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.
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. ...