Remembering John P O' Neill
John P O' Neill was born on February 6, 1952, in Atlantic City, New
Jersey. At an early age, he professed a desire to become an FBI agent. Staying true to his dream, O' Neill obtains a master's degree in forensics and starts out as a fingerprint clerk for the FBI. While in his first year of college, John marries his high school sweetheart, Christine O' Neill. By 1976 , O' Neill is a full fledged FBI agent.
After 15 years of experience, O' Neill is promoted to assistant special agent in charge of the Chicago field office. O' Neill established the Fugitive Task Force in an effort to increase communication skills between the FBI and local agencies.
In 1995 he returned to the Nation's capital and took charge of counter-terrorism. The World Trade Center had been bombed a few years before and the man behind the attack, Ramzi Yousef, was the most wanted terrorist of the time. O'Neill continued to gather information on Islamic terrorists and was noted for his communication skills.
""In a (11/96) speech at the Explosives Detection Symposium and Aviation Security
Technology Conference in New Jersey, O'Neill tells the audience that
"interesting times lie ahead" and that the main terrorist threat now
comes from transnational groups not backed by national governments. He
also warns, "We see the intent is for a large number of casualties."""
But his style and personal frustration with officials who didn't seem receptive to the idea of a growing threat of Islamic terror may have cost O' Neill in the eyes of some.
""Probably it would be his James Bond-type style, as opposed to the substance.
The sharp elbows and being abrasive, this didn't particularly bother me. But I
think it bothered some people. John liked to be viewed as the guy in charge. I
had heard stories, probably before I got there, that he was "Mr. New York." He
was the FBI in New York. If you needed anything or wanted anything, you had to
go through John. I think he also enjoyed having the contacts, liaison, being a
power broker, the Elaine's.""
O'Neill continued to warn of growing threats of terrorism, saying that
modern groups are not supported by governments and that there are
terrorist cells operating within the United States. He also complained that Soviet war in Afghanistan had unwittingly produced a security threat, and cautioned that the millinium had left the agency with too few resources to cover the threats.
After the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, O' Neill has the forsight
to warn the agency of domestic threats and reccomends that New York be
named the lead office of the investigation. Three years before 9/11, O'
Neill was obsessed with Osama Bin Laden, three US embasssy's are
attacked in 1998
"""John completely throws himself into this.
He's reading everything he can get his hands on about radical fundamentalism.
So I think it was probably before World Trade Center that this issue of radical
fundamentalism sort of raises itself on his scope. He's already beginning to
focus on it before the first World Trade Center, and think about it and look at
the implications of it.
By the time the first World Trade Center bombing happens, from things he said
to me, he's already got in his mind this is a major and long-term problem for
us that we are ill-equipped to deal with. Not because we lack the commitment to
deal with it, but because it's a mindset he's now read, he's studied it. He
really believes this is a mindset that will be so difficult to us to counter
because it's so alien to us, the whole thinking of it, that he's not sure we're
well prepared to deal with it. ...""
Dr Janet Parker;
""One of John O’Neill’s most important contributions to counter terrorism
investigation was his wonderful ability to maintain communication with
a wide range of contacts. I was, just one, of these seemingly
inconsequential contacts. This extensive network of personal contacts
contributed to his full understanding of the evil he faced. Through my
contact with John O’Neill I gained a more fuller appreciation of the
hard work and sacrifices of those who gather intelligence about
In July of 2001, O' Neill hears that the World Trade Center needs a new security chief and retires from the FBI, knowing full well what he was getting into;
""According to Chris Isham, O'Neill recognized the threat still posed to
the World Trade Center. "When he had first gotten the job at the World
Trade Center, he told me, 'I've got this great job. I'm head of
security at the World Trade Center.' And I joked with him and said,
'Well, that will be an easy job. They're not going to bomb that place
again.' And he said, 'Well actually -- he immediately came back and he
said, 'actually they've always wanted to finish that job. I think
they're going to try again.""
John P O' Neill was a visionary investigator who's dedication to the security of his fellow Americans cost him his life on September 11, 2001.
O'Neill is in his 34th floor office in the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
when American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into it. Among others, O'Neill
calls Valerie James
once he is outside the building. He asks her what hit the building and
tells her, "Val, it's horrible. There are body parts everywhere." A few
seconds later he tells her, "Okay, I'll call you in a little bit."
O'Neill also sends a text message to Fran Townsend to report that he is okay.
In the minutes after the attack, O'Neill makes his way to the
command center that had been set up. There he sees FBI agent Wesley
Wong. Wong would tell Esquire magazine later, "He was in FBI
mode. Then he turned and kind of looked at me and went toward the
interior of the complex. From the time John walked away to the time the
building collapsed was certainly not more than a half hour or 20
minutes." Wong is the last person to see him alive.
A week after his body is found in the debris of the South Tower,
about a thousand mourners attend John O'Neill's service in Atlantic
City. Barry Mawn,
one of the speakers, tells the gathering that O'Neill didn't resign
from the FBI because of the briefcase incident. Mawn says that he felt
it was important to clear up some of the things people were saying
about O'Neill's departure. "He didn't run from a fight. He didn't
retire because this was a serious matter. He retired because
circumstances were right and it was a good job," Mawn tells FRONTLINE.
Following the service, John O'Neill is buried in the churchyard of
St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, the church where he once served as an