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Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

A Review of A Recent Book on John O'Neill, The Heroic Counterterror Expert Who Died on 9/11


Friday, Nov. 07, 2003

Murray Weiss has been an investigative reporter for most of his career. It should therefore come as no surprise that the man knows how to dig out the facts and tell a good story. His recent book, The Man Who Warned America, is riveting.

The book tells the story of John O'Neill, who was America's top expert on Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden until he was killed in the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. This is a story that will keep readers turning the pages far into the night.

Solving the Enigma of John O'Neill

In undertaking this effort, Weiss was faced with a formidable challenge. Not only did he have to penetrate the arcane world of counterterrorism, but he also had to mine the truth about John O'Neill, an enormously complicated and enigmatic figure.

I first met John in 1987 when I was named special counsel to the House of Representatives for the impeachment proceedings against then-federal judge Alcee Hastings. At that time, John was Congressional liaison for the FBI. Even though we worked together on that case, and John thereafter remained one of my closest friends for nearly 15 years, there was much about his life that I learned only later, from Weiss's book.

O'Neill's Passion and Expertise

From the time he was a kid, John O'Neill knew he wanted to work for the FBI. At 18, he became a clerk and a tour guide at FBI headquarters while attending college. Eventually, he became an agent.

Over the years, John's extraordinary intelligence, astonishing work ethic and passionate desire to succeed propelled him through the ranks of the FBI until, in 1997, he was named head of the National Security division of the New York office. This put O'Neill in charge of 400 agents responsible for counterterrorism efforts, as well as espionage and counterintelligence.

Weiss relates how O'Neill immersed himself in his job with an intensity that awed his colleagues. As one agent told Weiss "we went from zero to one hundred miles an hour" with no stops on the way. O'Neill became the FBI's leading expert on terrorism and became convinced that the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was only the beginning of a terrorist campaign against the United States.

O'Neill also recognized that Osama Bin Laden's threats in 1997 of a jihad attack against the United States were real. He was relentlessly vocal about his concerns that Al Qaeda had cells operating in the United States and was increasingly frustrated when officials at the highest levels of government did not always appreciate the seriousness of the threat.

O'Neill's encyclopedic knowledge of the terrorist threat was legendary among his colleagues. Weiss points out that when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, O'Neill quickly recognized that this was a domestic, rather than an international act of terrorism.

There is more to that story, however, than Weiss recounts. John decorated his FBI office in New York with numerous colorful memorabilia from his meetings abroad with foreign law enforcement and counterterrorist officials. On a visit there, I noticed a simple block of Lucite on a table with a scrap of paper embedded in it. John said it was a gift that an agent working the Oklahoma City bombing case had sent to him after the case was solved.

The scrap of paper was part of the agent's notes of a conversation he had had with John right after the bombing. John had been asked by the agent who he thought might have been involved. I looked more closely at the scrap of paper. On it the agent had written the name John had given him: Tim McVeigh.

Could a New Agency Be Home to Brilliant Mavericks Like O'Neill?

Paralleling the story of O'Neill's efforts to combat terrorism, Weiss reports on the complexity of O'Neill's personal and social life. It is a story of epic proportions. John wore the finest suits, smoked the best cigars, frequented the top nightspots and, according to Weiss, had simultaneous serious relationships going for years with three different women.

This attention to O'Neill's personal relations and highflying lifestyle might seem gratuitous, but Weiss makes two important points. First, O'Neill's flamboyant manner alienated him from more straight-laced members of the Bureau's hierarchy. O'Neill's hard-charging professionalism, combined with his flashy lifestyle, resulted in a cadre of enemies in the Bureau who were willing and able to take O'Neill down as soon as the opportunity arose. Unfortunately, John gave them that opportunity -- and that, in turn, precipitated his departure from the Bureau in September 2001.

Weiss also raises the issue of whether an agency outside the FBI should be created to fight terrorism, one that would be less bureaucratic and rigid; an agency which might be more hospitable to a maverick genius like O'Neill. It is a legitimate question.

The Bureau has learned a lot about fighting terrorism since 9/11 and has developed investigative skills and techniques over many years, which would be extremely difficult to replicate in a new agency. At the same time, it has little tolerance for those who do not fit the bureaucratic mold. Weiss has a valid concern that our future national security may be affected by how this tension is resolved.

An Admirable Book About a Great Hero

On August 13, 2001, I had dinner with John at one of his favorite hangouts in Washington, a French bistro only a few blocks from FBI headquarters. John told me he was about to turn in his retirement papers to the Bureau and that he had lined up a terrific new job in the private sector. We drank a toast to his future success. He was about to become head of security for the World Trade Center. At the end of the dinner he gave me his patented bear hug. John never just shook hands. It was the last time I ever saw or spoke to him.

I still have a card in my wallet with all of John's contact numbers. I can't bring myself to throw it away. As John always said: "Friends never say goodbye."

Read this book. It will make you proud that John O'Neill was on the front lines fighting those who want to harm us. Murray Weiss has captured the essence of John's passionate genius and his uncompromising efforts in an unending struggle. The book is a worthy tribute to John O'Neill's memory.

Alan I. Baron is an attorney in Washington, D.C. who specializes in white collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation. He has also served as special impeachment counsel to the House of Representatives and as Minority Chief Counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Law School.

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