crime.

Again, famously, he apparently had a moment with Louis Freeh, where Freeh believes they're finally going to cooperate and he utters the indelicate, "I think they're blowing smoke up your ass." Did he ever tell you that story?

He never told me the precise words, but I can hear John saying them. I think that he felt that the Saudis were definitely playing games, and that the senior officials in the U.S. government, including Louis Freeh, just didn't get it. ...

Why does he leave Washington?

I think he felt that the New York job was a big bump up and was a terrific opportunity. I also don't think he was ever terribly happy here. I think he was eager to get back out into the field, and New York was the field with a capital "F."...

Take me to New York with John O'Neill when he first hits the ground. ...

... He just took an instant love to New York and plunged into it with a lot of life and a lot of energy and saw New York, I think, as a place that he could operate, that he could work sources, that he could entertain people from overseas, which was a huge part of what he did. He could forge relationships that could be enormously valuable in this work. It was an empire that was at the heart of the war against terrorism, because of Mary Jo White and because of the cases that were based in New York. He threw himself into that job and into the city with an enormous amount of energy. There's no question about it.

Set the scene of John O'Neill at Elaine's for us, will you? What was the nature of the place and his relationship to it?

... Elaine's has a very hierarchical seating structure. Sort of the tourists and the peasants are relegated to the back end of the restaurant. You simply don't want to be there. And the front end of the restaurant -- there are about seven or eight tables in the front, and John always made sure that he was in one of those front tables, because he understood the importance of being completely wired. He felt in order to be wired, he needed to be in the front of the restaurant, not the back of the restaurant.

What is the importance of being completely wired?

I think John felt that it was a way that, for him, being somebody who was a player in New York, somebody who was powerful, somebody who was capable of moving at a certain level ... at the end of the day, all of these things were things that he saw as ways of doing his job better, which may be hard for some people to understand. Why do you need to go to Elaine's to do your job better? I think there was some resentment of John in the upper levels of the bureaucracy, because they didn't understand why John needed to wear nice suits and go to Elaine's to do his job. That was something that they couldn't fathom. Yet John felt very strongly that this was very much a part of his job.

The US Department of “Justice” has a distinctly nuanced concept of that term, taking a tough, no-holds-barred stance when it comes to individuals -- especially little people without much power or influence -- and trying at all costs to avoid prosecution when it comes to the powerful, and to big corporations -- especially big financial corporations. That schizoid approach to prosecution is personified in the recent actions -- and inaction -- of the DOJ’s man in Manhattan, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.

-- Harsh Prosecution for the Little People and the Big Guys Skate, by Dave Lindorff


How did he pay for it?

I don't know, and I never really knew. John always insisted whenever we went out to dinner that he'd pull his weight on the tab. He told me when we first had dinner one night, "I just want you to know one thing: You can't own me. This is a two-way street, and I'm going to insist on picking up the tab half the time," which he did. ...

So it's the mid-1990s and this is pre-East Africa bombings. You get a hankering, I gather, to go to Afghanistan and see bin Laden. How does this get started? Why do you guys want to go? What are you interested in, and how does O'Neill help or not help?

He didn't have anything to do with the interview, but again, this is a time when bin Laden was emerging as somebody who was at the leadership of this emerging Islamic movement. ...

What was important about the fatwa that he issued in February 1998 was that it had specifically targeted, for the first time, American military personnel and civilians. It essentially said it was OK to kill American civilians. At the same time, he announced his formation of his pan-Islamic front that included Egyptians, Yemenis, people from Bangladesh. It was an amalgam of different organizations around the world that, like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, had already had a pretty substantial track record in raising hell. This was like hell central now. Bin Laden made it clear that this organization was now going to conduct operations against American civilians.

So I think by February 1998, it was clear that bin Laden was somebody that we needed to pay attention to pretty seriously and try to determine what kind of resources this man had at his disposal. By then he was in Afghanistan. I had organized through some channels to do an interview with him, which took shape in the early 1998 through spring of 1998. The interview actually happened in May of 1998 with John Miller.

I had a couple of conversations during that time with John O'Neill. I asked him what kinds of questions he thought might be appropriate, again, in that time period, what kinds of things that he thought that were the issues that needed to be asked at that time. We had a dialogue about that during that time; again, nothing based on classified information. But again, John pointed out to me some articles, which actually I was unaware of in some of the foreign press, Pakistani press, Arabic press, that had been done, which were actually quite helpful.

[Is it] fair to say he knew a lot about this guy and this group?

Yes. By this time period of February-March 1998, John knew quite a bit.

What does O'Neill think when you get to go? I understand he understands how journalism works and everything else. Is he keenly interested? Does part of him wish he could go?

Yes. He was keenly interested. He was very interested, obviously. I had to be careful, too, because I think again, there are red lines on both sides. I couldn't tell him anything about our logistics or our timing or anything about channels that we were using. Clearly, one of the things that the other side is always concerned about is that American journalists or Western journalists are fronts for intelligence organizations or law enforcement organizations; anything from equipment being bugged to espionage or whatever.

This is something that is always sensitive when you're talking to people who are involved in clandestine organizations. It's something that we often have to fight as journalists to convince people that we are not connected and not working for a law enforcement organization or an intelligence organization. ...

When you came back, did he want to see it? Did he want to know? Did he want to know everything?

Yes, he wanted to see everything. I told him that we had regulations about that kind of thing, and that we'd put it on the air, that it would go on the air rather soon. He said, "Are you going to put the whole thing on the air?" I said, "No, we're not going to put the whole thing on the air, because it's about an hour long; it's a long interview." He said, "I need to see the whole thing. I need to see the whole interview."

I said, "Well, you know, we have this whole thing about outtakes. It may sound stupid, but we really can't give you all the outtakes of the interview." He says, "No, you don't understand. I have to see the whole interview." It was like he wasn't taking no for an answer. So I said, "Let me think about that."

So I finally came up with a rather elegant solution, which was we were just getting our Internet site off of the ground, ABC.com, and so I said, "Look, I've got an idea. We have an Internet site. There are probably a lot of people who would be interested in seeing the whole interview. So what we'll do is, we'll air the interview that we air on World News Tonight on Nightline, and then we'll put the whole interview on the Internet. How's that? Is that fine?"

By then, of course, he's completely obsessed with the guy. People tell us that he's sitting at home watching videotapes of him from everybody. True story?

Yes. He was obsessed by him, I think there's no question about it. He wanted to absorb as much information as he could about this guy. He wanted to know what made him tick. He wanted to know where he was, what he was doing, and what his approach was and where his assets were. He was completely obsessed by the guy; there's no question about that. ...

When you would sit around, have a dinner ... is this the kind of thing he talked about? Or was he talking about the Yankees and this and that?

No, he was always talking about this. I don't think he always talked about terrorism with everybody. But when he and I got together, we always talked about terrorism. What he was anguished by was how much he didn't know. He knew certain things and he saw certain pieces, but he always knew that there was so much more that he didn't know, and that's what spooked him. What spooked him and what really used to drive him crazy was what he didn't know, and how much was out there that he didn't know. ...

Did he express frustration to you that that the intelligence system, especially the FBI system, didn't have the resources, didn't give the resources, wasn't paying attention? This is pre-East Africa now, [before the embassy] bombings.

I think he felt frustrated that the system as a whole, the intelligence community as well as the law enforcement community, had such a limited knowledge of bin Laden and bin Laden's network. ...

The fact that there were no informants inside the organization was a source of real concern for him. He felt that there was no really good human intelligence coming in from the bin Laden network. [That] was one of the problems that they were having on sort of an ongoing basis. So much of their information about the network was either based on people who had defected, which meant that their information was old, or it was based on electronic signals, intercepts, and that kind, which can be misinterpreted. There is no substitute for good human intelligence, and that didn't exist. ...

After the East Africa bombings, a lot of stuff for some people begins to emerge that didn't exist before. For example, as I understand it, we know that money moves to Hamburg, that there are cells in places like Hamburg and Spain and Italy and things like that. Is he in on that, on those connections? Is he becoming aware of the cell structure out in the world?

Yes. I think it became particularly clear in the wake of the bombings in East Africa that the United States was up against a global threat that had tentacles and cells all over the world. ...

Now, O'Neill responded to that, and had already been extremely busy in forging relationships with intelligence and law enforcement organizations around the world for this very reason. He understood that this was a global operation, this was a global threat. If we were going to get a handle on this, we had to work very, very closely with liaison services such as the British, the Jordanians, and the Egyptians and the Yemenis and the French. ... One can't underestimate how important those relationships were in forming his understanding and his knowledge of the bin Laden network. ...

Staying with Ressam for just a moment -- I gather that [on the millennium] as the clock ticks, first in London and then Times Square and finally in LAX in Los Angeles, there was a lack of oxygen in many [cities] all over the world, and especially in Washington, where everybody is just kind of holding their breath. John is at Times Square at ground zero. Is that the way you remember?

Yes, he was in Times Square, and he was very worried about that that night.

What had happened with the arrest of Ressam was that it illuminated the fact that this network really was capable of operating anywhere in the world. I think that even though they knew that in theory these guys could be anywhere, what Ressam showed was that they were -- they were in Canada, they were in the U.S., they were in France, they were in Spain. They were all over the world. ...

By now, presumably, headquarters is awake. All the bells are ringing; all the red lights are on. Are they awake, from your vantage point? Was the FBI headquarters finally paying attention to this?

Yes, I think they were paying attention. But there was still a lot of resistance inside the U.S. government to elevating this to the priority that I think John felt it should be elevated to. The reaction to the bombings in Africa in 1998 was to fire off some cruise missiles at Afghanistan and take out a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. I think John always felt that that was insufficient. ...

Now at this time, he's about to lose his third effort to move up in the bureau ... the job that [Barry] Mawn is about to get. He's being boxed; he's being stopped everywhere. Why? Here's a guy with tremendous expertise that, I gather, everybody will stipulate [has] great expertise. What's happening with John O'Neill's career?

I don't know the full story of what was going on inside the bureau. I know it from talking to John about it, so I sort of know his perspective on it. ... I think it's a combination of things. I think that John irritated people above him and people above him felt threatened by him. He was somebody that bureaucrats were not always pleased with, because they felt that he wasn't marching to their tune, that he was too ambitious and that he operated out of the box too often. And this was an FBI that believed very much, under the Freeh regime, of operating within the box.

This was a guy that was constantly pushing the envelope when the envelope didn't want to be pushed, so the envelope fought back. I think that he was constantly in this tension with the bureaucracy of the bureau, and that it made it hard for him to make that leap when, from all of the objective facts, he should have been promoted and should have been put into those positions.

So in sum, I think that it was really a fact that he was in this sort of very problematic relationship with the bureau. That was a source of enormous frustration to him. He felt that the ceiling was always being lowered on him, and that the system was always trying to crush him. He could never understand it. He couldn't understand why they didn't appreciate him more. He couldn't understand why they didn't love him.

It's interesting to hear about him and how the ceiling is being lowered and important to him. Is it also important to his effectiveness? Do you know what I'm saying?

Yes, I think he felt he could have been much more effective in this struggle against the bin Laden network. I think he felt that he knew what a huge menace these guys were. I think he felt that the bureau never really gave him the kind of juice that he needed to go after these guys. There is no question about that.

We'll never know what he could have found, what he could have done. Is it your guess than an unfettered or a relatively unfettered John O'Neill, if they let him turn the gas on and go at this, we would have known a whole lot more than we knew on Sept. 11? Or was it knowable in that way? Do you see what I'm saying?

Yes, I understand what you're saying. One doesn't know, obviously. But what I think about is Yemen and the Cole. This was a case that he was really pushing hard on. He understood that Yemen was critical to this organization; that this wasn't just a venue where they set off a bomb; that there were connections between Yemen and East Africa, and Yemen and Afghanistan, and Yemen and Europe; and that this was very much of an important operational base for these guys. If he could illuminate that base, he could begin to really put a dent in this network. That is one of the reasons he was pushing so hard on the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole.

He felt enormously frustrated in that investigation as well because of the complex nature of the Yemeni government. The Yemeni government was divided, and you had good guys and bad guys. The depth of support for bin Laden and the bin Laden network was very serious in Yemen. There were deep tentacles that that organization had, going back many, many years.

O'Neill understood that. He understood that this was a very important challenge, that it was critical for the United States to try to really get at what happened in Yemen, and he was blocked from doing that. He was blocked from doing that by the Yemeni government or by elements of the Yemeni government. But he didn't feel that he had the backup from the U.S. government that he needed to really do the job. ...

I also think that there were some unfair raps about John in Yemen. He actually had forged very good relationships with many of the Yemeni officials and had a very good relationship with many of the Yemenis. ... At one point, he had a Yemeni delegation up in New York and he was taking him up in helicopters and flying him around. There was a whole group of people in Yemen that were really doing everything they could to try to move that investigation forward.

The problem is there were other guys in that government who were trying to do everything to prevent that investigation from going forward. And unfortunately, the U.S. government wasn't giving John the kind of backup that he needed to move the thing forward.

In the person of the ambassador?

The ambassador was our senior representative on the ground.

What happened between the two of them?

I think that what happened was that they had different objectives. John was trying to solve a case. He was trying to do an investigation. He was trying to open up certain areas of inquiry inside that would have gone inside the Yemeni government that were very sensitive, that did require stepping on toes. There's no question about that.

The ambassador was there to basically protect U.S.-Yemeni relationships and U.S.-Yemeni bilateral relations. John felt that she was putting up obstacles and, not only not backing him up, but actually thwarting him in his progress in the investigation. So it became personal between them and ultimately, I think, it deteriorated the relationship. The relationship deteriorated to such an extent that they grew to dislike each other quite intensely.

With what impact in terms of the mission?

The mission always suffers.

He is not allowed back in. He comes back to New York and around Thanksgiving, January, he says he's promised the top cop in Yemen, "I'll be back, see you then," and she stops him. Did you ever talk to him about that?

Yes. John was not rational on the topic of Ambassador Barbara Bodine. "Livid" would be putting it mildly. One can't forget that John was very American, but he was also very Irish.

And that means?

That means when he got hot, he got hot. And he was hot, there's no question about it. I think he felt that she was on the wrong side.

And so, apparently, did everybody else. You've got Pickering, Reno, Freeh in meetings in Washington, trying to separate the on-scene commander of the FBI from the United States ambassador. We've got a major terrorist group we're going at down here, and these people are sitting around refereeing a kind of intramural scrum that's going on between these two people. Does that stun you, surprise you, the way it stuns and surprises me? Or am I just completely naïve about these things?

It was stunning, there's no question about it. It was stunning. It was profoundly unfortunate. I think it was so unfortunate because again, we don't know what would have happened if John could have done his job in Yemen, if John had been able to do his job in Yemen and had really had the full backup to go and to really push in Yemen, to walk those tracks back, to investigate fully who the perpetrators were of the attack on the USS Cole and what kind of networks he could have exposed.

But we do know that there were Yemenis involved in the attacks of Sept. 11. We know that at least one of the hijackers was a Yemeni. We know there were other Yemenis that were involved. 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. ...

So he comes back and he knows he's got to go. The briefcase thing has happened the summer before. Did he ever talk to you about that?

Not until the summer 2001.

So it had already happened. When he spoke to you, how did he characterize what had happened? What was he talking about then?

This was, he felt, another example in a chain of incidents with the bureaucracy in which the bureaucracy was basically taking its revenge on John unfairly. He felt, once again, it was unfair.

It had been a mistake, but he had left a briefcase in a room unattended. It had been lifted by an employee. They recovered it very quickly, and all the contents were there. There was no indication that there was any kind of espionage or any kind of criminal activity whatsoever other than shoplifting. Apparently the employee who did the lifting of the briefcase was somebody who was known to be a kleptomaniac of some kind. So it was what it was. It was unfortunate, but it was in no way any kind of violation of national security, and in no way was any classified information compromised.

Yet he felt that he was getting clobbered by the bureau. He felt that it was another example, such as the suspension when he gave his girlfriend a ride in his bureau car, that were relatively minor infractions that did not [need] to be applied with as much vigor as they were.

Somebody up there didn't like him. Obviously, when he talks to you about this, it's around the time when he's trying to make a decision. What were his options around that time, and how anguished was he about the decisions?

I think when he didn't get the assistant director job in New York was when he began to feel that he was going to be prevented permanently from ever making that step up. That's when he began to look around and start to consider options in the private sector and elsewhere. We had a couple of conversations about it, and he used to talk about it and weigh the benefits. It was a tough decision for him because, again, he loved the bureau. He loved the FBI.

He also felt that there was a lot that he could be doing for the FBI, given the war on terrorism was escalating. It wasn't in any way getting resolved; it was getting worse, not better. He knew that, and I think he felt there was more that he could be doing. But given his relationship with the bureaucracy of the bureau, he just felt that there was no way he could do that, and that he needed to consider other options.

Clarke tells us -- and so does everybody else -- that all of the alarm bells were ringing by that spring, that summer. Everybody figured, "God, they're coming." O'Neill was, at the time, basically frozen out. He's on the edges of everything that was happening. Did he express that to you?

Yes, he did. I mean, he heard the alarm bells, too. We used to talk about it. He knew that there was a lot of noise out there. There were a lot of warnings, a lot of red flags, and that it was at a similar level that they were hearing before the millennium, which was an indication that there was something going on. Yet he felt that he was frozen out, that he was not in a capacity to really do anything about it anymore because of his relationship with the FBI. So it was a source of real anguish for him.

This is a real tragedy, isn't it? I mean, from your vantage point -- you watch the stuff; you know it. Suddenly you meet a guy some time in the mid-1990s who seems completely cut out of a different kind of bolt of cloth. He knows everything; he knows a lot that you know. And now, right at the time that it's all right out in front--

It was very sad. It was profoundly sad, and it was sad for all of the reasons that we now know. But it was sad ultimately because of all the people that I had known that had been involved in combating terrorism inside the U.S. government, John, by far, had the best understanding of the nature of this enemy and how to combat it. It was just sad that the government could not figure out a way to make this guy effective. It was a failure, I think, of our government. It was a failure of the FBI. And we all paid a price.

Is it really as simple as that? I tell people the story I'm working on and they say, "Is it as simple as that? Is it as simple as interoffice politics? It's as simple as they didn't like Valentino suits and evenings at Elaine's and a guy who just didn't fit the mold?" Is it as simple as that?

I don't think John was entirely blameless in all of this. John had a way of irritating people. He would not tolerate fools, and he would be in a meeting with people and would make it very clear to them that they were just so ignorant that it was a waste of time for him to be talking to them. So [laughs] I think that his own character -- a lot of the things that made John great and made him so effective and made him such a good manager in many ways were also the very things that used to drive people above him crazy.

I never worked for John, obviously. But one of the things that I was always very moved by was talking to people who worked for him -- and people who were not always treated that well sometimes by John, because John had a short fuse sometimes and he could blow up and did blow up -- yet the guys that worked for him, even the guys that sometimes got banged around by John, completely loved the guy. So he had something that people appreciated below him. Above him, those very qualities drove people nuts.

Chris, where are you on Sept. 11? What happens? When do you think about O'Neill on that horrific, tragic day, and when do you know what actually happened to him?

... I obviously instantly thought of O'Neill, because I knew that he was in the building, and I knew that he would be instantly involved. I tried calling him a couple of times on both his office number, which didn't answer, and then his cell phone, which didn't answer.

At the same time, of course, things were moving very fast. We were on the air trying to comprehend what was going on. It was, obviously, complete pandemonium. I never talked to him. I tried him about three or four times. Oddly enough, the phone kept ringing well into the day after he was clearly dead. I held out some hope for a little while, but it was pretty clear pretty early that he didn't make it.

And the irony of his life?

The irony is just extraordinary, obviously. To be taken down by this menace that he had spent so much of his life combating was just incredibly cruel. Actually, when he had first gotten the job at the World Trade Center, he told me, "I've got this great job. I'm head of security at the World Trade Center." I joked with him and I said, "That will be an easy job. They're not going to bomb that place again." He immediately came back and he said, "Actually, they've always wanted to finish that job. I think they're going to try again." Of course, that something I'll just never forget. ...
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