Frontline: 'The Man Who Knew'
With Michael Kirk
Friday, Oct. 4, 2002; 11 a.m. ET
When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: John O'Neill.
The former head of the FBI's flagship antiterrorism unit in New York City, O'Neill had investigated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen. For five years, he led the fight to track down and prosecute al Qaeda operatives throughout the world. But his James Bond style and obsession with Osama bin Laden made him a controversial figure inside the buttoned-down world of the FBI. Just two weeks before Sept. 11, O'Neill left the bureau for a job in the private sector -- as head of security at the World Trade Center. He died there after rushing back into the burning towers to aid in the rescue efforts.
On Thursday, Oct. 3, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE kicks off its 20th anniversary season with "The Man Who Knew," a special 90-minute documentary chronicling John O'Neill's quest to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk was online Friday, Oct. 4.
Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online during the 2001-2002 season to discuss "Did Daddy Do It?"; "American Porn"; "Gunning for Saddam"; and "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bremerton, Wash.: How did you uncover this story?
Michael Kirk: At least a year and a half ago, someone told me that we should do a program about terrorism, and that there was an FBI agent named John O'Neill that we should talk to. I said, "Nobody cares about terrorism," and didn't talk to John O'Neill. After Sept. 11, I felt I owed myself and the story an examination. And that's how it began.
Chicago, Ill.: What was the fate of Tom Pickard? Was he "rewarded" for his inept handling of John O'Neill's terrorist investigation? How about our resident control freak, Barbara Bodine? Have her wings been clipped for interfering with O'Neill's Yemeni investigation? Her actions border on treason.
Michael Kirk: Former Deputy Director Pickard works at a Fortune 500 company. Ambassador Bodine left Yemen in the summer of 2001 and presently is posted in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Tolono, Ill.: What does Barbara Bodine have to say on the subject today? I understand she is at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Did the State Department sweep her aside for her lack of vision in Yemen?
Thanks for a great story that needed to be told.
Michael Kirk: It isn't my impression that the State Department swept Ambassador Bodine aside in any way. And despite months of our best efforts, the ambassador would not grant us an interview. She did say that she could not believe that we would try to spend 90 minutes of television on John O'Neill.
Bald Head Island, N.C.: Mr. Kirk, Thank you for this wonderful presentation! Have you had any positive (or indeed, negative) feedback from those whose inexcusable failures led to the death of thousands of people in the World Trade Center Complex, including my best friend from high school (He worked for a computer company in Tower One)? I submit that said persons whom you exposed NEEDED to be exposed! Have they responded to you directly re: your program?
Michael Kirk: Unfortunately, no. Speaking as a citizen and a journalist, it's my hope that the Congress will subpoena and compel those who chose not to talk to us to answer questions on behalf of all of us.
Stanhope, N.J.: Mr. Kirk
I just finished watching the program about Mr. O'Neill. As I watched I had a very, very uncomfortable feeling well up from inside of me.
I arrived at the World Trade Center at approximately 11:30 on Sept. 11, which as you know was just minutes after the second tower fell. I remained there for five days. Being an out-of- town police officer and not wanting to leave the site I needed to find a place of refuge.
I found a found such a refuge in an office in one of the surrounding buildings which was damaged.
On the walls of that office were numerous articles and information about Osama bin Laden. It was as if the person who had occupied that office had seen the future.
I took pictures of wall, as I was amazed that at the detail and that someone knew as much as they did about the attacks before the happened.
I understand Mr. O'Neill had taken the job of head of security for the World Trade Center. Could you please tell me if the office used by Mr. O'Neill was on the second to third floor of the American Express building?
This is a matter of closure for me. For if this is the office in question I would like to share with you what transpired there during the days that followed the attack.
Sgt. Michael Zielenski (ret)
Jersey City Police Dept.
Michael Kirk: I'm not aware that John O'Neill had a second office in the American Express building. His office was in the South Tower. It goes without saying that I hope you've informed the authorities about your discovery.
Columbus, Ohio: It is becoming more and more apparent that the FBI still sees itself as the "Big Boy" on the block. How is it that obfuscation and deceit are allowed to continue at this agency that is supposed to serve and protect the citizens of this country, not its own agenda?
Because of the bureaucratic infighting between street agents and supervisors/managers, shouldn't something be done to assure the American public that information is both accurate and being properly disseminated to other agencies?
Michael Kirk: Yes, absolutely something should be done to make sure that the American people know what they need to know. Perhaps equally importantly, the Bureau should let other elements of the Bureau know what they need to know. As Robert Bryant said in our program, the FBI simply didn't know what it knew much of the time.
Houston, Tex.: What is the Bush administration's position on the way Mr. O'Neill was treated by the FBI given that through his investigations of bin Laden and al Qaeda he was right on the mark?
Michael Kirk: I don't know what the Bush administration's position is on John O'Neill. I've never asked the question.
Independence, Mo.: In the book "Forbidden Truth," authors Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie claim that John O'Neill felt that influence from oil interests and the Saudi government were hampering the investigation into al Qaeda. Was any of this touched on during the making of this documentary?
Michael Kirk: We researched this story to a faretheewell, and to a person, those closest to John O'Neill say they never heard him utter anything near the allegations the French authors claim he said to them. Richard Clarke answers the allegations vehemently on Frontline's Web site. (Check out the interviews section.)
San Diego, Calif.: Will Louis Freeh and his minions be investigated by Congress for his egotistical decision not to listen to John O'Neill about the al Qaeda network and their imposing threat to the U.S.? Also can you send a copy of "The Man Who Knew" to someone in the White House to see this compelling account of how we were sabotaged by the FBI and Louis Freeh?
Michael Kirk: Former Director Freeh and his associates might be forced to answer questions about their tenure if citizens like you ask your elected officials to insist upon it. It is our intention to furnish the White House and appropriate members of Congress with copies of "The Man Who Knew," and to encourage their staffs to read the volumes of research materials on Frontline's Web site.
Peachtree City, Ga.: Where is Robert "Bear" Bryant and Fran Townsend now -- what are they doing? How much contempt did O'Neill and the people you interviewed have for Louis Freeh? Many believe that Freeh shares much responsibility for this nation not being more advanced in its intelligence of terrorists. Did the people you interview feel that way and did they think O'Neill felt that way?
Michael Kirk: Robert Bryant, like Louis Freeh and many former high-ranking FBI officials, is in private industry in security work. Fran Townsend is at the Coast Guard now. The people who knew O'Neill and knew Louis Freeh had, not surprisingly, mixed feelings about both of these complicated men. And not surprisingly, are cautious in their public criticism of Director Freeh, yet steadfast in their feeling that John O'Neill was not treated appropriately by the headquarters bureaucracy, which Louis Freeh ran.
San Francisco, Calif.: When you presented your story idea to the decision makers at Frontline, did you receive any push back or were you told to alter your story in any way? With the explosive nature of this story's content, I would be surprised to learn that you were given carte blanche.
Michael Kirk: I've worked at Frontline for 20 years, was one of the founding producers, by now have the trust and confidence of the executives here, who by no means write a blank check editorially, but nonetheless are fearless in their encouragement that producers like me aggressively pursue controversial topics. Their primary admonition is that we try to be as fair as possible.
Los Angeles, Calif.: It is alleged that John O'Neill left his briefcase in a conference room during an FBI meeting. John left the room to take a phone call only to return to find that the agents had left the room and his briefcase was missing. Has anyone considered the fact that John O'Neill was set up by FBI elements who were jealous of him? Why would anyone take his briefcase, touch nothing in it, and then leave it in a hotel room to be found?
Michael Kirk: O'Neill used a computer bag as a briefcase. The theory is that the thief who took his briefcase believed he was stealing a computer. And when the case was found later at another hotel, some small items (a cigar cutter, for example) were missing. But the documents were untouched.
Cincinnati, Ohio: A very good program. I do think that it portrayed the "assessment" a bit too strongly, I would be surprised if anyone actually thought that there would be such a devastating attack. It is incredible that no current government official would speak to your program. Someone must follow up with an official inquiry and force the FBI officials and the ambassador to account for their actions. They have a right to put forward their views and the public needs to know what they have to say.
Michael Kirk: I completely agree that to the extent that they can talk publicly about what they know now, officials should talk about it. As to what happened in the past, I also believe that there's no reason why anyone who knew anything significant about Sept. 11 shouldn't have to talk about what they did or didn't do. It will help us know what to do about the future.
Houston, Tex.: Having just viewed your program on John O'Neill, I am in shock and furious.
Obviously, George Bush got information on O'Neill if he was considered for the anti-terrorist post. Is there any reason to believe that Bush thought highly of him or ever spoke to him?
I would like to know if there is anyone else who was a close confidant or co-worker that would be privy to his vast accumulation of knowledge and contacts -- a protege, so to speak.
Michael Kirk: As to the president of the United States, I just simply don't know whether O'Neill ever crossed his radar screen. Perhaps he will now. As to proteges, O'Neill did affect a number of people inside the Bureau. Many have left in the last year, and some have labored quietly. And hopefully, programs like ours and investigations by Congress will allow them to carry on his tradition inside the Bureau.
Hoboken, N.J.: Why do I only hear about FBI memos from Arizona? And people who speak out in Minnesota? Why have I, and the American people, not heard about how close John was -- why?
And why are all of the senior people in the FBI leaving after two years or so?
Michael Kirk: Those are great questions. That's what the congressional investigations could pursue. And it is surprising to me that much of this information needed to come from a television program, and not from either the Bureau itself or the government.
New York, N.Y.: Michael,
You say that the Phoenix memo never got to O'Neill or Barry Mawn in the New York office of the Bureau. The Times says otherwise. Also, other members of the New York office admit that they did receive the memo. Why do you think that O'Neill failed to see it?
Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker
Michael Kirk: As far as I can tell, the one reference to O'Neill knowing about the Phoenix memo in the New York Times last summer is wrong. Without revealing specifically how we know, people who should know have told us that they are certain that O'Neill did not know of the Phoenix memo. The best we could come up with for why he wasn't told if anybody else in New York knew is that by then, he was already seriously marginalized.
Austin, Tex.: "Frontline" is consistently outstanding but this program was astonishing in what was presented and how. That John died at World Trade Center has got to be one of the great coincidences of the entire Sept. 11 event.
The overriding lesson of this story for me is that it demonstrates the limits of bureaucratic institutions. Creative, thinking people do not last long in these institutions -- and we paid the price. Is there any reason to believe that the behemoth Department of Homeland Security would be less driven by turf, personality, and internal procedural crap than the FBI? I doubt it -- bigger is not better. I'd appreciate your view.
Finally, I am interested in the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen. Who appointed her and when?
Michael Kirk: The answer to the first part is, there is no reason to believe the Department of Homeland Security will be any better. President Clinton appointed Ambassador Bodine.
League City, Tex.: Did Valerie James really work for the CIA? Did John O'Neill and Valerie live together?
Michael Kirk: I've never heard that Valerie James worked for the CIA. And yes, they lived together.
Denver, Colo.: Do we have any idea why O'Neill didn't make it out of the Tower? Did he stay behind to try to help people? What floor was he on when the plane hit?
Michael Kirk: Bo some accounts, he was in his office on the 34th floor of the South Tower when the second plane hit. He emerged from the building, saw and talked to an FBI agent who was putting a command post together, made a number of telephone calls to his significant others, and witnesses saw him go back into the building to do what would have been in character for John O'Neill -- take charge where he could.
West Los Angeles, Calif.: I knew of John O'Neill through Internet news over a year ago. I approached a friend of mine, who is a former counterterrorism FBI agent and asked if he knew of O'Neill. He didn't, but sent an inquiry to an FBI buddy of his at FBI bureau in New York. He then forwarded me the e-mail correspondence from his friend about O'Neill. The FBI agent "friend" painted an entirely different picture of O'Neill than the one on PBS, of course. He suggested O'Neill was an alcoholic who had delusions of grandeur.
After seeing the Frontline report, I'm convinced the FBI should be eliminated and am convinced this FBI bureaucrat "friend" of my friend should retire and find a job as a crossing guard somewhere, along with that ultimate dork, Louis Freeh. The FBI has outlived its usefulness. Do you agree? Thanks for the rant.
Michael Kirk: John O'Neill was a controversial figure within the FBI, as our program tried to indicate. And there were those who no doubt would have described him the way that e-mail did.
As to the usefulness of the FBI, our society needs, especially in these perilous times, effective law enforcement. And that's what one would hope we'll get.
Albuquerque, N.M.: If John O'Neill was the most knowledgeable person in the government regarding Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, did he regularly share his information with the CIA? And to what extent did he share or was permitted to do so by the higher-ups at the FBI?
Michael Kirk: There was some sharing of information between O'Neill and select CIA people -- he was assigned to a CIA/FBI joint project called Station Alex. But most of his information dissemination and retrieval with CIA people probably happened informally at those watering holes in Washington and New York.
Atlanta, Ga.: Do you think the case of John O'Neill has changed the opinion of the FBI to the worth of "mavericks" or, by the very nature of the kind of work they do, they are always going to be wary of those who "step outside the box" as he did?
Michael Kirk: I think it's hard for big, bureaucratic institutions, in or out of government, to recognize and reward, even posthumously, mavericks. It is the nature of those organizations to ride waves, not make them.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Kudos to you and PBS for telling us about this difficult story. I find it ironic that the one man who may have been able to apprehend Osama Bin Laden was killed in the attack. It's a shame that in the terrorist flow chart, that you described in your documentary, wasn't fraught with the petty jealousies and short-sightedness that the FBI flow chart had contained. Why wasn't this story in "Main Stream Media"? Every aspect of the Sept.11 tragedy has been covered except for the essentials; finding and stopping these maniacs. I hope that this bureaucratic bungling is merely a case of human ineptitude rather that a deliberate effort to foil the investigation by "higher-ups" with agendas.
Michael Kirk: As far as the mainstream media are concerned, there's a very good profile of O'Neill from The New Yorker, written in January, that is reproduced on the Frontline Web site. And sadly, commercial network television rarely has the time or the space to devote to stories like ours. However, they have been working on the specific pieces of this and other 9/11 stories over the last months. And maybe the best way to think about it is that that's why Frontline exists -- which is to pull together the pieces from others and add our own resources to the investigation.
Anderson, S.C.: I really enjoyed Frontline: "The Man Who Knew." Are you working on any more projects?
Michael Kirk: Yes, thank God I am. And it probably won't surprise you to hear that I can't talk about them. But as always, I'm open to juicy secrets and classified documents from anyone out there who wants to send them to me. email@example.com.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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