[A-List] US state: 9/11 scandal & John O'Neill
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Mar 26 06:09:35 MST 2004
New light on the life and death of John O'Neill
By Tom Griffin
Asia Times, March 27 2004
LONDON - Former White House counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke has
rocked the Bush administration with his criticism of the "war on terror".
However, doubts about the administration's commitment to the fight against
al-Qaeda are not new.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, another counter-terrorism
expert, Irish-American John O'Neill, became the focus for those concerns.
O'Neill had been one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) leading
specialists on al-Qaeda, but he was destined never to play a role in
America's response to September 11. In a supremely ironic twist of fate, he
was himself killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
The story of John O'Neill, Richard Clarke and their battle against al-Qaeda
began at the Twin Towers eight years earlier, when Islamic fundamentalists
made their first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center with the 1993
bombing masterminded by Ramzi Yousef.
Yousef was eventually tracked down in Pakistan. The intelligence ended up on
the desk of Richard Clarke on a Sunday morning. There were only a few hours
to act on it. Clarke rang the FBI in the forlorn hope that there would be
somebody to take the call. Clarke described what happened next in a 2002
"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'."
O'Neill had never worked on the case before, but together with Clarke he
manned the phones coordinating the capture of Yousef before he could slip
over the border into Afghanistan. It was, according to Clarke, "the
beginning of a beautiful friendship".
After the capture of Yousef, O'Neill learned everything he could about the
threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. He became one of the first
people to understand the "new terrorism" which was already taking shape.
He set about convincing his colleagues of the threat with similar
determination. "John would come into the room and there would be a presence
about him," Clarke said. "He would go around the room like it was a ward
meeting and he was an Irish politician."
There were some obstacles that O'Neill's charismatic persona couldn't
overcome, however. That first became clear after the Khobar Towers bombings
in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 American soldiers.
According to his friend Chris Isham, O'Neill "felt the Saudis were
definitely playing games and that the senior officials in the US government
just didn't get it".
Similar problems dogged O'Neill's investigation of the 2000 bombing of the
USS Cole in Yemen, when he clashed so severely with US ambassador Barbara
Bodine that he was refused clearance to enter the country.
The level of opposition he faced within the US government may have
contributed to O'Neill's decision to leave the FBI in July 2001, even though
there were signs of increasing al-Qaeda activity. He took up a new post as
head of security at the World Trade Center.
He was in his office on the 34th floor of the North Tower when he was hit by
American Airlines Flight 11 at 8.46am on September 11. From there he made
his way to an emergency command center, the last place he was seen alive,
before entering the South Tower where his body was found.
The career and untimely death of John O'Neill have given rise to a great
deal of speculation about the source of the obstacles he faced. Its clear
that the turf battles between O'Neill and diplomats anxious to maintain good
relations with Arab states began in the Bill Clinton years.
There were signs that problems intensified under the Bush administration.
When O'Neill retired, someone leaked the story to the New York Times,
together with details of an incident when he had lost a briefcase carrying
sensitive documents. O'Neill blamed the incoming FBI director Tom Pickard
for the disclosure.
The most serious allegation against the Bush administration came in the
controversial French book Bin Laden, la verite interdite (Bin Laden, the
forbidden truth), released shortly after September 11.
Authors Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie claimed to have been told
by O'Neill that "the main obstacles to investigate Islamic terrorism were US
oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it".
Brisard and Dasquie drew attention to the strong business links between
members of the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia through the oil
industry, and even through defense company the Carlyle Group, between the
Bush and Bin Laden families.
Richard Clarke's latest statements do not provide outright support to the
thesis that these links led the Bush administration to obstruct O'Neill.
Nevertheless, in a CBS interview last weekend, Clarke portrayed an
administration that was remarkably reluctant to get to grips with al-Qaeda.
In the aftermath of September 11, Clarke claimed: "The president dragged me
into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want
you to find whether Iraq did this'. Now he never said, 'Make it up'. But the
entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted
me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this."
When Clarke insisted that there was no Iraqi connection, he claimed that the
president responded "in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come
back with that answer."
Clarke followed up that interview on Wednesday with his testimony to
America's official September 11 Commission. "By invading Iraq, the president
has greatly undermined the war on terrorism," he told the bipartisan
commission to applause from an audience which included many relatives of
September 11 victims.
Clarke's insider criticisms of the administration have the potential to be
uniquely damaging to a Republican election campaign built around George W
Bush, the "war president".
Accordingly, the administration has hit back hard, asking why Clarke did not
make similar points in previous interviews after September 11, given when he
was still a public official.
Those interviews are still so far the only ones in which Clarke has
elaborated on the role of John O'Neill, and that means that there may yet be
further revelations about the obstacles O'Neill faced, the reasons he left
the FBI and the source of the leak to the New York Times about his
The Bush administration typically moves swiftly to rebut its critics. It may
yet find itself having to challenge the memory of a man who died in the twin
towers on September 11.
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