The man who knew
October 4, 2002 7:02 AM   Subscribe

The man who knew was John O'Neill, former FBI counterterrorism expert who spent six years connecting the dots to bin Laden and the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks last year. Last night Frontline broadcast an excellent documentary on the tragic ironies of his life, detailing the actions of the fatuous bureaucrats who stymied his investigations, and his own death in the World Trade Center. This one-man Office of Homeland Security shows that it's not about money or departments or posturing or color-coded alerts -- it's about a commitment to truth and a willingess to act.
posted by skimble (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the link, skimble. Just two days ago I read the Exile's significantly more sinister take on O'Neill's life. From the article:
bin Laden's most ardent pursuer getting killed by bin Laden's soldiers in his first day at his new job
Coincidence? You be the judge. One man's tragic irony is another man's dark conspiracy, after all. I'll have to go read the PBS account for balance...
posted by BinGregory at 7:23 AM on October 4, 2002

a commitment to truth
how disgusting. that concept flies in the face of the principles our government stands for.
posted by quonsar at 7:32 AM on October 4, 2002

you said it well skimble. God rest O'Neill.

what is sinister about this article, IYO, bingregory?
posted by clavdivs at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2002

(sidenote): quonsar, better start backing your rhetoric, m'kay. you can start with the reparations thread.
posted by clavdivs at 7:41 AM on October 4, 2002

I was characterizing the Exile article I linked to. Here's an excerpt:
This account of how a local ambassador was able to thwart the single most important investigation to America’s national security just because she didn’t like the lead investigator’s manners is impossible to swallow. What’s more incredible is that the FBI allegedly wasn’t allowed to return to Yemen to continue their investigation until Bodine left her ambassadorship in August 2001. Keep that date in mind, August 2001. A lot of people seemed to retire right around then. But I’ll get to that later.

Me, I'm content to blame the fatuous bureaucrats.
posted by BinGregory at 7:51 AM on October 4, 2002

Frontline, IMO, is well balanced show. i believe they addressed these issues you speak of BinGregory.
posted by clavdivs at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2002

Indeed. Indeed they did. I linked to Exile because it appears that they scooped Frontline. That deserves a little credit. Like you say though, Frontline puts a very human face on this amazing string of events. Letting my personal biases show, though, I still have to wonder what pressure might have been brought on Bodine to make her jam O'Neill like that. I look west...
posted by BinGregory at 8:17 AM on October 4, 2002

i value the link you put up BinGregory. It is what this place is partly about. point -counterpoint, at least in the comments.
i was rattled by this show and share your sentiment on the bureaucratic thing.

my take is that Bodine was bowing to Yemeni wishes. she believed the damage to u.s.-yemeni relations would be crippled if not ruined if we went into investigate like a bunch of cowboys. there is some merit to this. But the Key is that O'Neill perceived an even greater danger then ruffling the yemenis' feathers.
perhaps he was right.
posted by clavdivs at 8:28 AM on October 4, 2002

I would like that Exile article better if it weren't so sneeringly certain of its interpretation of events. The way they trash and mischaracterize The Siege is emblematic:

The film drew such heated protests from Arab-American groups that it was singly responsible for ushering in the return of Russian and neo-Nazi terrorist-villains in Hollywood.

To accept this sentence at face value, you have to believe that Arab terrorist-villains were a commonplace prior to the film, but in fact it was an anomaly. The classic Hollywood terrorist had already become the money-grubbing Hans of Die Hard, a German with a trans-Atlantic accent, rather than a swarthy person with a religious or political motivation. By what logic, then, was the film "singly responsible" for a trend which was already well established a decade before it appeared? Time travel? Then there's the silliness that the film "nearly ruined Willis's career", when it was but one of a string of Willis-headlined films which failed at the box office (Last Man Standing, The Jackal, Mercury Rising), chipping away at his marquee value all the way -- and the film in question appeared the same year as the summer action blockbuster Armageddon, which doesn't seem to have hurt his career at all. In actuality, Willis had been trying to stretch his wings out of the action genre since the 1980s, generally with embarrasing results (Hudson Hawk).

So if they're this wrong about fairly obvious things, available to anyone, why should I trust their judgement on things of which they claim exclusive knowledge?
posted by dhartung at 9:12 AM on October 4, 2002

Yikes, that's embarassing. Here I am trying to be all cool-ly cryptic, and I say west. Would you believe I spend half my day looking at maps? I mean *cue creepy music* ...I look north...
posted by BinGregory at 9:12 AM on October 4, 2002

The New Yorker article on John O'Neill, published last January, is also well worth reading. I think it was somewhat better balanced than last night's episode; it seems more honest about O'Neill's shortcomings.

The Frontline episode, however, made a very compelling case that the FBI had a reasonable shot at knowing about 9/11. When I hear about the Phoenix memo or the Minnesota case they sound like huge missteps, but I always think to myself, we're benefitting from hindsight. All that is dispelled by this story. Instead, the FBI leadership was deliberately undermining the one agent who knew more about Al Qaeda than anyone, to the point of pushing him out of the FBI just as the CIA was clearly warning of an imminent Al Qaeda attack.

Instead of focusing on cabinet positions or information flow, maybe the government should be publicly addressing the kind of agent that could have detected the 9/11 plot -- and making it clear that they now know to support those agents. Make O'Neill a figure in a Bush speech, and agents like him will know to follow his example.
posted by precipice at 9:25 AM on October 4, 2002

I saw this last night; it was not the best thing I've ever seen on Frontline in terms of production (too many filler shots of drinks on a bar, etc), but was pretty interesting. The amazing thing about O'Neil was that as far as I can tell, nobody (with the exception of the few individuals interviewed for the show) liked him. He managed to be brash enough to anger his superiors, yet enough of a prep and a socialite to alienate some of his field agents. He was one part renegade cop, and one part master networker.

I don't see some of the conflicts depicted in the show quite as clearly as the Frontline producers -- in particular, I'm inclined to sympathize to some extent with the Ambassador to Yemen. O'Neil, I would think, probably came across like MacArthur attempting to retake the Pacific when he arrived with the muscle that was backing the FBI. But on the other hand, I can see what O'Neil was trying to do.

On a related note, Seymour Hersh had an interesting piece about the intelligence work in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui in the New Yorker a week or two ago. Unfortunately, I didn't save the link (it was online at some point), and not I can't find it.

Anyways, thank god for Frontline. Very few things on television make me feel less stupid for watching them.
posted by tingley at 9:30 AM on October 4, 2002

I agree that the production of this particular FRONTLINE was a bit too much like some lame network program. But the information covered made me concerned that FBI folks were too concerned about culture and protocol and not concerned enough about what Mr. O'Neil brought to the table.
posted by 4midori at 12:13 PM on October 4, 2002

I agree that the usual Frontline very high production quality was somewhat less so, but a compelling case against the FBI's politicized, bureaucratic inertia was made by the intelligent script.

BinGregory, thanks for the Exile link which I will need some time to digest. I have been following the O'Neill story since I first read his obit in the New York Times a few days after 9/11, but I've never seen this. Precipice points out the earlier New Yorker article on O'Neill, also quite noteworthy.

Tingley's valid point that O'Neill was unlikable raises a larger problem in the security of our country. Will only amiable yes-men fill up this so-called Department of Homeland Security? How safe will we be when only sycophantic cowards and paper-pushers run the show? I guess we know the answer already. (FYI Tingley: the Hersh Moussaoui piece is not yet online, I think.)

The danger of ruffling the feathers of US-Yemeni relations now seems trivial with the benefit of hindsight. But we must remember that by the time of O'Neill's arrival in November 2000, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings, and the foiled millennium plot on LAX had already taken place. Hundreds of people were already dead or injured in what was -- in O'Neill's mind -- a clear chain of events all linking back to bin Laden. Bodine may deserve some of the blame for the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. The Albright angle is interesting and deserves further thought.

One other quick fact pointed out in the show: in June 2001, the intelligence community starting picking up a lot of signal that "something big" was on the way.

A couple of weeks later John Ashcroft stopped flying commercial aircraft (more about that here).

As many of them have pointed out, the greatest gift we could give the families of the victims is a full investigation. Fat chance.
posted by skimble at 12:52 PM on October 4, 2002

An eerie show, for sure, the production quality question aside (how many shots of the Hoover bldg can you have, anyway...).

All I could keep thinking-- due in part, I suppose, by the scrolling type used for the titles-- was that O'Neill seemed like a real-life Fox Mulder.....

-FBI maverick
-relentless at the cost of family, or a life (okay, John was social..)
-possessing a 'sense' of what the 'truth' was
-distrusted internally

Ashcroft as CSM? spooooky....
posted by toowacky at 1:44 PM on October 4, 2002

Here is an interview with the authors of a book on bin Laden who talked to O'Neil in the summer of 2001 while researching the book.
posted by homunculus at 4:35 PM on October 4, 2002

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