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O'Neill Versus Osama


But if you lean to the left, like the French authors Guillaume Dasquié and Jean-Charles Brisard, who feature a July interview with O'Neill in their new book, Ben Laden, La Vérité Interdite, you've outed O'Neill as a sort of smoking gun -- a man who they say all but confirmed in his final months that George W. Bush's oil-industry-bred administration was so worried about alienating Saudi Arabia that it decided to negotiate with the Taliban rather than go after it. Before September 11, they argue, the United States' primary goal was to build a pipeline in Central Asia -- tapping oilfields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

In July, over drinks at Elaine's, O'Neill began to open up to Brisard about his frustrations, which, it turned out, stretched back to the 1996 investigation of the Riyadh army-base bombing. O'Neill made several trips to Saudi Arabia, one with Freeh, but witnesses were executed before the FBI could question them. (Brisard was also impressed by O'Neill's social clout. Elaine Kaufman herself and James Woods came by and said hello. "I had the feeling he knew everyone in the city," he says.)

O'Neill complained about the inability of U.S. diplomacy to obtain anything from King Fahd. He told the Frenchman that "every answer, every key to dismantling the Osama bin Laden organizations are in Saudi Arabia."

He ran into another diplomatic barrier last year in Yemen, after the Cole bombing. Within days of arriving, he'd knocked heads with the ambassador, Barbara Bodine. While the FBI was interrogating witnesses, the State Department was trying to coax Yemeni diplomats into pledging not to support terror. The conflicting agendas, combined with O'Neill's determination, were explosive. He wanted his agents to carry automatic weapons, like their Yemeni counterparts; she insisted they carry smaller arms, like diplomats. By the time Barry Mawn arrived, Bodine was calling O'Neill an outright liar. O'Neill's comments about the ambassador, friends say, weren't printable.

"He always had a singular focus on the people he sent into harm's way," says Freeh, who wouldn't comment directly about Bodine. "I'm sure he ruffled a couple of feathers doing that. In Yemen, he would call me literally in the middle of the night and say, 'Boss, I'm not comfortable with our situation here.' "

When O'Neill came back for Thanksgiving, James was shocked to see him exhausted and twenty pounds lighter. He never returned: Bodine told Freeh that O'Neill wasn't allowed to. One more irony came after September 11. The FBI returned after Bodine left her job, and according to Mawn, Yemeni authorities were so moved by O'Neill's death that they began cooperating with the investigation again.

The scuffle with the ambassador made the papers. And before long, O'Neill's press coverage got worse. On August 19, the Times printed that he was under investigation. A year earlier, he'd attended a retirement seminar in Tampa, left a conference room to make a call, and come back to find his briefcase had been stolen. It turned up in a nearby hotel without his lighter and cigar cutter, but still with some classified documents that he shouldn't have taken from his office. O'Neill had reported it to the police and the Bureau right away. Under normal circumstances, this never would have been made public. But O'Neill thought he knew why it had.

"He thought the leak might have come from Washington," says Mawn. That same month, O'Neill told Mawn and others that Dick Clarke, the president's terrorism czar at the National Security Council, had asked O'Neill whether he wanted his name put forward to succeed him.

"It would be a powerful position," Mawn says. "That person would have direct contact with the FBI and turn around and influence top Cabinet people, and possibly even the president. So if I was somebody who didn't like him, it would be because he is getting into a position of power that could possibly get back to the Bureau to do things his way."

But it didn't matter. After Yemen, O'Neill had started seriously thinking about getting out. Part of that was financial pressure. "He was frustrated and angry," James says. "And he needed to make money."

The other part was the bed he'd made himself. Louis Freeh's No. 2, Tom Pickard, had told him point-blank that after the briefcase incident, there'd be little chance of his getting Mawn's job in New York -- the only Bureau post he really wanted.

"I told him he had a tough row to hoe to get it," says Pickard, who retired at the end of November, and whom Jerry Hauer believes was the biggest roadblock in O'Neill's career. When it came to field-office-chief candidates, he said, "Janet Reno particularly insisted that there were no blemishes on that person's career. I think John shone best when there was a crisis. He'd put in phenomenal hours, he was completely dedicated, he wasn't distracted by anyone else. I don't know if he would have thrived on the day-to-day, 'What are we gonna do about the budget?' business. John was more of a take-charge, action guy."

On Saturday, September 8, Valerie and John attended a wedding at the Plaza -- a class reunion of old FBI men and cops. John was beaming the whole evening, and he and Valerie danced nearly every song. Valerie says that people turned to them and said, "God, if this is what retirement does . . . "

Three weeks later, there was another reunion -- O'Neill's funeral. The service in Atlantic City -- could it have been otherwise? -- was brimming with ironies. The service demanded four-star security for Louis Freeh, Mary Jo White, and a host of FBI brass -- an official place of honor given to a man who had just left the Bureau in frustration. It also featured Christine O'Neill as the widow. O'Neill's son and daughter rarely saw their father in his final years, while James's children, Jay and Stacy, were left wondering more about the man they called their father. Jay even called O'Neill "Dad" in a speech at the Elaine's wake a few days later, to the surprise of some people there.

His biological family got his memorial flags from the Bureau. Resentful about being overlooked, Stacy pinched two that the Bureau had sent to Elaine's. She's been asked to return them. She hasn't.

"I'm the one who has to reinvent myself now," Valerie James told me one afternoon recently, poking at a salad near her office in the fashion district. "My psychiatrist says I can't go on with my life if I keep talking about him, but I feel like I have to honor his memory."

She'd wanted to leave him in the fall of '99. He wasn't as much fun as he was in Chicago. The strain of the job, the embassy-bombing investigation, was getting to him. Her kids adored him, but it was not working for her, she told him. The late nights without her also had something to do with it. "He promised that when he left the FBI, he'd clean up his life," she said.

When I asked what that meant, she smiled. "Being a little straighter of a guy," she said.

The secret girlfriends aren't so secret anymore. James doesn't speak directly about them. Still, she doesn't have any illusions about the man she just lost. "John was all about his job," she said. "I don't know if John was a genius, but you look at smart people like Jack Kennedy, they don't necessarily lead Ward and June Cleaver lives. It doesn't necessarily mean they're bad people. I'll say this, though: Knowing everything I've learned since he died, I would do the last eleven years over again exactly as I did. And so would my kids. I know because I asked them."

Her John was different from everyone else's. "You see, to me, he wasn't the FBI," she said. "He was my lover and my friend." It's just that the end he met brought the many different lives he led crashing down, finally, together.

"It was a complicated death," she said, "for a complicated man."


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