The Testimony We Won't Hear

John P. O'Neill
Sadly, tragically, ironically, one of the nation’s most important witnesses for the 9/11 Commission will never be heard from. He is John O’Neill, the FBI’s visionary and charismatic former counterterrorism leader who died on September 11, 2001 in the collapse of the World Trade Center. By all accounts, O’Neill was the first official to connect the dots to Usama bin Laden long before most people even knew there were dots to connect. As far back as early 1995, O’Neill recognized bin Laden as the greatest threat to U.S. national security — a stunning revelation that came just days after he orchestrated the capture of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

From that day forward, and until the moment of his death, O’Neill remained at the tip of the spear in the war on terrorism, both in the highest levels of government in Washington, and on the ground around the world leading terrorist investigations, including the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

He was obsessed with two vital missions: One was to destroy bin Laden. The other equally difficult task was desperately trying to convince the White House, the CIA, the State Department and the FBI that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were at war with America and were prepared to strike on U.S. soil at any time. Unfortunately, O’Neill’s out-of-the-box thinking and hard-charging style ruffled some feathers, and his clarion call went unheeded. In frustration, he retired from the FBI in August 2001, downsizing his personal war with bin Laden to become the head of security at the Twin Towers, which he always claimed up to the day he died was Al Qaeda’s prime target.

No one can predict with certainty what O’Neill would tell the 9/11 Commission had he survived the 9/11 attack.

But, as the author of “The Man Who Warned America,” a biography of O’Neill’s life and career, I can say with confidence that his appearance would serve as an invaluable laser cutting through the politics and self-serving interests trying to shape the debate and the reality of what led to the 9/11 tragedies.

In fact, the hard lessons about 9/11 are all there in John O’Neill’s life.

The forward-thinking O’Neill struggled every day to smash the walls that prevented working relations and the sharing of information which he insisted was the only way to defeat terrorism. (In 1996, O’Neill demonstrated his resolve by making a CIA official his deputy. He also went beyond the law enforcement and intelligence community for counsel, turning to academics and think tanks for fresh insights). 

Time and time again, he ran into rigid bureaucrats who adhered to the philosophy of  “small cases, small problems; big cases, big problems; no cases, no problems” and who refused to be receptive to novel ways of examining seemingly intractable issues.

Contrary to the testimony provided by Richard Clarke, who eventually recommended that O’Neill succeed him as the nation’s terrorism czar, O’Neill held a different view of the Clinton administration’s war on terrorism. O’Neill believed that Clinton’s political handlers ultimately dominated the decision-making process on how to attack bin Laden and Al Qaeda as the President and his wife struggled with scandal, and that the White House did not develop the resolve to attack Al Qaeda. Top-level State Department officials who were more concerned about protecting the status quo with the heads of other countries rather than take the necessary steps to send tough messages to advance U.S. efforts to thwart bin Laden also victimized O’Neill rather than support him.  Finally, after years of fighting for change that might have prevented 9/11 — from large scale requests for tighter security on airplanes, to asking for funds to hire more translators — O’Neill felt marginalized and unsupported. He retired.

So a top terrorism warrior left the service of a country he tried desperately to protect, all the while painfully aware that the transition to a new Bush administration complicated efforts to stave off an attack. An attack he warned just one day before he died was going “to be big.“

O’Neill’s thoughts on the aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing Bush reaction can only be conjecture. But I believe he would have applauded wildly the assault into Afghanistan, a military response he had championed for years. The issue on the war on Iraq is more difficult to address. O’Neill clearly understood the web of connections in the Middle East and the Far East regarding global terrorists and the danger posed by Saddam Hussein.

Had he lived, O’Neill assuredly would have cautioned the Bush White House that no “war” in Iraq could be fought without a broader policy that included plans to secure Iraq’s infrastructure or take into account the various religious and political segments in that nation. If he believed those considerations had not been made, even this action-oriented warrior might have suggested completing one war in Afghanistan before embarking on another.

Murray Weiss, an award-winning investigative journalist and author of "The Man Who Warned America" is the Criminal Justice Editor at the "New York Post." During more than three decades with the Post and the "New York Daily News" he has written extensively on law enforcement, organized crime, terrorism, criminal justice, and politics.