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Context of 'May 22, 1997: FBI: Terrorists Are Operating in US With Capability to Attack'

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Bruce Butterworth.Bruce Butterworth. [Source: Mineta Transportation Institute]John O’Neill, a senior FBI agent, tells congressional staffers there are no threats to aviation in the US. The staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the FBI, the director of central intelligence, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a briefing about threats to civil aviation. O’Neill goes to the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, to respond to this request on behalf of the FBI. Cathal Flynn, the FAA’s associate administrator for civil aviation security, who goes on behalf of the FAA, will later recall that at the briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers ask, “What are the indications—or what are the threats—to aviation?” In response, according to Flynn, “John O’Neill said there are none.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] Bruce Butterworth, the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations, who is apparently at the briefing, will similarly describe O’Neill’s response. He will say he “recalled FBI agent John O’Neill’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee wherein he was unwilling to corroborate FAA claims about credible threats to civil aviation.” [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 pdf file]
FBI Has Learned of 'Indications' of Threats to Aviation - Flynn finds O’Neill’s response to the Intelligence Committee staffers odd, since, he will say, the FBI has learned of a “few indications” of possible threats to aviation, such as a suspicious individual trying to get “a job with airport access” at Los Angeles International Airport. He writes a note to O’Neill, reminding him about this incident. But, according to Flynn, O’Neill “looked at the note” and “still didn’t say anything, didn’t change what he had said.” As the two men are leaving the briefing, Flynn asks O’Neill about the incident and O’Neill tells him there was “nothing to it.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004]
O'Neill Is the FBI's 'Most Committed Tracker of Osama bin Laden' - It is unclear when this briefing takes place. It presumably occurs sometime between July 1995 and September 2000—the time period during which Butterworth is the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations. [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 pdf file] According to Flynn, O’Neill is “the head of antiterrorism for the FBI” when the briefing is held. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] This suggests that it takes place sometime between January 1995 and January 1997, when O’Neill is chief of the counterterrorism section at the FBI’s Washington headquarters. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/11/2006] During his time working for the FBI, O’Neill becomes “the bureau’s most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] Journalist and author Murray Weiss will write that O’Neill “had reiterated since 1995 to any official in Washington who would listen” that “he was sure bin Laden would attack on American soil.” [Weiss, 2003, pp. 360]

Entity Tags: Senate Intelligence Committee, John O’Neill, Cathal Flynn, Bruce Butterworth

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Associated Press reports that senior FBI officials have determined that militant Islamic groups are operating in the US. FBI agent John O’Neill is quoted as saying, “Almost every one of these groups has a presence in the United States today. A lot of these groups now have the capacity and the support infrastructure in the United States to attack us here if they choose to.” [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002]

Entity Tags: John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Valerie James.Valerie James. [Source: PBS]John O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, violates security protocols when he takes Valerie James, his longtime girlfriend, to a secret FBI garage and lets her use the bathroom there—an incident that will subsequently cause him to be placed under investigation. One weekend, O’Neill and James head out on a trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, intending to visit an old friend of O’Neill’s. The couple travel in O’Neill’s personal vehicle, a 1991 Buick. However, about 10 miles outside Manhattan, the aging car breaks down. O’Neill contacts the AAA and when someone arrives to tow it away, he instructs them to take it to an industrial park a couple of miles away, where the FBI garage at which he keeps his bureau car is located.
Girlfriend Uses the Bathroom at the Secret Garage - The location of the garage is a closely guarded secret since, in addition to agents’ cars, the FBI keeps a fleet of undercover vehicles that it uses in investigations, such as fake ambulances and telephone trucks, there. Taking James to the garage is therefore a violation of FBI security protocols. The infringement of protocols is worsened when O’Neill allows his girlfriend to use the bathroom there to freshen up. Furthermore, he then drives her away from the garage in his FBI car, even though agents are strictly prohibited from using their bureau vehicles for nongovernment business and having civilians in them. “O’Neill was breaking the rules and he knew it,” journalist and author Murray Weiss will later comment.
Incident Will Subsequently Be Investigated by the FBI - The incident will only have consequences, though, four month later when the mechanic at the garage comes under investigation for allegedly repairing and servicing the personal vehicles of agents at the FBI facility, and he mentions what happened during his questioning. O’Neill’s apparent security breach will then trigger an in-depth internal investigation of the incident, and O’Neill and James will both be formally questioned about it. O’Neill will be found guilty and be suspended for a month without pay, although upon appeal the suspension will be reduced to 15 days.
Incident Is 'the Beginning of the End' for O'Neill - “Insiders” will call the incident “the beginning of the end of O’Neill’s FBI career,” according to Weiss. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 198-201; Graff, 2011, pp. 260-261] O’Neill will again get into trouble after his briefcase, containing classified material, is stolen when he leaves it unattended during a conference in July 2000 (see July 2000). [PBS, 10/3/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 317] O’Neill is the FBI’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. But he will retire from the bureau in August 2001 and subsequently become head of security at the World Trade Center (see August 22, 2001 and August 23, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Weiss, 2003, pp. 349-350]

Entity Tags: John O’Neill, Valerie James

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

John O’Neill.
John O’Neill. [Source: FBI]An article in the New York Times reveals that the FBI has launched an internal investigation of John O’Neill, one of its most senior counterterrorism officials, for losing a briefcase that contained highly classified information. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, had his briefcase, which contained his division’s annual field office report, stolen when he left it unattended during a conference in Orlando, Florida, in July 2000 (see July 2000). The briefcase was found a few hours later with the report still in it. [Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] However, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility immediately launched an investigation to determine whether any criminal charges should be brought against O’Neill. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 281] That investigation recently ended with a decision not to prosecute, but the FBI’s internal affairs unit subsequently began an investigation to determine whether O’Neill had violated FBI rules. According to the Times: “FBI officials were alarmed, in part, because of the sensitivity of the documents involved, including details about the bureau’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations. One document contained highly sensitive information about an FBI source.” [New York Times, 8/19/2001]
Story Appears Timed to Stop O'Neill Getting a Job on the NSC - The New Yorker will later comment that the leaking of the details of the FBI investigation to the Times “seemed to be timed to destroy O’Neill’s chance of being confirmed for [a National Security Council] job.” The leak was “somebody being pretty vicious to John,” Thomas Pickard, acting FBI director, will say. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002]
Several Officials Will Be Suspected of Being the Article's Source - A number of people will be suspected of leaking the details of the investigation to the Times. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347] O’Neill will suspect Pickard. The acting director “was out to get John for a long time and John never really knew why,” Valerie James, O’Neill’s longtime girlfriend, will say. Pickard will deny being the leaker, though, when O’Neill confronts him about the issue. [PBS, 10/3/2002] Other possible sources of the leak, according to journalist and author Murray Weiss, include Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division; Barbara Bodine, the US ambassador to Yemen; and Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347]
O'Neill Has Overseen Major Terrorism Investigations - O’Neill’s job is among the most powerful in the FBI, and O’Neill has overseen cases such as the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000). [New York Times, 8/19/2001] He is the FBI’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. But he will retire from the FBI on August 22 and take up a new job as head of security at the World Trade Center a day later (see August 22, 2001 and August 23, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Weiss, 2003, pp. 349-350]

Entity Tags: Valerie James, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of Professional Responsibility, Barbara Bodine, Dale Watson, Thomas Pickard, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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