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O'Neill Versus Osama

Most of the victims of the September 11 attack seemed tragically random -- they were just going to work. Not John O'Neill. Until last August, he'd been the FBI's top expert on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a lead investigator of the USS Cole and African embassy bombings. Leaving the Bureau in frustration, he'd taken a job he thought of as retirement: World Trade Center security chief. But when he died it became clear: His own life contained as many mysteries as his enemy's.


Memorialized: A table at Elaine's.  

Monday night, we're going out, and I'll show you what you've been missing, ex-FBI agent John P. O'Neill told his friend Jerry Hauer. On O'Neill's overloaded social calendar, Mondays were reserved for Elaine's, where he was a charter member of the famously clubby crime-fighting crowd that included such legends as Bill Bratton and the late Jack Maple. His street cred carried a lot of weight, even with that group: For most of the past decade, O'Neill had been the FBI's foremost expert on Osama bin Laden. He'd been the public face of the New York field office since 1997, leading the investigation into the African embassy bombings and last year's USS Cole attack in Yemen. But his bluff, aggressive style had apparently alienated some of his superiors, and his career had stalled.

Jerry Hauer, the city's first terrorism czar under Rudy Giuliani, had just helped guide O'Neill to a soft landing in the private sector -- chief of security for the World Trade Center. The job, which could reach $300,000 with bonus, had cushioned the blow considerably. So for O'Neill, Monday, September 10, was a night to celebrate.

A typical night out with O'Neill had three or four stages. This one started with drinks at Windows on the World with his friend Robert Tucker, a former Queens assistant D.A., talking about whom he might hire at the World Trade Center. They moved on to a front table at Elaine's, where, as usual, he was noticed. "I knew he had left the FBI, so I grabbed him and said, 'John, are you okay?' " says Wallace Millard, a cop turned security expert who spotted him from a neighboring table. "He said, 'Wally, I'm the best. I've got a job that pays me three times what I got.' "

Hauer joined the party at 9:30, and they chatted about what they knew -- terrorism, security, the '93 attack on the Trade towers, the years when Hauer and O'Neill had worked closely together on bio-terror-defense strategies, the likelihood of another assault on the city. Weeks earlier, O'Neill had told one friend, "They'll never stop trying to take down those two buildings."

And as he led the charge out of Elaine's to Stage 3 at the China Club, his friends remember John O'Neill looking over and saying, "At least on my watch, I can say that there was never a terrorist attack in New York City."

'We were laughing that morning," remembers Valerie James, his girlfriend of eleven years. For once, John was in his own eleven-year-old Buick LeSabre, not a Bureau car, so he was permitted to drop her off at her job as sales director for the fashion line Sunny Choi.

He'd made it home from China Club at 2:30 -- typical -- but he was up now, and happy, and ready to take her to an 8:15 meeting she had for Fashion Week before heading to his office on the thirty-fourth floor of the north tower. "He was in a really good mood that day," James says.

James heard about the attack on the radio; it wasn't until 9:17 that a call finally came from John.

"There are body parts everywhere," he shouted. "Do you know what hit it?"James said the radio said it was a 747.

"I'll call you in a little bit," he said.

O'Neill also spoke to his 29-year-old son, J.P., who had taken the train in to visit his father at his new job but had made it only as far as Saint Vincent's Hospital. "As soon as you make it down here," he told him, "call me and I'll come and get you."

One FBI agent remembers talking with O'Neill in the lobby of Tower One, helping the Bureau and the Fire Department set up a command center. O'Neill asked him if they really got the Pentagon. He was last seen walking in the general direction of Tower Two minutes before it collapsed. His body was found a week later; it isn't clear where exactly he died. But what's not in question, at least among those who knew him, is that even before the second plane hit, O'Neill must have understood who had done it.

"I'm sure he knew who was responsible," says Teddy Leb, a friend and fan of O'Neill's who heads a foundation for law-enforcement officers. "I know that he must have been mad as hell. He must have been thinking, How in the world could we have allowed this to happen?"

In death, John O'Neill has become something bigger than he was in life -- a human embodiment of unheeded warnings. Here was a man who had studied and understood bin Laden, the cycles of his attacks, the escalation of the deaths, but whose arguments weren't followed up by government action. This had much to do with bureaucratic inertia, but it also, undoubtedly, had something to do with O'Neill -- his aggressiveness, his charisma, the fact that he didn't fit the mold of the standard-issue FBI agent.

For him, the real job started after five; his friends were his contacts, his contacts his friends. He was the only agent who could be found smoking Dominican cigars with De Niro on Tommy Mottola's yacht one night and introducing Scotland Yard spooks to the China Club's VIP level the next. He'd invariably be dressed in dark-blue pin-striped Burberry suits with white shirts and ties, his jet-black hair slicked back, his feet in size 91/2 Bruno Magli shoes, his ear to his cell phone, his hands fiddling with a BlackBerry with intelligence contacts organized by country -- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, England, Spain, France -- many of whom he'd escort to Elaine's when they came to town.

Those friends brought him intelligence that no one else in the Bureau could nail down. "You could see that come home to roost in the investigations," says U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, whose summary arguments in the embassy-bombings case against bin Laden and others are packed with evidence that O'Neill unearthed. "John went at it comprehensively, yielding things from people in London or people in Yemen we never otherwise would have gotten."

His expertise on bin Laden was unquestioned. He took that expertise personally, and had no trouble correcting anyone, above or below him. "He was the paramount, most knowledgeable agent we had in the FBI, probably in the government, with respect to counterintelligence matters," says Louis Freeh.

"The answer would often be 'Check with John O'Neill,' " says Janet Reno. "When I walked into the room and saw John O'Neill there, I was always pleased, because I always knew I would get a reasoned analysis. He had a powerful command."

It was a life he'd chosen. As a kid, growing up in a fourth-floor walk-up in Atlantic City, O'Neill fixed in on Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in The F.B.I.

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