Annie Nakao, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004
She once vowed to construct a new culture -- una cultura mestiza
-- with lumber, bricks and mortar, and her own "feminist
Friends say that when she died Saturday at her home in Santa
Cruz, Chicana poet and author Gloria Anzaldúa had fulfilled
that vision, leaving behind a feminist and lesbian landscape redefined
by the struggles and dreams of contemporary women of color.
Her death, at age 61, was caused by complications from diabetes,
which she suffered for years.
A day after her death, a small group of friends gathered in Oakland
and built an altar in honor, they said, of their querida hermana,
their maestro, their sister-writer.
"To all of us, she was a source of profound inspiration
in the way she made writing her life's warrior work," wrote
author, playwright and Stanford University drama Professor Cherríe
Moraga in an e-mail sent to Ms. Anzaldúa's wide circle
One of the first openly lesbian Chicana authors, Ms. Anzaldúa
played a critical role in forging an inclusive feminist movement.
As the editor of multicultural anthologies and the author of
numerous works, the Texas native is best known for her writing
about geographic, psychological, linguistic and sexual borders
where disenfranchised people reside.
"She created this metaphor about outsiderhood that really
impacted generations of students and activists," Moraga said
in a phone interview.
In her acclaimed book, "Borderlands/La Frontera, The New
Mestiza," now a classic in Chicano studies, Ms. Anzaldúa
weaves in and out of Spanish. It was deliberate, she explained
in the book.
"Well, when Chicanas read 'Borderlands,' when it was read
by little Chicanas, in particular, it somehow legitimated them,"
she wrote. "They saw that I was code-switching, which is
what a lot of Chicanas were doing in real life as well, and for
the first time after reading that book they seemed to realize,
'Oh, my way of writing and speaking is OK.' ''
Ms. Anzaldúa was born in the South Texas town of Hargill
in 1942, the eldest child of Tejano sharecroppers. Her ancestors,
she said, lost their land and became migrant farmers after the
1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when Mexico ceded Texas to the
The future poet and writer escaped a life of migrant labor when
her parents sent her to school, but she continued to work the
fields until she earned a B.A. from Pan American University in
Texas. The experience fostered a deep respect for campesinos.
Ms. Anzaldúa went on to earn an M.A. from the University
of Texas at Austin and a doctorate from UC Santa Cruz.
Ms. Anzaldúa is survived by her mother, Amalia; a sister,
Hilda; and brothers Urbano Anzaldúa Jr. and Oscar Anzaldúa.
Public memorials are being planned around the country.
Frontline Interview 3/20/02 with Richard A. Clarke
President Clinton's national coordinator for counterterrorism,
he is currently President Bush's special adviser for cyberspace
security. In this interview he talks about the attributes that
made John O'Neill stand apart in the world of counterterrorism,
sketches Al Qaeda's threat and how it came into focus for U.S.
intelligence, and discusses some of John O'Neill's battles, including
the USS Cole investigation. This interview was conducted March
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
He's always going to be one of my heroes. A big hero.
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