|Richard A. Clarke | The Man Who Knew|
Published on Tuesday October 6, 2020 - 9:36 AM
How did you first meet John O’Neill? What were the circumstances?
I didn’t know John at the point where I first called him. He had been the number two FBI agent in Chicago. He was reassigned to headquarters in Washington to work on terrorism. He had driven all night, instead of flying — driven all night to Washington. Instead of going to his apartment, the first thing he did, in the typical John O’Neill way, was to go to the office, go to headquarters. It was a Sunday morning; obviously no one was there.
But I was in my office. I was reading intelligence. I saw a report that indicated that the man who had plotted the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the ringleader, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was about to move within Pakistan. There was a closing window to catch him. So, thinking there might be somebody in the FBI on a Sunday morning, I called and John answered the phone. I said, “Who’s this?” He responded, “Well, who the hell are you? I’m John O’Neill.” I explained, “I’m from the White House. I do terrorism. I need some help.”
So I told him my story on the classified phone line. He had never worked on the case before, but he obviously knew the importance of it. He went into action over the course of the next two or three days; he never left the office. He worked the phones out to Pakistan, he worked the phones to the Pentagon, and he worked the phones at the State Department. Together with us, [he] put together the rush team that managed to catch Ramzi Ahmed Yousef in Pakistan just before he moved into Afghanistan, which would have been beyond our reach. It was a pretty intense couple days, but it worked. It was, in the way, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, because the same drive he brought to that first encounter, he brought to everything he did.
He doesn’t seem like your normal FBI agent.
Oh, he wasn’t. He was, first of all, incredibly bright. He may not have had a Ph.D. from MIT or something like that, but his IQ was clearly off the charts. He had a stamina, an energy that was just unending. He worked virtually every moment when he wasn’t sleeping. He didn’t consider any job that he was doing a 9-to-5 job. He was on the job all the time, always working, always trying to get his goal — which, in the time I knew him, was getting terrorists.
But in addition to this incredible mind which was always on, always analyzing, always putting two and two together, always looking for angles — in addition to the drive, there was also an Irish blarney kind of charm. The combination worked. Frequently, he was in your face because you weren’t doing a good enough job, or his subordinates weren’t doing a good enough job, or somebody else wasn’t living up to his standard. It would have been hard to take that all the time were it not for the charm that went along with it.
He didn’t always have smooth sailing, though. He seemed to get on the wrong side of some of his cohorts. He didn’t fit in exactly with the FBI bureaucracy.
He was very demanding. He was demanding both up and down, both to his superiors and his subordinates. He set a very high standard of what should be done. Basically, if you didn’t want the job done, you didn’t give it to John O’Neill. If you did want the job done, you gave it to John O’Neill, and watch out, because it was going to get done; don’t worry too much about stepping on people’s toes along the way.
Frankly, a lot of the jobs that he did would never have gotten done, had he not stepped on toes. The real question I think you have to ask yourself is, when you’re out in the world arresting terrorists, if the only way to do that is to ruffle some feathers — and even before 9/11, it should have been obvious, and it was to me and it was to him — that stepping on a few toes, breaking a little crockery was a price that we had to pay to get the job done. After all, the job wasn’t a popularity contest; the job was protecting the American people.
How was his view of the potential terrorist threat domestically different than a lot of other folks at the FBI or elsewhere?
Well, I would go around the country to FBI offices and ask, “Is there an Al Qaeda presence in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Boston?” And typically the reaction I would get is, “What’s Al Qaeda?”
But not with John. John knew what Al Qaeda was. He was among the first people to see the bin Laden threat. He believed there was a bin Laden network in the United States even if he couldn’t prove it. So he was constantly trying to prove it, because of what he understood about the Al Qaeda network and the rest of the world, he said, “It’s inconceivable that they’re not here.”
What did he understand that nobody else understood?
I think he understood, first of all, that Al Qaeda wasn’t a nuisance — that what Al Qaeda said in its documents and bin Laden’s speeches was the truth. He said to me once, “You know, it’s like Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf when Hitler was just a jerk. No one took him seriously, so no one read the book, or if they read the book, they didn’t believe he would try to do what was in the book. [John] said, “Bin Laden’s just like this. When you read what this guy says he’s going to do, he’s serious. He is going to try to do it in the Middle East, and there are a lot of people who support him. A lot of people are giving this guy money. We have to take him seriously, because what he says he’s going to do is to go to war with the United States.”
Was he, were you, listened to?
Yes, slowly. Certainly after the embassy bombing in Africa in 1998, it was very obvious that what John was saying, what I was saying, was right: that this was more than a nuisance; that this was a real threat. But I don’t think everyone came to the understanding that it was an existential threat. The question was, “This group is more than a nuisance, but are they worth going to war with? After all, they’ve only attacked two embassies. Maybe that’s a cost of doing business. This kind of thing happens. Yes, we should spend some time some energy trying to get them, but it’s not the number one priority we have.”
Let’s talk about connecting the dots, which he seemed to be very good at. Explain the inability or the ability of some to connect those dots early on.
I think if you ask most terrorism experts in the mid-1990s, “Name the major terrorist organizations that might be a threat to the United States,” they would have said Hezbollah, which had a relationship with Iran. They would have said Hamas, which is a Palestinian group. Most people would not have said Al Qaeda. Most people wouldn’t have known that there was an Al Qaeda.
If you ask them, “Well, what about this man bin Laden?” most people in the mid-1990s would have said, “Ah, yes, the terrorist financier.” What O’Neill said was, “No, this man is not a financier. Yes, he’s got some of his own money, and he’s very good at raising money from other people. But that’s not all he’s about. The money is money for a purpose. The purpose is building a worldwide terrorist network based out of Afghanistan, initially based out of Sudan, but then moved to Afghanistan. A worldwide terrorist network, the point of which is going after the United States, after governments friendly to the United States, particularly in the Arab world.” So O’Neill did see early on that this was more than just another terrorist group. It was a serious threat it was in the process of building.
When did they recognize that?
By the time 1998 the embassy bombings occurred, I think everyone in the Clinton Cabinet would have said that Al Qaeda is a serious threat. In fact, if you look in retrospect at what the Clinton administration did after those embassy bombings through to the end of that administration — since now most of it is public knowledge, lot of it was highly classified at the time — if 9/11 had not happened, most Americans looking at what the Clinton administration did about bin Laden would have said, “What an overreaction. Why were they so preoccupied with bin Laden?”
There was an enormous amount of activity that was carried on if you look at the predicate, prior to the attack on the Cole destroyer in October 2000. The predicate was Americans killed at two embassies in Africa. Yet there was this massive program that was initiated to go after bin Laden. It didn’t succeed, but it tried very hard. It did prevent some attacks, and it delayed others. But looked at in vacuum, the Clinton administration activities, 1998 to the end of the administration against bin Laden — if you look at that without knowing in advance that 9/11 is going to happen, if you can separate that in your mind, the Clinton administration activities against bin Laden were massive.
So the frustration that a lot of us had, that people weren’t paying enough attention, largely ended with the 1998 embassy bombings.
Some also say that due to the Lewinsky scandal, more action perhaps was never undertaken. In your eyes?
The interagency group on which I sat and John O’Neill sat — we never asked for a particular action to be authorized and were refused. We were never refused. Any time we took a proposal to higher authority, with one or two exceptions, it was approved….
But didn’t you push for military action after the Cole?
Yes, that’s one of the exceptions.
How important is that exception?
I believe that, had we destroyed the terrorist camps in Afghanistan earlier, that the conveyor belt that was producing terrorists sending them out around the world would have been destroyed. So many, many trained and indoctrinated Al Qaeda terrorists, which now we have to hunt down country by country, many of them would not be trained and would not be indoctrinated, because there wouldn’t have been a safe place to do it if we had destroyed the camps earlier.
So that’s a pretty basic mistake that we made?
Well, I’m not prepared to call it a mistake. It was a judgment made by people who had to take into account a lot of other issues. None of these decisions took place in isolation. There was the Middle East peace process going on. There was the war in Yugoslavia going on. People above my rank had to judge what could be done in the counterterrorism world at a time when they were also pursuing other national goals.
When was the last time you talked to John O’Neill before Sept. 11?
I talked to him a few days earlier. We talked about the fact that he was beginning a new job at the World Trade Center. I told him once again that I regretted the fact that he had left public service, and he said that we would nonetheless continue to work together. I think the last thing he said to me was, “Look, whatever job you have, whatever job I have, we’re always going to work together. We’re always going to be friends. Every time you come to New York, you better come to the World Trade Center.”
You tried to convince him, it has been written, to take your job. Can you tell me a little bit about that what happened?
Shortly after the Bush administration came into office, we were asked to think about how we organized the White House for a number of issues, including cybersecurity, computer security, homeland security, and counterterrorism. I was asked for my advice, and I proposed that the counterterrorism responsibility be broken off be a separate job, and that the cybersecurity job be broken off as a separate job. I said I had done counterterrorism for about a decade, and I wanted to start working on cybersecurity, which I think is terribly important. That was later approved by the president.
So the question came, “Well, who would you recommend to do the terrorism job?” I came up with four or five names. The first name that came to mind was John O’Neill, because he had the right combination of talents. He had an incredible drive. He never took his eye off the ball. He was never satisfied with halfway measures when it meant saving American lives. He would never let people think about this as just another job. He knew the bureaucracy, and he knew how to make things happen. He was incredibly intelligent. I thought he had all the right sets of skills to do the job at the White House.
But he was not terribly excited about that. I think he either wanted to come to work in headquarters of the FBI again, or he wanted to get out and start making a decent living. He chose to do the latter, I guess, and I respect that. Government servants frequently don’t get paid what they get paid on the outside. You can only ask them to sacrifice for so long, because they’re not just sacrificing for themselves, they’re sacrificing for their families.
A guy like him, though, that had FBI running through his blood, why would he quit? What’s your gut feeling on why he quit?
I think in these pure middle hierarchical organizations like the U.S. military, like the FBI, if you’re going to have a career of constantly moving up — some people choose not to; they’re perfectly happy to be some middle manager, and that’s where they’ll stay and they make an important contribution. But for those people who decide they’re going to make a run at senior management positions, it’s either up or out. You either get promoted the next time around to a more senior position, or you wait perhaps for another opportunity. As you’re passed over one or two times, you move on.
The problem with all these hierarchical organizations, and it’s a problem we have in our military, is that we now have all these litmus tests that have nothing to do with your ability to do the job. They have to do with your private life or they have to do with the things that really, I think personally, are causing a lot of the very best people in our military not to be promoted to the top of the military.
The same is true in the FBI. I think John realized that the only way that you could succeed in this hierarchical organization, even after 20 or 30 years in it, was to have a record where there was no blemish. People are afraid that in the Senate confirmation process or in the White House clearance process or in the press reaction to an appointment that, rather than focusing on the 20 years of incredible accomplishment, the press will focus on the one or two blemishes, however minor.
So I think John came to the conclusion that he was not going to get the very, very senior job in the FBI that he wanted to get. He’d given it a long time, given it a long career. He had made a lot of sacrifices, personally and financially. Since he wasn’t going to get that top FBI job, he decided to get out and make a decent living.
Did the briefcase episode weigh pretty heavily on him?
I don’t know [about] the briefcase episode. What I do know is that John always wanted to be thought of as being close to perfect. At the end of any meeting, he would hang around say, “How’d I do? What can I do better next time? What am I doing wrong?” Of course he was doing nothing wrong. He was doing everything spectacularly well. But he always wanted to do better. He always needed that reassurance.
For him to be criticized for something like the briefcase incident, whatever the truth value of that incident was, it hurt him a lot, because he always wanted to be thought of as close to perfect. Perfectly dressed, perfectly briefed, didn’t want anybody to think that he was in any way not the number one guy in terms of performance.
Can you take us into a discussion at NSC when he would be there? How did he present himself? How did he present the facts? What was he like?
As you can imagine, the situation room, the conference room where they usually have these meetings, is a bunch of fairly gray bureaucrats sitting around the table. More often than not, a bunch of guys; unfortunately, all guys, more often than not.
John would come into the room and there would be a presence about him. He would go around the room like it was a ward meeting and he was an Irish politician. He’d smash everybody on the back, grin, grip, pass out cigars and you know, the atmosphere changed. He was building a team. I might have been chairing the meeting, but he was building a team, and we were all on his team.
He wanted to get people beyond representing their agencies and have them be friends, have them feel like they were part of a team on which he was a key player. Then when you got around to the substance of any discussion, he always knew more about the CIA guy’s brief than the CIA guy did. He knew more about the State Department guy’s brief than the State Department guy. He prepared for meetings. He prepared in detail. He wanted to show everybody that his recommendation was well-founded, because he knew all the facts, he had considered all the facts. He would continue to drive, press, press, until people agreed with his recommendation.
Which they often did?
Which they almost always did.
Let me ask you about a couple of events. In 1997, he gives the Chicago speech where he says, “We should expect an attack.” He’s talking in that same period of time about, or a little after, of cells within the country. How common was this belief at FBI and NSA?
In 1997, I think there were only a handful of us who knew that there were Al Qaeda cells in the United States. When my boss, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, would ask the FBI in a formal meeting, “Is there an Al Qaeda presence in the United States?” their formal answer would be, “We don’t know of one, and we don’t think there is one.” But if you asked O’Neill, or you had asked me, a few others, including some people in the CIA, the answer would have been, “We can’t prove it yet, but we see the smoke, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Sure, there were cells. We weren’t able to prove it at the time.
But what John O’Neill was trying to do was to get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells, to look for the connections which, frankly, most FBI offices were not doing. It was not one of the priorities in most FBI field offices.
What about the meetings that were taking place with the Taliban in Washington up until, I guess, July or August 2002, or something like that?
This administration — the Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before it — had authorized an ongoing dialogue with the Taliban, where we told them that if there’s another terrorist attack anywhere in the world on the United States that we can pin on bin Laden, we’re not only going to hold bin Laden responsible; we’re going to hold the Taliban responsible.
We had a very serious high-level discussion with the Pakistanis, with the Taliban, saying to them, “Look, we’re serious. You’ve got to give up bin Laden. You’ve got to throw the terrorist camps out.” So yes, absolutely there was a dialogue, but it never, ever got in the way of going after Al Qaeda. We were talking to the Taliban while, at the same time, we had teams inside Afghanistan working for the CIA. We were trying to kill bin Laden or arrest him.
O’Neill was involved in a lot of the very successful investigations which lead to very successful prosecutions. In his mind, did he think that was enough, that was a key?
No, the role of law enforcement in going after terrorists I think has been misunderstood. John O’Neill did not think these were law enforcement problems; he thought they were national security problems. He didn’t think that for every terrorist event, the solution was going out finding the guy who did it and arresting him, bringing him back to New York and trying him. That was one of the arrows in our quiver.
We found over the years that the FBI made an important contribution to going after terrorists abroad. After a terrorist event, you can learn a lot about who did it, how they did it and the nature of the network that still existed by applying traditional FBI investigative techniques. The CIA and DOD couldn’t do that.
So when you have several hundred FBI agents in Africa going through the rubble, sifting in the African heat, sifting through bricks and concrete and finding a tiny little part of a truck that had the VIN number on it, and then investigating who bought that truck, where did the money come from to buy that truck — that was something that only the FBI could do. CIA couldn’t do it and the Defense Department couldn’t do it.
So yes, we wanted the FBI out in the field in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East, investigating terrorist incidents — not just because there was a crime committed, not just because we wanted to arrest people and bring them back to New York for trial. But because what the FBI could do would be to find all of these traces and start pulling on a thousand strings through interrogation techniques, through forensic techniques, and build a case.
You’d go into John’s office. On the wall, there would be a chart with lines connecting phone numbers in the United States, phone numbers in the Middle East, and phone numbers in Africa. Names. This guy was involved in this case. He talked to that guy over in that case. Only the FBI was able to put together that traditional criminal investigative technique that they used to go after organized crime in the United States, that they used to go after the Soviet spy network in the United States. That’s why we turned to the FBI.
Let’s talk a little bit about 1996 and the CIA. O’Neill was involved in helping set up Station Alex — the mission to track bin Laden, the money, his base of operations and such. Why was this important, and what did it achieve?
There was a lot of pressure on the CIA from the White House to do more about bin Laden in the 1995-1996 time frame. At the time, bin Laden had a lot of his operations based in Sudan. But Sudan was not some place where the CIA could easily set up a large operation, so they created what they called a virtual station. Rather than having it in Sudan, it was in Virginia. It was not in CIA headquarters, so it wouldn’t be part of all of that culture.
The FBI decided that they would be a part of the station. They would contribute FBI agents to a joint CIA/FBI effort to figure out where this network was. Who was bin Laden? Where did the money come from? Where did the money go? Where did the people come from who were trained at these camps? Where did they go after they were trained? It was a joint FBI/CIA project.
And the success of it?
The success of it was that it proved that there was a huge network. Prior to that activity, beginning in 1996, 1997, we thought there might have been a widespread bin Laden network. We couldn’t prove it. What this did, it started taking a string, pulling it and pulling it, then finding the spread of the web, more and more people, in more and more countries. We were able, over the course of about 18 months, to go from thinking there was a bin Laden network, to seeing it in 56 countries.
A lot of people looked at Sept. 11, and said “Massive intelligence failure. Haven’t seen an intelligence failure like this since Pearl Harbor.” What’s your opinion on that allegation?
I think it’s a cheap shot. I think when people say, no matter what event it is, they say, “Oh, it was an intelligence failure,” they frequently don’t know what the intelligence community said prior to the event. In June 2001, the intelligence community issued a warning that a major Al Qaeda terrorist attack would take place in the next many weeks. They said they were unable to find out exactly where it might take place. They said they thought it might take place in Saudi Arabia.
We asked, “Could it take place in the United States?” They said, “We can’t rule that out.” So in my office in the White House complex, the CIA sat and briefed the domestic U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, Immigration, Federal Aviation, Coast Guard, and Customs. The FBI was there as well, agreeing with the CIA, and told them that we were entering a period when there was a very high probability of a major terrorist attack. Now I don’t think that’s an intelligence failure. It may be a failure of other parts of the government, but I don’t think that was an intelligence failure.
You’ve been quoted as saying the stopping of the millennium attacks changed your mind dramatically. What do you mean by that?
We had always talked about the possibility that there were Al Qaeda cells in the United States. We had looked for evidence. We had encouraged FBI offices other than John O’Neill’s office in New York to start looking for evidence.
What happened in the millennium plot was that we found someone who had lived in Boston who was the leader of the planned attack at the millennium in Jordan. We found someone who lived in Canada who was planning a simultaneous attack in Los Angeles. When we started pulling on the strings, what we found was there were connections to people in Seattle, Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan and other cities throughout the United States.
Every time we looked at one of these individuals who looked like an Al Qaeda person, they lead us to someone else who was an Al Qaeda person — probably, somewhere else in the United States.
So I think a lot of the FBI leadership, for the first time, realized that O’Neill was right — that there probably were Al Qaeda people in the United States. They realized that only after they looked at the results of the investigation of the millennium bombing plot. So by February 2000, I think senior people in the FBI were saying there probably is a network here in the United States, and we have to change the way the FBI goes about finding that network.
The June-July warnings. A lot of things happened at that point. Do we think now that Sept. 11 was in fact what was being talked about?
Because one of the things that surprises a lot of the public, I think, is that immediately after Sept. 11, the administration knew exactly who had done it. Was that why?
No. On the day of Sept. 11, then the day or two following, we had a very open mind. CIA and FBI were asked, “See if it’s Hezbollah. See if it’s Hamas. Don’t assume it’s Al Qaeda. Don’t just assume it’s Al Qaeda.” Frankly, there was absolutely not a shred of evidence that it was anybody else. The evidence that it was Al Qaeda began just to be massive within days after the attack.
Somebody’s quoted as saying that they walked into your office and almost immediately afterwards, the first words out of your mouth was “Al Qaeda.”
Well, I assumed it was Al Qaeda. No one else had the intention of doing that. No one else that I knew of had the capability of doing that. So yes, as soon as it happened, I assumed it was Al Qaeda.
The Khobar Towers bombing happens, and there was a problem. O’Neill felt that neither the Saudis nor the State Department really want to pursue the trail where it led. What was the frustration with that investigation?
We believed that the Khobar Towers, the U.S. Air Force facility in Saudi Arabia, was probably bombed by Iranian government agents using Saudi Hezbollah terrorists. We believed that almost as soon as it happened. Of course, as in all these cases, you don’t want to just go off on the basis of your assumption, intuition, or on the basis of a few pieces of intelligence. One of the reasons that you use the FBI is to get real, hard, good forensic evidence, so that you can go to the Saudi government or the U.N. or our allies and say, “It was Iran, and we can prove it.”
So we asked the FBI to go there in huge numbers and do what only the FBI can do, a big investigation. Well, it turns out that the Saudi government also had a suspicion that it was Iran. The Saudi government didn’t really want the United States to conclude that it was Iran, go off half-cocked and start bombing Iran. The Saudis feared that the United States would bomb Iran, start a war, the Saudis would be hurt in that war, and the United States might not finish the job; that we might leave the Iranian regime in power and just do a few little retaliatory bombings, which would make it much worse for the Saudis.
So the Saudi government decided at a very high level to give the United States and the FBI only a little bit of cooperation, not the full picture, to stall, to delay, because they didn’t think that we really wanted to know. Or they convinced themselves that if we did find out the truth, that we’d do some stupid kind of reaction.
So O’Neill and Louis Freeh had a difficult task. They kept going to Saudi Arabia. They kept demanding that we get the information. The Saudis had decided not to give us more than a little bit. So the vice president, the president and the national security advisory got involved, and started beating up on every Saudi diplomat and Saudi counterpart that they could find, saying, “Yes, we do really want to know. We’re not going to do something crazy when we find out. We are going to consult with you about whatever it is we do.” Eventually — but it took a very long time — eventually the Saudi government did produce all the evidence that they had, and it did lead us to the conclusion that Iranian intelligence officers were involved in the attack.
How did this affect O’Neill? This sounds like it was going on way above O’Neill’s rank. But how did it affect O’Neill?
Well, O’Neill was the chief investigator. He would go to Saudi Arabia, sometimes with Louis Freeh, sometimes alone. He would try to do an FBI investigation with a counterpart, an ally. He would get very frustrated if that ally wasn’t cooperating. So he would try to do what he normally did in those kind of circumstances, which is to make personal friends with the cop on the other side of the case. That didn’t work either with the Saudis. So it became very frustrating for him, because he really wanted to do a good FBI investigation that had all the details laid out, all the facts proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Did he Louis Freeh agree on what the cooperation was with the Saudis?
I don’t know. I think you’d have to ask Louis. I think on at least one occasion, John told me that he believed that the Saudis were telling us one thing but doing another; that he tried to persuade the director of the FBI of that, but the director wanted to believe that the Saudis were cooperating.
The October 2000 Cole attack. O’Neill also had difficulties there when he went to Yemen. The famous story of the disagreements with Ambassador Bodine has been aired quite a bit. What’s your take on what was going on there?
I think there were two things going on in Yemen. The first thing was the government of Yemen didn’t want us to know all the details; in part, because that would reveal that some low-level people in the Yemeni government may have been part of the conspiracy; in part, because it would have shown that the Yemeni government didn’t really have control over a large section of Yemen; in part because it would have shown that Yemen was filled with terrorists from a whole variety of different organizations. So Yemen didn’t want to cooperate fully, didn’t want us to see everything that was there.
The other thing that was going on was that you had an U.S. ambassador who wanted to be fully in control of everything that every American official did in the country, and resented the fact that suddenly there were hundreds of FBI personnel in the country and only a handful of State Department personnel. She wanted good relations with Yemen as the number one priority.
John O’Neill wanted to stop terrorism as the number one priority, and the two conflicted. Almost all of us who were following the details in Washington, whether we were in the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House, State Department, the Defense Department — almost all of us thought that John O’Neill was doing the right thing.
But the State Department has to support its ambassador. State Department doesn’t have a lot of assets. It doesn’t have a lot of airplanes or a lot of guns. It’s basically got its ambassador. It’s got a letter to every ambassador from the president of the United States saying, “You, Ambassador, are my personal representative in the country. You’re in charge of everything the United States does.” So when the ambassador makes the decision, the State Department feels, for institutional reasons, that they have to back her up.
So I think even though the people we were working with in the State Department who were following the case thought the ambassador was wrong, nonetheless, they decided to back her up.
In January 2001, you wrote a memo where you basically stated there are more attacks coming, [that] Al Qaeda cells are here. What was that memo? What was the reason for it looking back at it now? How right did you get it?
I think the intelligence community, the FBI, were unanimous, certainly throughout the year 2000 into 2001, that there was in fact a very widespread Al Qaeda network around the world in probably between 50-60 countries — that they had trained thousands, perhaps over 10,000 terrorists at the camps in Afghanistan; that we didn’t really know who those people were. We didn’t have names for very many of them, and we didn’t know where they were; but since bin Laden kept saying the United States was the target, the United States was the enemy, that we had to expect an increasing rate of sophistication of attacks by this large Al Qaeda network against the United States.
As John O’Neill kept saying, there was no reason to think they’re always going to go after us in Saudi Arabia or Africa or Yemen. They tried to go after us, O’Neill would say, in 1993, in the first World Trade Center attack. O’Neill was convinced, in retrospect — and it took the FBI others a long time to realize it, many years actually — but O’Neill was convinced by the year 2000, certainly probably earlier than that, that the 1993 attack was in fact a bin Laden-led attack. We hadn’t heard the phrase Al Qaeda at the time.
We now know, going back through historical documents, that there was an Al Qaeda [back then]. It had just been formed, just been given that name. It was small. But O’Neill would say the attack of 1993 was Al Qaeda. The attempted attack at the millennium in the United States was Al Qaeda.
Whatever deterrents we had that said “you should never try to attack us in the United States,” that hadn’t worked. Therefore, he would say — and I think everyone in the FBI leadership and the CIA leadership was saying — “The attack is going to be big. It could be in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. It could also be in the United States.”
Without intelligence operatives on the ground in these organizations, how in the end does one stop something like this? If you look back on it now and you had one wish, you could have had one thing done, what would it have been?
Blow up the camps and take out their sanctuary. Eliminate their safe haven, eliminate their infrastructure. They would have been a hell of a lot less capable of recruiting people. Their whole “Come to Afghanistan where you’ll be safe and you’ll be trained,” well, that wouldn’t have worked if every time they got a camp together, it was blown up by the United States. That’s the one thing that we recommended that didn’t happen — the one thing in retrospect I wish had happened.
What did we lose when we lost John O’Neill?
For many of us, what we lost when we lost John O’Neill was one of our best friends. A guy that you just loved to spend time with, because there was such energy; intellectual energy, physical energy, such drive, and such panache as well.
I think when John O’Neill decided to leave government service, what we lost was a very, very rare thing in government service — somebody with enormous energy and devotion to duty who had a lot of intellectual power, a lot of physical stamina. It was all directed at the job, all directed with a lot of emotional energy to saving American lives and to defeating America’s enemies.
Sure, that’s all of our jobs, in the government and the police departments. … But it’s very, very rare when you see someone who was consumed by it and who was very capable at the same time. Somebody who doesn’t stop because it’s Sunday or Saturday or because it’s 8:00 or 10:00 at night. Somebody who believes with every inch of his body and every gray cell in his brain that he’s got to do this job because the job is important and the American people need him to do it, even if the American people don’t know yet about the threat.
He always wanted to be an FBI agent, always. From the time he was a little kid, he always wanted to serve the American people. He was never looking for the big paycheck. He was never looking for his name in the newspapers. What he was looking for was an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to save lives. That’s what we lost.
He’s always going to be one of my heroes. A big hero.