March 1, 2002, 12:00 AM
By Tom Junod
O'Neill? Oh, yeah, O'Neill would have loved this. Look at the clock. Look at the bartender's face. It's 4:30 in the morning. It's closing time, babe, even in New York, and we're still talking about him. We're still trying to figure him out. We're smoking one cigarette after another and washing them down with Scotch--his Scotch, Chivas. It's his Scotch, and his ungodly hour, in his city, at one of his cherished haunts--and he's dead. John O'Neill died nearly four months ago. He's been eulogized at seven memorial services, and he's been buried near the place where he grew up, and yet he's still haunting those who loved him, still making them ask or answer questions, still forcing them to contemplate his holy goddamn implacable enigma.
He would have loved this, don't you think?
Hell, it's almost as if O'Neill wanted us to go on talking about him, given the circumstances of his death, given the irony--that's the word people use when they try to explain how John O'Neill died. It's tragic that he died, like three thousand others, in the attack on the Twin Towers. It's ironic that he died--unlike three thousand others--as the man charged with protecting the Twin Towers from attack, first as the FBI's foremost exponent of counterterrorism, then as the security director of the World Trade Center. It's ironic that the man who first identified Osama bin Laden died in the end
by bin Laden's faraway hand. You see, he always knew. He always knew that we were vulnerable, that an event as catastrophic as September 11 was not only likely but inevitable, that bin Laden's minions were here, among us, on our soil, plotting and waiting. According to legend--and the O'Neill legend began to take shape as soon as he was listed among the missing--he was talking about the imminence of a terrorist attack the night before he died. He was at Elaine's in New York and about to head out to the China Club when he nodded to a friend and said, "We're due. It's gonna happen...."
It's enough to give you chills, people say. It's enough to make you believe in God or fate or karma or all three. But for those who loved him most--or, to put it more precisely, those he left behind--it's not so much the way he died that haunts them as the way he lived. Look at the woman we're sitting with, Valerie James. She lived with O'Neill. She was with him for eleven years. Her children considered him their father. And yet here she is, and the cigarette in front of her is burning like a fuse, and the drinks are down to the dregs, and the bartender's face is creased in an expression of simultaneous sorrow and impatience, and she's still talking about the kind of man John O'Neill had to become in order to protect the rest of us from Osama bin Laden.
And then the next night, there's another woman, and at 4:30 in the morning, she's still talking about the kind of man John O'Neill had to become....
And then there's another, the one who supposedly knew him best.
And they all say, If you want to understand John O'Neill, you have to understand what he did for a living. You have to understand that he was a spy.
You have to understand that he not only kept secrets--he loved secrets.
You could know him for years and you wouldn't know anything about him that he didn't want you to know.
No, you would know precisely what he wanted you to know. That was his great gift.
What he feared most was someone getting close enough to him to put all his lives together--someone who knew not just the part but the whole.
You know what?
He would have hated this.
HE WENT BACK IN. That's how everyone begins the story of John O'Neill. He was standing outside the Twin Towers. He was safe. He was alive. He went back in, presumably to help people escape, and he died. That's what was reported in newspapers and on television after his death. That's what his son, J. P., says. When current and former agents of the FBI are asked about John O'Neill, they say, He went back in, because as far as they're concerned, if that's the truth, no one needs to know anything else about him or the life he led. If he went back in, who cares about the other stuff? Who cares that John O'Neill was difficult? Who cares that when he left the FBI he was under investigation for losing a briefcase full of classified documents? Who cares that when he went to Yemen to investigate the bombing of the USS Cole, he wound up being the first FBI agent in history barred from a foreign country by a United States ambassador? Who cares that he gave everything to the FBI and retired heartbroken and in debt? Who cares about his private life? John O'Neill was a hero. He was a patriot. He spent his life fighting terrorists. He gave his life fighting terrorists. Whatever he did, he did for us, the people of the United States of America. He went back in. As his mother, Dorothy O'Neill, says, "For the love of God, isn't that enough?"
But what if he didn't go back in? What if forensic evidence suggests that he was, in fact, outside when the first tower fell? What if the last person he communicated with ... but why even go there? People need the legend of John O'Neill. Everyone involved in this story needs the legend of John O'Neill. The question of how he died merely sheds light on the question of how he lived, and the question of how he lived merely sheds light on a truth even larger than the legend. John O'Neill became a certain kind of man in his struggle to save us, and the kind of man he became struggled, in the end, to save even himself. "John O'Neill was one of those rare people about whom everything that was said was true," said a man in foreign intelligence who was otherwise as elusive in conversation as smoke. "Do you know what I mean by that? Everything?"
That's what John O'Neill would say when he was standing in front of a mirror. He would say it when he was preparing to go out at night, and he would say it when he stayed out too late at night and had to face the world in the morning. A ritualistic man, ruthlessly attentive to the social graces, he was as well known for saying certain things in certain situations as he was for kissing men on the mouth and speaking to women with a twinkly sadness in his eyes. "I love you, man. You're my brother": That's what he said to men, particularly men who worked for him at the FBI. "I'm pouring out my heart to you, babe": That's what he said to women, particularly women who needed to be convinced all over again that his heart was overflowing. "We okay?": That's what he was most famous for, because he would say it to both men and women, often in a spasm of contrition, sometimes at 4:30 in the morning. He would wake someone up with a phone call, asking, "We okay? We okay?" until, Jesus Christ, it was okay. He had rituals of attack and rituals of entreaty and then the ritual he saved for himself when he looked in the mirror: Showtime, babe.
Did he say "It's showtime" the morning of September 11? We don't know. We can only presume. He had stayed out late the night before. He had to face the world in the morning. Hell, on a Monday night, he had stayed out till 2:30--Elaine's, the China Club--ministering to a friend with girl troubles, repeating his prediction of imminent catastrophe. Now he was hungover, still vile with Scotch and cigar smoke. He was forty-nine years old and prone to worry about his weight and his hairline. He was about six feet tall. Though anxious about his appearance--"How can someone like you love a fat, bald guy like me?" is what he would ask pretty women--he was irresistibly black Irish, with thick, crowning eyebrows, a ravenous smile whose corners dimpled his wide, pugnacious face, and gray eyes that lured men and women alike with the promise of tales untold. He had thinning black hair, combed straight back from a pronounced widow's peak and held in place by an application of Paul Mitchell styling mousse, a dusting of hair spray, and then the nervous reassurance of his hand. On the morning of September 11, he was wearing, in Valerie James's recollection, a blue pinstripe Burberry suit, bought at a sample sale; a starched white shirt, stiff as armor; a blue tie; and black Bruno Magli lace-up shoes ordered by mail from Nordstrom, size 9 1/2 wide. On his thick finger was, as always, his American University ring, and in his pocket was, as always, a personalized cigar cutter he received as a gift from a custom cigar maker he had befriended in Washington, D. C. Oh, it was showtime, all right; it was a performance, especially now, on this day, just two weeks since he had started working at the World Trade Center. He needed this job far more than he needed sleep, not just because he disdained sleep in principle, but also because he was, according to Valerie James, in debt for nearly $300,000 and had found it unexpectedly difficult to find a job after he retired from the FBI. He had to go to work the morning of September 11, and though his gaze may have wavered in the glass--"Too much blue?" is what he wound up asking Valerie--they left their First Avenue apartment at two minutes after eight and headed for work under the blue dazzle of the stratospheric late-summer sky.
HE GREW UP in a two-room apartment over a dingy storefront in Atlantic City. His mother drove a cab. His first awareness of the FBI came through the television set, and, later, when friends are asked to name his mentor, they will say Efrem Zimbalist Jr. He started working for the FBI as soon as he graduated from high school in 1970, first as a clerk in the fingerprint department and then as a tour guide at headquarters. With a family to feed--a wife, a son, and then later a daughter--he put himself through American University, qualified for agent training at Quantico in 1976, worked assignments in California and Baltimore and Chicago as well as at headquarters, and by the time he arrived in Washington as section chief for counterterrorism in January 1995, he had learned to serve not only the FBI but his own dream of the FBI with unstinting devotion.
You have to understand: John O'Neill was one of the first residents of the world we all live in now. The World Trade Center had just been bombed in 1993, and the FBI--caught unaware by the scope of the bombing and the sophistication of the bombers, caught unaware by the fact that the sheikh who planned the attack had not only a laptop computer but an encryption program--began pouring support into a counterterrorism program it had allowed, in one agent's words, "to shrink to almost nothing." Counterterrorism was forced to grow, and O'Neill wore it like a boutonniere. He had the chance to impart not only his instincts and his dedication and his growing body of knowledge to the FBI's work, but also his sense of style. He had the chance to inculcate a cadre of loyalists, the so-called sons of John. He had the chance to create, in the face of bureaucratic reality, his own version of the FBI, in which the great work of protecting the American people would be achieved not at desks subject to extensive security protocols but on top of barstools, in an atmosphere of nighttime swagger.
"At about 6:30, he'd stick his head over my cubicle and say, 'What are you doing?'- " says John Lipka, an agent in Denver who worked as a supervisor under O'Neill in Washington. "I'd say I was working. 'Okay.' Then at about 7:30: 'What are you doing for dinner?' Then at 8:30: 'Let's go get something to eat.' So we'd go to the Old Ebbitt Grill, and he'd drink his Chivas, and we'd start working again. We'd be writing stuff down on napkins till after midnight. Then I'd get to work the next morning and there would be twenty to forty e-mails from O'Neill, wanting stuff, wanting stuff, wanting stuff. I'd say, 'John, when do you sleep? Do you sleep hanging from the ceiling of your office like a freaking bat?' With his black hair and his black suits, I used to call him the Prince of Darkness."
"I used to have briefings at 7:30 in the morning," says Robert Bryant, who, as head of national security for the FBI, was O'Neill's immediate boss in Washington and who retired in 1999 as deputy director. "O'Neill hated them. I said, 'John, I don't care if you come in pajamas, just as long as you're there.' So he'd come in after being out all night, and sometimes he'd be hurting. But he really was the one to identify Osama. It was back when bin Laden was in Sudan. There had been a foreign bombing, and I heard the name Osama bin Laden for the first time at one of those 7:30 briefings from John O'Neill."
In the FBI, an agent who is considered a "blue-flame guy" is an agent who has a nearly magical ability to be "always working good cases." In Washington, John O'Neill worked the investigations that resulted in the capture of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in Pakistan, and the capture of Timothy McVeigh. He worked the painful and ultimately fruitless--or at the very least disappointing--investigation into the bombing of the military barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the painstaking and ultimately exculpatory investigation of the disintegration of TWA flight 800 over the Atlantic Ocean.
He deserves credit, says Bob Bryant, for "helping turn what was a fairly disorganized group of cases into a program aimed at established groups and trying to penetrate them," and on January 1, 1997, he became special agent in charge of national security in the FBI's New York office. He was now the boss of nearly four hundred agents, support personnel, analysts, and translators. What's more, he was in charge not only of counterterrorism but also of counterintelligence. In other words, he was, after spending his years in headquarters making manifold contacts among foreign intelligence, officially a spy, though a spy who, by necessity, remained in plain sight, and not just at Elaine's and the China Club. He had troops to manage and inspire, and he managed and inspired them with both the brute force of his personality and the overwhelming consideration of what failure might entail. They had what one agent called a "one-mistake job"--that is, one mistake could translate into the deaths of tens or hundreds or thousands or, in New York City, even millions--and he never let them forget it.
"I remember one morning there was a bomb scare, and I was the first agent on the ground," says Pat D'Amuro, the agent who has since been chosen as O'Neill's successor. "John shows up and just begins asking questions, one after another. That was the way he worked; he'd ask questions until he got to one you couldn't answer. This time, though, he asked twenty questions, and I had twenty answers. And he just gave me that big smile and then a cigar. If you knew John O'Neill, you learned to take all the huggy-kissy 'I love ya, you know I love ya' stuff with a grain of salt. The smile, though--that was big. We stood there and smoked our cigars in the street."
You see, there is something else you have to understand about John O'Neill: People loved him. Oh, sure, people hated him in equal measure, but people loved him because he loved people--because he was desperate for their love--even as the special agent in charge of national security for the FBI, even as a spy. From the beginning of his time with the FBI, he had always had what are known as good "liaison" skills, in that he excelled at working with local police departments or uniting disparate intelligence organizations; in that he made friends everywhere he went, in the worlds of both business and law enforcement; in that he was in the habit of writing people cards, sending them flowers, remembering their birthdays, getting them tickets, visiting them if they were sick, raising money for them if they were in need, picking up their tabs, or buying them entire boxes of cigars if they had happened to give him one or two. Now, though, with the FBI transforming itself under Louis Freeh from an organization of primarily domestic concerns into one of international reach, O'Neill knew that such a transformation had to begin with a network of relationships with his counterparts in foreign intelligence. He knew, says Chris Isham, a producer for ABC News who considered himself one of O'Neill's best friends, "that this was not going to happen on a formal basis. He knew that this had to happen on a personal basis."
And so he did what he did best: He personalized. He, in FBI-speak, liaised. He made his cell phone his armature and information his animating current. He made anywhere from fifty to two hundred phone calls a day, all over the world, and, as a result, he made himself an authority on terrorism all over the world, not just that which pertained to the United States.
"He would call up and say, 'There's this guy in Manchester, and if you're not already looking at him, you should be,' " says Alan Fry, who is the head of antiterrorism for Scotland Yard. "Or he would call up about a situation he had and say, 'Do you know anybody I should be talking to?' It was just a constant exchange." And if the Saudi state police came to the United States, as they did after O'Neill was transferred to New York, well, John O'Neill didn't merely represent the FBI. He was the FBI. Indeed, when the Saudis visited the FBI in Washington, they called O'Neill in New York and told him they were going back home. They had been treated as though their relationship with the United States was strictly business, which in their country amounted to an insult. O'Neill implored them to stay, to come to New York, where he could welcome them as the FBI should have welcomed them. And he did, from the moment they landed, from the moment they were greeted by some official personage, whisked through customs, taken to the city by police escort, given suites at the Plaza, plied with cigars, and taken out to dinner--oh, graced by the whole O'Neill routine, including Elaine's, until four in the morning. "Never once did they talk business," says an agent familiar with the story. "Until the next day, when the head of the contingent says, 'Now, what does my friend John O'Neill want?' "
He was not doing this for personal gain. He was probably not even doing this for personal power. He was doing this for us, or at least that's what he was now in a position to tell himself. He had subsumed his identity into the FBI, and now he had reached the point where everything he did he could do in the FBI's name--or in the name of what he called "the mission." He could go to Elaine's for the mission. He could go out dancing for the mission. He could, in the words of one agent, "be drinking a two-hundred-year-old cognac--the mission, the mission." He never had to sleep. He never had to come home. If he didn't want to, he never had to tell the truth. In the name of the mission, he could make sure every second of his life was showtime.
"The FBI was John's mistress," is what one agent says about him, in what has become his unofficial epitaph. "He couldn't say no to the mistress."
In the name of the mission, he didn't have to.
A LITTLE KID is out on a field. His father is with him. He doesn't see his father that much because his father is an FBI agent. His father has a mission. Today, though, the father has come to the kid's soccer game, against the threat of rain. Then, out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning comes sizzling out of the sky, like judgment. A boy--another boy--goes down. His heart stops beating. He's dead. And now the father with a mission moves upon the boy and pounds his fists into the boy's heart and breathes his own breath into the boy's mouth. The boy's heart beats again, his mouth draws breath, and he comes alive. And now, at last, the kid on the field knows the nature of his father's mission. His father has the power to extend life, to repeal death. No wonder he's away from home so much....
Now look at the kid, about twenty years later. Look at him closely. He's not a kid anymore, of course. But look at the widow's peak. Look at the way he holds himself. The level stare that dissolves, in the rarest of instances, into a gaping smile. It's O'Neill, isn't it? At least that's what some people who have never seen him before are saying. And that's what the kid is saying himself when people come around asking--that he's starting to look more like his father as he gets older. You can't blame the kid, really: After all, he is John O'Neill's son. He is John Patrick O'Neill Jr.--or J. P.--and since his father's death, he's had to defend not only his father, not only his family, but also the legitimacy of his own birthright. He's had to introduce himself to people who say they never knew that John O'Neill had a son, much less a daughter, much less a daughter who was born with a congenital condition that has left her legally blind; he's had to explain to people who assume that John O'Neill divorced Christine O'Neill--J. P.'s mother--years ago that in fact his mother and father remained married; and, worst of all, he's had to defend his own legacy against the competing claims of Valerie James's adult children, Jay and Stacey, who have said that John O'Neill was a father to them. So you can't blame him for trying to keep things simple. You can't blame him for saying, when people ask him to describe his relationship to his father: "He was my father. I was his son. Never in my life did he leave my life--not one day. My experience was that he was my father, and I didn't see him as anything but my father."
FBI agents, cronies at Elaine's, lovers: They all describe John O'Neill as a "complicated man," even as they profess their love for him. Not J. P. You want to know John O'Neill? You want to know his values, his core, what drove him? It's not that hard to figure out. It's not that complicated. It's all right there in front of you. Look at what he did for a living. He helped people. He protected people. He talked about integrity. He talked about honor. He was about the mission, and if J. P. lost whatever part of his father America gained, he was willing to make the sacrifice. "The one thing he taught me was that God comes first, family second, and country third--and everything else after that...."
On the morning of September 11, J. P. was on a train heading to New York. His father had invited him to the World Trade Center. He wanted to talk to J. P. about the possibility of his going to work there--of J. P. O'Neill working for John O'Neill. They were going to be reunited, father and son. But J. P. was late; he missed the first train. It was after nine o'clock, and the man across the aisle, who'd been listening to the radio, announced that one of the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane. A few minutes later: the second plane. At 9:35, J. P. called his father, whose voice he would remember later as "very calm. He was speaking in his normal voice, and he told me to call him when I got down there and he would come get me. I had the opportunity to tell him that I loved him, and he said that he loved me, and those were the last words we ever spoke to one another."
The train finally reached Penn Station. J. P. got out, ran to street level, couldn't find any taxis, and just began to run, with the burning towers as his lodestone. He ran against the swelling human tide. He made it as far as St. Vincents Hospital, on Twelfth Street, when he saw the South Tower exhale a gray breath and collapse. It was 9:50, and he didn't know it yet, but he had watched his father perish. The man with power over life and death was gone, in the smoke and the flames, and yet what he has given J. P. O'Neill is the gift he has given no one else in the entire world--the gift of certainty. And so now, when J. P. is asked if he ever thinks about what his father was going through as he saw the attack he had warned against finally transpire, he can say what it is his alone to say:
"I don't have to think. I know."
HE SAVED THE WORLD. Oh, sure, there was some luck involved--there always is--but one night the world was saved, and it's nice, for a moment, to think that John O'Neill saved it. December 31, 1999. It was his last high point, really, and of course he saw it through in style at the Plaza Hotel.
The millennium. It's hard to remember now what the world felt like then--the sense of promise and relief. Of course, we didn't know how close the world was to ending. O'Neill didn't even know, and he'd spent the better part of a year preparing for the event--for the FBI's response in New York. You see, for all the information he lived on, for all that he was supposed to know, he was taken by surprise when the border guard caught Al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam trying to enter the United States with a trunkload of explosives intended for detonation at the Los Angeles Airport. And so in the days before New Year's Eve, he presided over an early-morning raid on the Brooklyn apartment of one of Ressam's alleged cohorts, and he stayed in continual contact with sources in foreign intelligence, and he coordinated what was considered a massive FBI presence in New York with the efforts of the NYPD, and he worked to determine the credibility of the threats continually pouring in ... but still, it was something of an existential act to stand as he did in Times Square and smoke cigars with his counterparts in the NYPD, even with the mailboxes locked shut and the manhole covers sealed. It was something of an existential act to take Jay James, Valerie's son, around with him from checkpoint to checkpoint and hotel to hotel, given how much he loved Jay James, how much he taught and shaped him, in everything from the way to dress to the way to smoke a cigar. Jay was not O'Neill's son, but damn, he was his protÃ©gÃ©, and for O'Neill to take him into the threatened precincts of Times Square was at once an honor and a gambit and, as Jay remembers it--how it felt--the ultimate O'Neill performance: showtime at the center of the world.
And then nothing happened. The twentieth century passed into the twenty-first, and Alan Fry, from Scotland Yard, remembers what he said to O'Neill that night as the stroke of midnight fled his city and headed toward New York: "London is safe, John. The rest of the Western world is up to you." Hours later, at around 2:30 in the morning in New York City, John O'Neill showed up at the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, along with the deputy commissioner of the NYPD and Pat D'Amuro and Jay James, and he was resplendent in their company. "Is everything okay?" the manager, Gary Schweikert, asked him.
"If I'm here, Gary," John O'Neill said, "then everything is okay."
IT'S 2:30 ON THE MORNING of September 11, and Valerie James is playing solitaire on her computer. Pissed off? You don't know pissed off. It wasn't supposed to be like this. She had gotten used to O'Neill's absences when he was out saving the world--"Christ, Val," she remembers him saying when she had the temerity to question him. "Janet Reno wants me in Washington. What do you want me to tell her? No?" But he's not saving the world anymore. He's retired. He's saving, at most, the World Trade Center. He's supposed to be spending more time with her. Hell, after eleven years, he's supposed to be finally divorcing Christine and marrying her. When Val turned fifty this past summer, he gave her a bracelet of diamonds and emeralds, but she gave it back to him, saying, "You know what I want." Lord knows she deserved a ring, if only for enduring nights like this. He was coming home no later than 10:30, he'd said. He was going out with Jerry Hauer, who needed his advice. Besides, Hauer was the guy who helped him get the job at the World Trade Center, so he owed him. Now, though, when Val wakes up at one in the morning, O'Neill is still gone, and when he comes home at 2:30, he's stinking, and she's playing fucking solitaire. "You must be getting good at that," he says, by way of apology.
"Fuck you," says Valerie in reply.
So they go to bed in silence, and in the morning, when Val's standing in front of her own mirror, getting ready for work, O'Neill comes in and puts his arm around her. "Babe, I'm sorry--I fucked up," is what she remembers him saying. "Things are going so good now. Please forgive me."
"And I said, 'I forgive you, John,' " she says now. "And it was kind of weird, because I was pissed, and normally I would be pretty frosty. But on this morning--this of all mornings--I said, 'I forgive you.' Isn't that kind of weird?"
Well, no. She had forgiven him before. They'd met when he was assistant special agent in charge in Chicago. He was not working terrorism yet. He was working violent crime and drugs. He was standing alone at the end of a bar, and she thought he had what she calls "compelling eyes." She bought him a drink, and they stayed out till 5:30 in the morning. Though he didn't move in with her, not yet, he wound up spending most of his time at her house, because his own apartment was a dump and he didn't have a pot to piss in. He helped her renovate, and, yes, of course, he made her kids love him--and made Jay, in particular, idolize him. He would take the kid to bars when the kid was just fourteen; he would just flash his badge and Jay James would walk right in.... Then one day, Val went to lunch with the wife of another agent in the Chicago office and was told that John O'Neill was married with two children. The agent's name was Ed Krause, and while he admired O'Neill's ability as an agent--"He was brilliant," he says, "and he could easily have been deputy director"--he thought that O'Neill was using the job for his own purposes, to "get Cubs tickets and things like that." What disturbed him most, however, is that O'Neill not only lied openly and outrageously to Valerie but also "wanted the rest of the office to lie for him. I just wasn't going to go along with that. And neither would my wife."
Val forgave him. What choice did she have? It was O'Neill. They had a great life together. They made a great couple--O'Neill, the embodiment of black Irish, and Valerie something darker still, black Scottish, with a sharp nose, a wide mouth, a smoky voice, and eyes of such furious and concentrated blue that they looked purple. She was with him all the time. She was even with him, you see, the first time he really fucked up. He had moved to New York from Washington, and she had come to New York from Chicago, and they had moved in together, on First Avenue. He was special agent in charge of national security, but he was a man of nearly tragic ambition, and he wanted--no, expected--to be made either assistant director of national security in Washington or assistant director of the New York office, which is to say, the boss. By 1999, he had picked up the sponsorship of his old mentor, deputy director Bob Bryant, and was, according to Bryant, "wired in for the assistant director of national security job at headquarters. I had pushed him for it, and we already had the approvals from Janet Reno and Louis Freeh. But his timing was lousy."
Yes, and so was Valerie's. He was supposed to be driving her to New Jersey. He was not allowed to drive her in his bureau car, so he had to drive his own eight-year-old Buick. He picked up Valerie in the Buick, but when the Buick broke down, he went with Valerie to the FBI lot and took her in his FBI car. No big deal, right? It was a big deal. He'd made as many enemies as he had friends. Someone complained, and he was suspended for two weeks for misusing his bureau car and disclosing a confidential bureau location. Worse, he didn't get the national-security job in Washington. Worse, he was passed over for the assistant-director job in New York when it came open. Worse, he began obsessing about it. Worse, when he was offered a promotion, it was as special agent in charge of Newark. Worse, he became paranoid and helped author the theory that has now become an accepted feature of the O'Neill legend: that he didn't get the jobs he wanted in the FBI because he was too good for the FBI, because he was too competent, because he was too stylish, because he knew too much, because he slept too little, because he worked too hard--because he threatened those above him, including deputy director Tom Pickard and director Louis Freeh. ...
Then in July 2000, he went to a retirement conference at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando. He was supposed to attend the conference and then fly to Key West to meet Val. Instead, he left his briefcase unattended, in a room full of FBI agents, while he answered a page. When he returned, the agents were gone and so was the briefcase, which was full of classified documents outlining the security operations of New York City. It had been stolen, it turns out, by a petty thief, who opened it and found nothing of value but a cigar cutter and a lighter and then left the briefcase to be found by hotel security. The documents, an FBI investigation later determined, had been left untouched, but the damage to O'Neill's career had been done, for no matter how many people in the FBI complain that the briefcase incident was a nothing turned deviously into a something, Tom Pickard--who in the O'Neill legend figures as O'Neill's nemesis--says simply, "The briefcase was a big deal. It was not so much that he lost it; he shouldn't have had those materials with him in the first place. Losing the briefcase just added to it. Let's just say it was not John O'Neill's finest hour."
Let's fast-forward, then, to the morning of September 11. Valerie has dispensed what the FBI could not--forgiveness--and he is driving her to work in the Buick that started so much trouble. Hell, what else does O'Neill have right now, except forgiveness and his own stated intention to "make things right"? He announced his intention to retire back in June, when he was told by Pickard and another of his old mentors that he had little chance for further advancement within the FBI. He left the mistress, for God's sake, but she was freaking vengeful: There'd been a leak that the stolen briefcase had been referred for possible criminal investigation, and the week before O'Neill retired, The New York Times ran a story that effectively killed his chances of getting another job in government. He was afraid that he was becoming damaged goods; he was even more afraid that the mistress was going to keep coming after him about his debts and his lifestyle. There had been other leaks; there were other stories planned, and by the time he'd left the office for the last time and went with Val to deposit a few boxes of his personal effects in a rented storage locker on First Avenue, he felt hounded and kept saying, "Can you believe it, babe? Thirty-one years in the FBI, and it comes to this?"
So it's a new beginning on September 11, despite the hangover. He's been talking about getting the divorce, has talked to a lawyer. He's even begun going to church with Val, not Catholic, but the nondenominational one she likes. When he drops Val off at 8:15, he even manages to joke that it's nice being a civilian, because he doesn't have to worry about driving her in his car. And then an hour later, at 9:17, she gets a call from John O'Neill, the new security director of the World Trade Center, standing outside and asking what kind of planes have hit his buildings.
"Jesus, Val, there are body parts everywhere," she remembers him saying.
"Jesus, Val, I think my bosses might be dead.
"Jesus, Val, I can't afford to lose this fucking job."
A few days before his last day, he went out for a celebratory dinner at Bruno's, his favorite restaurant in New York. On this night--September 6, 2001--he went there with Geoff Wharton, his new boss at the World Trade Center; Jerry Hauer, who was his former counterpart in New York's office of emergency management and who had brought him to Wharton's attention; and Anna DiBattista. He had not been seeing Anna as much lately as he'd wanted--certainly not as much as when he'd met her in Washington eight years earlier and not as much as when he encouraged her to move to New York in 1999 in the hope that they could "make this thing work," as she remembers him saying. The problem was that he loved New York and she didn't. She didn't even like what he had become in New York: a man who was easily impressed by money and power and fame, a man who bragged about going to the China Club with Danny DeVito and Tommy Mottola. She was an Italian girl from Maryland, vivacious and voluble, with such striking brown eyes that for one birthday he had given her the sheet music for Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." She was convinced that she was "the good in John's life." She was convinced that she could make John O'Neill happy. She was convinced that he was happiest when he was at her mother's house in Maryland and her mother was cooking for him, late at night. No, Anna was not easily impressed by the pleasures of New York, not even by Bruno's, except when O'Neill would take a break from his mission to call her at 2:00 in the morning, whisper "This is our song, babe," and then hold up his cell phone while Danny Nye, the singer at Bruno's, sang Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiro." The problem that had arisen between them was that what he could give her--"New York City on a platter, babe"--she didn't want, and what she wanted--marriage and a child--he couldn't give. He had already lost one family to his work, and he didn't want to lose another. Hell, he said he couldn't even take her to his apartment in New York because he was using it to put up translators and linguists whose work was classified.
Now that he had retired, though, he seemed to be grasping for the peace that had eluded him, and he spoke of simplifying his life. They had started going to Catholic church together, and on this night she was even having a good time at Bruno's--talking about the trips they had taken together and the trips they planned for his new life--until night passed into morning and she said she wanted to go home.
"Home? It's only one o'clock."
They argued then. They argued about what they usually argued about--"Nothing's good enough for you," he would say. "Why can't I make you happy?" Then, after about an hour, when she asked him, not for the first time, why he bothered with her, he made her happy, for he told her he wanted to marry her, and Anna believed, all over again, what she believed when she first fell in love with him eight years earlier: "I really thought we were going to be together for life."
She was in Philadelphia on business on the morning of September 11. "My sister-in-law called and told me what was happening. I called John, and he answered immediately. The first thing he said was that he loved me and that he didn't want to lose me. He was outside, and I told him not to go back in. He just kept talking, which was unusual--he kept things pretty short when he was on the cell phone. We had a bad connection and kept talking and talking. I didn't know what he was saying, but J. P. says that I was the last person to speak to him."
Anna DiBattista did not know about Valerie James until she read a posthumous profile of John O'Neill in a Chicago paper. Valerie James did not know about Anna DiBattista until the writer from the Chicago paper called her, after Anna called him. "John O'Neill was a master spy and a master liar," Anna says before she corrects herself, a few minutes later, with this: "And in my heart, I know that he loved me."
He didn't have to die. That's part of the legend, anyway. He had a last chance to change his destiny. He had a last chance to change our destiny, if only he was allowed. He was in Yemen after Al Qaeda blew a hole in the hull of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, and killed seventeen American sailors. He was chasing bin Laden while bin Laden was chasing him. He was a driven man in Yemen. He was already under investigation for the briefcase. He was seeking redemption, for as his boss in New York, assistant director Barry Mawn, says, in his mind he had to know "it certainly wouldn't hurt him if he went and did a good job, and that would be in his favor in the adjudication."
The Cole investigation was O'Neill's investigation. He was in charge. After the twin bombings of the U. S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, he had run the investigation from New York. In Yemen, he was, in FBI parlance, deployed. He was "on the ground." He commanded a nearly invading force of 150 people. They flew out the day after the bombings. They landed in a situation unprecedented in the annals of the FBI's international expansion. The FBI was used to going to Arab countries and receiving little cooperation. It was not accustomed to the level of threat perceived in Yemen. "Without a doubt, Yemen was the most dangerous situation we've ever put our people in," says Mike Rolince, who succeeded O'Neill as the section chief for counterterrorism and who manned the phone during O'Neill's calls from Yemen to brief Louis Freeh, Janet Reno, and the Justice Department's intelligence officer, Fran Townsend. O'Neill, then, took on the job of "protecting his people." He requested that his agents be commissioned to carry "long guns"--rifles and automatic weapons--instead of just sidearms. The person who had to approve the request was the U. S. ambassador to Yemen, and O'Neill thus found himself in a second situation unprecedented in the annals of the FBI's international expansion.
The ambassador's name was Barbara Bodine, and the enmity between her and John O'Neill was personal and deeply felt. To Barbara Bodine, O'Neill was not desperately trying to protect his people; he was desperate. He was not aggressive; he was a bully. He was, indeed, rather odd, rather peculiar, in his insistence on personalizing his conflict with Bodine, in his insistence that he was more popular than she was with the Yemenis. To Bodine, O'Neill's very perception of the threat in Yemen showed signs of his slipping into narcissistic obsession, for she heard him state his belief that Osama bin Laden knew John O'Neill was in Yemen and was out to get him. Of course, he was out to get bin Laden; he was out to implicate him in an act of war so that the United States would have to stop him ... but there was very little movement in the case beyond the original arrest of six yeoman suspects by the Yemeni police, and when O'Neill came home to New York right before Thanksgiving in 2000, he had lost twenty-five pounds in a month and a half of struggle. He was set to return in January, but by this time Bodine was so concerned with what she considered O'Neill's destabilizing effect in Yemen that she did something no U. S. ambassador has ever done to an FBI agent of O'Neill's standing: She didn't allow him back in. She denied what is called "country clearance," or, in the shorthand of diplomacy, she "PNG'ed" him, which means that John O'Neill was persona non grata in Yemen. Now the FBI had to decide whether to expend valuable political capital by supporting O'Neill in a struggle with the State Department or deploy another agent. It deployed another agent. O'Neill never went back, and five months later, the FBI cited ongoing security concerns and pulled out of Yemen altogether, stalling the investigation of the seventeen murders until conditions were negotiated for the FBI's return on August 30, 2001.
The FBI was gone from Yemen, and yet during its absence John O'Neill kept writing e-mails to Lou Gunn, father of one of the slain sailors, and those e-mails became, in Gunn's words, "our only hope"--the only assurance that the FBI was doing all it could, the only evidence that the United States government cared about Signalman Seaman Recruit Cheron Louis Gunn at all. Indeed, on his last day as an FBI agent, John O'Neill wrote an e-mail to Lou Gunn as one of his final official acts, and, now, when Lou Gunn speaks of what happened to O'Neill in Yemen, he also speaks of Barbara Bodine: "I blame the ambassador," he says. "She messed up the whole thing. I believe that if John O'Neill had stayed on the investigation, the World Trade Center would be standing right now."
Bodine left Yemen in August and is now a diplomat-in-residence at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is acutely aware of the O'Neill legend, and so when she is asked why she couldn't get along with him, she answers with force: "He was dishonest. I never knew what he was going to say about what I said to him, and so I learned to have two or three witnesses present every time I had a meeting with him. He lied. He lied to me, and he lied to the Yemenis."
This, in a man regarded as too honest for the FBI?
"I have no idea what he was like within the FBI fraternity," she says. "Maybe he only lied to women."
Every public man has a private life, and his private life is relevant only to the degree it affects his public one. But how does one draw the line with a man like O'Neill? How can we observe the distinction between public and private when clearly fate did not? John O'Neill had debts. Public or private? Look at him now, reaching deep into his own pocket. Look at him again, with his hand out. One he did for the FBI; he financed his foreign-intelligence liaisons with with his own money when the FBI wouldn't. One he did for himself; he had a daughter with a medical condition and lives he had to keep compartmentalized and a taste for high living and a government salary. Now look at John O'Neill calling Atlantic City, calling the widow of an old great friend named Paddy McGahn. O'Neill had a lot of friends like Paddy--older, established men in whom he could confide and who could lend him money. "A lot of friends gave John a lot of money," says Merce McGahn, Paddy's widow. "Paddy gave him money, and so did I after Paddy died. Listen, John did what he had to do. How do you get your information? I'm sure he paid for some of it. I'm sure he paid for a lot of it. We were very willing to help him. He only called after Paddy passed away. What could I say? It was John O'Neill."
Do you see what's happening? Do you see what fate might see, especially since debt is one of the things that drives him to the door of the World Trade Center? You want fate? You want irony? Look again. John O'Neill is on vacation this past summer. He's in Spain, with Val and Jay James. He's visiting a man Jay remembers as an Israeli clothing designer who happens to live in a sealed and gated compound and assigns each of his visitors a personal bodyguard outside the fence. O'Neill has already announced his retirement, but now he's living so lavishly in Spain that he's paranoid the FBI's investigative arm will cast a glance his way. He's drinking two-hundred-year-old cognac. He's getting hammered and climbing the speaker in a disco and dancing until morning with Jay and their bodyguards. Is this his private or his public life? Does any of it matter? Okay, well, does it matter when you learn that Mohammed Atta was in Spain at the very same time, making final plans for the World Trade Center's destruction? Is it public or private when a spy is oblivious to his assassin's presence and intention?
Now look one more time. No, not at O'Neill--he's gone by now. Look at Valerie and her kids. They've returned to the storage locker on First Avenue. It's late, and Valerie's been drinking, in part out of grief, in part because she feels the FBI abandoned her when it realized that John O'Neill was still married. She lost everything when she lost O'Neill, and now she's looking through O'Neill's stuff, because she has a kind of trembling feeling that she'll find him there. Her daughter, Stacey, is with her, and Jay, who since O'Neill's death has taken to saying "It's showtime" when he steps in front of a mirror. They find a box and open it. It's full of diaries, journals, letters. Valerie notices that her kids are trying to hide some things from her, but it's too late, because she's already reading what they're reading. She can't avoid it; it's everything, and it's everywhere. It's John O'Neill's record of all his affairs, all of his obsessions, all of his secrets, all of his lies. It's Anna, and it's others. It's the legacy of a man who kept secrets for the illicit power of keeping them, a man who wrote in code, a man in the trap of annotating his falsehoods as a way of finding the truth.
It is the private life of a public man, and as such it should not be exposed or investigated. But let's say the box contains--as a retired FBI agent who has seen its contents does--a record of obsessions so consuming, one has to wonder how John O'Neill ever managed to have time to fight terrorism. Let's say O'Neill's primary obsession is not for a civilian, like Anna, but for a woman in government who headed the intelligence office of the Justice Department. Let's say he's obsessed with her because she's as driven and unstinting as he is, and because he can't have her--because she's married with two children. Let's say he's obsessed with her because it's his job to spy on people and her job to approve who's spied on--because he's desperate for influence. Let's say he's obsessed with her because he has secrets and she's duty-bound to keep them. Let's say he's obsessed with her because he can confide in her ... because she's the one person he allows to put everything together and to see all his different lives.
What is the distinction between public and private then?
So we have to choose. Either he went back in or he didn't. Either the legend of John O'Neill found fulfillment in a moment of selfless service, or else he was just a man who died before he could pay his debts and clean up his life--a man martyred not for who he was but simply for where he was, like three thousand others. Of course, many have already made the choice. Barry Mawn, his last boss in New York: "My feeling is that when John died, he was acting more as an FBI agent than he was as head of security--acting as FBI agents are trained to act." Alan Fry, of Scotland Yard: "He may have handed in his badge, but you don't wipe out thirty-one years in two weeks." Hell, even Ed Krause, the agent from Chicago whose wife alerted Valerie James to the persistence of John O'Neill's marriage: "My wife, who never had a lot of respect for John, cried her eyes out when she heard how he died. She said she had to reassess her feelings toward him. She said if he went back in that building, maybe he was a hero after all."
And then, of course, there's J. P., who has the certainty of what the FBI has told him, the certainty of John O'Neill's last phone bill, the certainty of what he knows about his father. He figures that John O'Neill was standing outside to talk to him and Anna and then realized that he might have left some of his new coworkers behind in his office on the thirty-fifth floor and climbed back up the stairs to get them. "I base this on two things," J. P. says. "One, an FBI agent named Wesley Wong was there, and he says he saw my father going back toward the inside. Two, there's a videotape. There was a training tape being made that day, and it kept going when the plane hit. I'm told it shows my father going back in the building. I have it. Joe Dunne, the deputy commissioner of the NYPD, sent it to me. I haven't watched it yet--I haven't been able to--but I know what I know. Video doesn't lie."
And Wesley Wong? "I was at the fire command station at the lobby. John O'Neill walked up and asked me if there was any information I could share. He was asking if it was true that a plane had hit the Pentagon. He seemed calm. He appeared to be doing his job. Of course, he was on the cell phone. I used to tease him about that. When he was talking to me, he would ask a question and go back to the phone. After I told him about the Pentagon, he started to walk away. Basically, he just said, I'll see you later. His outward appearance didn't change, but he seemed to have some purpose after that. He was in his 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 twenty minutes."
So here is what we know about John O'Neill's last day. He woke up with a hangover. He left his apartment at around eight o'clock and drove Valerie to work. He went to his new office on the thirty-fifth floor of the South Tower and, in the recollection of one of his coworkers, moved some furniture around. He went upstairs to see his boss, then came back down right before the first plane hit the North Tower. In the company of Doug Karpiloff, the security director he was replacing, O'Neill went downstairs and then over to the fire command station, where he met with Port Authority police, a fire captain, representatives from the mayor's office, and Wesley Wong. Doug Karpiloff went to the basement-level operations center in the South Tower and was never seen again. O'Neill went ... well, although Wesley Wong saw him walking toward the interior of the building, he must have gone outside, because he was outside when he talked to Valerie, and J. P., and Anna, and called the FBI to say that he was all right. It was around 9:35 when he spoke to J. P. and Anna, for it was 9:38 when he sent the last message of his life, to Fran Townsend. She was the woman from the Justice Department. She was the woman whom he'd come to know at the office of intelligence and policy review and who had come to know him, in a relationship that grew not out of intimacy but out of O'Neill's ravenous psychological need. And it was still ravenous, for what he sent her at the end of his life was a page written in the numerical code he'd developed for his communications to her, and it was amazing how personal it was, how elaborate, how much time it must have taken him to write it, even in the midst of historic catastrophe, even in the midst of hideous carnage, even in the last few ticks of his existence. Of course, he didn't know that he was about to die, and neither did she. The South Tower collapsed twelve minutes later, and when it did, there was another of O'Neill's secrets to keep. You see, when his body was found on September 21, on the corner of Liberty and Greenwich, burned in the aftermath but still largely intact, with the American University ring still on his finger, and the cigar cutter still in his pocket, and his hair still slicked back from showtime, the medical examiner said he had suffered no major trauma, and so he couldn't possibly have ...
But let's not go there. We still have to choose. We still can choose. Did he go back inside, or did he suffocate when the cloud of dust rolled upon him in the collapse of the South Tower? Did he die as myth or man? Was his last gesture public or private? Did he stand for what was right in our fight against terrorism or what was wrong? Would he have loved all this or hated it?
He was a spy. Everything people say about him is true, remember?
The best of this man is what he inspired people to believe about him.