FRONTLINE’s “The Man Who Knew,” chronicles John O’Neill’s story — a story that embraces the clash of personalities, politics and intelligence, offering important insights into both the successes and failures of America’s fight against terrorism.
Drawing on exclusive interviews with many of O’Neill’s closest friends and associates, this report opens with O’Neill’s introduction into the new world of terrorism — the capture in 1995 of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists — Ramzi Yousef, the ringleader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.
Former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White credits O’Neill with quickly grasping the danger Yousef and other terrorists represented to America.
“Yousef is one of the most dangerous people on the planet — also very smart,” she says. “Getting and incapacitating him was a significant public safety issue. And John O’Neill recognized that and was not about to take ‘no’ for an answer before he was taken into custody.”
O’Neill immersed himself into learning everything he could about global terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist militancy. In 1997, O’Neill was promoted to special agent in charge of the national security division in the bureau’s New York office. Observers say O’Neill grabbed at the chance to head the team that was investigating and prosecuting most major international terrorism cases. The job would also be the perfect base from which to continue his pursuit of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
But while John O’Neill had succeeded in winning allies among CIA and international intelligence agencies, not everyone within the FBI was so enamored of him. A fixture on New York’s celebrity social circuit, O’Neill’s flamboyant style and his unconventional personal life — he had several longtime girlfriends and a wife he never divorced — had long raised eyebrows within the FBI.
“The Man Who Knew,” gives viewers an insider’s perspective on O’Neill’s investigations as well as the internal territorial debates among the FBI, the State Department, and the White House over how to deal with U.S. terrorist investigations in East Africa in August 1998 and the Yemen in October 2000.
“[O’Neill] believed the New York field office had the greatest depth of expertise of anybody in the country on this issue, and if it’s Al Qaeda, how could you send anybody else but the people who know the most?” recalls Fran Townsend, former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s office of intelligence policy.
O’Neill’s New York FBI team was at the center of bureacratic arm-wrestling over who would head the 1998 investigation into the embassy bombings in East Africa. O’Neill again was the focus of a heated political battle over the investigation of the 2000 attack against the USS Cole in Yemen. Current and former government officials such as Richard Clarke,counterterrorism chief in the Clinton administration and Barry Mawn, former head of the New York FBI office, recount how O’Neill’s desire to show the Yemeni security forces — which he viewed as being less than cooperative — that the FBI meant business was one of many issues in the investigation which angered U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine.