Investigating the 911 terror attacks in retrospect, there is nothing inevitable about its occurrence. There were enough indications for the FBI to take preventative action. John O’Neill saw himself as the champion of this cause – one of saving America from a grave security threat. But, unfortunately, those around him, especially the top leaders in the FBI did not concur with O’Neill’s views. More than an odd lapse it is a systematic failure on part of the key national agency. Bureaucratic bungling and red tape have made O’Neill’s desperate attempts to communicate a challenge. Personal ego hassles between O’Neill and his peers and superiors was another mitigating factor. O’Neill’s abrasive personality rubbed off his colleagues the wrong way. As a result, the intelligence reports given out by O’Neill did not get the urgent attention that they merited. One needs to ask how personal favoritism and prejudice can undermine the high profile operations of the FBI.
John O’Neill was quite vocal and persistent about the presence of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States. John had communicated how the terror network had developed capabilities for attacking many strategic locations not just in the United States but anywhere in the world. It was O’Neill who identified Al Qaeda as the foremost threat to America -much ahead of his peers did. As his colleague Richard Clarke recounts,
“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…” (Richard Clarke, NSS Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001)
John O’Neill had systematically and meticulously been building a case against Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He was onto this project ever since the Ramzi Yousef case. He even delved deep into the theory and history of jihad that was intrinsic to radical Islamic fundamentalism. But the sad fact is that all this impressive intelligence gathering that O’Neill had dedicated himself had not been duly appreciated. At the outset, the personal ego clashes and the red tape that had hindered information flow and suitable preventative action. But what is also to be blamed is the lackadaisical attitude of some of the FBI officers. Some of them were so out of tune with emerging reality that they were citing Hezbollah or Hamas as the most potent threat to American security. This attitude persisted even as late as the year 2000, when bin Laden was still perceived as a ‘terrorist financier’ and not a direct threat. Where John O’Neill stood out was in his ability to connect the dots and see the big picture. This much is attested by his co-worker Clint Guenther: