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Context of 'Mid-July 2001: FBI Official John O’Neill Rails Against White House and Saudi Obstructionism'

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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

Ahmed Zaidan.Ahmed Zaidan. [Source: PBS]Ahmed Zaidan, a journalist for Al Jazeera, is invited to a wedding also attended by al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan (see February 26, 2001), and while there he talks to Atef about al-Qaeda’s military strategy. He will later recall that Atef told him, “He was explaining to me what’s going to happen in the coming five years.… There are two or three places in the world which [are] the most suitable places to fight Americans: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. We are expecting the United States to invade Afghanistan. And we are preparing for that. We want them to come to Afghanistan.” Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, will later comment, “Did they want us involve in the war on the ground in Islamic countries? Absolutely. Part of the goal was to make sure that Muslims perceived America as the infidel invader of Muslim lands.” [William Cran, 4/15/2007] It is not known if any Western intelligence agencies were aware of this strategy prior to 9/11. However, other al-Qaeda-linked figures will make similar comments to reporters before 9/11 (see April 2001 and August 2-3, 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohammed Atef, Michael Scheuer, Ahmed Zaidan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mohammed bin Laden (center), the son of Osama bin Laden (right),
marries the daughter of Mohammed Atef (left).
Mohammed bin Laden (center), the son of Osama bin Laden (right), marries the daughter of Mohammed Atef (left). [Source: Al Jazeera]Bin Laden attends the wedding of his son Mohammed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Although Osama bin Laden is supposedly long estranged from his family, bin Laden’s stepmother, two brothers, and sister are also said to attend, according to the only journalist who was invited. [Reuters, 3/1/2001; Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 10/7/2001]

Entity Tags: Al-Khalifa bin Laden, Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, Mohammed bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Journalist Hamid Mir talks to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is living in exile in Iran at the time. Hekmatyar predicts that the Taliban will fall by the end of the year. Mir will later recall, “he was telling me that the Americans will attack Afghanistan, Taliban government will fall, and then we’ll continue our jihad against the Americans.” Hekmatyar is opposed to the Taliban but openly supports bin Laden. He tells Mir, “Osama bin Laden is a great man and I support his ideology and I support his objectives.… He is a good friend of mine and he is a real muhjahid.” [Bergen, 2006, pp. 287] A senior Taliban official will make a similar prediction to Mir before 9/11 and hint the justification for the US attack would be a major attack against US interests (see August 2-3, 2001).

Entity Tags: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hamid Mir, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The movements of John O’Neill, the FBI manager responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden, appear to mirror those of the 9/11 hijackers and their associates while they are in Spain. Associates of the hijackers gather in Granada, in southern Spain, at the beginning of July (see July 6, 2001 and Shortly After). O’Neill arrives in Spain with some friends on July 5 and stays in Marbella until at least July 8. For at least part of the time in Marbella he is accompanied by Mark Rossini, an FBI agent currently detailed to Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who translates for O’Neill in Spain and whose friend lets O’Neill use his beach house. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2; Wright, 2006, pp. 316-7, 344-5] (Note: Marbella and Granada are both in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, but are about 120 miles apart.) Lead hijacker Mohamed Atta then arrives in Madrid on July 8, leaving on July 9. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 244] O’Neill and Rossini arrive in Madrid on July 9 and O’Neill gives a speech to the Spanish Police Foundation there on July 10. [Spanish Police Foundation, 7/10/2001; Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2] After leaving Madrid, Atta travels to Catalonia, where he meets Ramzi bin al-Shibh and possibly other associates (see July 8-19, 2001). The authors of The Cell, one of whom—John Miller—was a close friend of O’Neill’s, will say O’Neill also visits the same part of Catalonia to make a speech at some point on his trip to Spain (note: it is unclear whether this is just a garbled account of his speech in Madrid, or whether he made two speeches). They will also say that he and Atta even stay at the same hotel, the Casablanca Playa in the small town of Salou, but at different times. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 289-90, 293] O’Neill leaves Spain on July 16, so he and his girlfriend Valerie James would probably be in the Salou area at around the same time as Atta, bin al-Shibh, and their associates. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2] The overlap between the 9/11 operatives on the one hand and O’Neill and Rossini on the other is usually ignored in media accounts, but the episode in Salou is mentioned in The Cell, which indicates it is a mere coincidence. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 289-90]

Entity Tags: Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mohamed Atta, John O’Neill, Mark Rossini

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI counterterrorism expert John O’Neill privately discusses White House obstruction in his bin Laden investigation. O’Neill says, “The main obstacles to investigate Islamic terrorism were US oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it.” He adds, “All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia.” O’Neill also believes the White House is obstructing his investigation of bin Laden because they are still keeping the idea of a pipeline deal with the Taliban open (see July 21, 2001). [Irish Times, 11/19/2001; Brisard and Dasquie, 2002, pp. xxix; CNN, 1/8/2002; CNN, 1/9/2002]

Entity Tags: John O’Neill, Bush administration (43), Taliban, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Niaz Naik.Niaz Naik. [Source: Calcutta Telegraph (left)]Three former American officials, Tom Simons (former US Ambassador to Pakistan), Karl Inderfurth (former Deputy Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs), and Lee Coldren (former State Department expert on South Asia) meet with Pakistani and Russian intelligence officers in a Berlin hotel. [Salon, 8/16/2002] This is the third of a series of back-channel conferences called “brainstorming on Afghanistan.” Taliban representatives sat in on previous meetings, but boycotted this one due to worsening tensions. However, the Pakistani ISI relays information from the meeting to the Taliban. [Guardian, 9/22/2001] At the meeting, Coldren passes on a message from Bush officials. He later says, “I think there was some discussion of the fact that the United States was so disgusted with the Taliban that they might be considering some military action.” [Guardian, 9/26/2001] Accounts vary, but former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik later says he is told by senior American officials at the meeting that military action to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan is planned to “take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest.” The goal is to kill or capture both bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, topple the Taliban regime, and install a transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place. Uzbekistan and Russia would also participate. Naik also says, “It was doubtful that Washington would drop its plan even if bin Laden were to be surrendered immediately by the Taliban.” [BBC, 9/18/2001] One specific threat made at this meeting is that the Taliban can choose between “carpets of bombs” —an invasion—or “carpets of gold” —the pipeline. [Brisard and Dasquie, 2002, pp. 43] Naik contends that Tom Simons made the “carpets” statement. Simons claims, “It’s possible that a mischievous American participant, after several drinks, may have thought it smart to evoke gold carpets and carpet bombs. Even Americans can’t resist the temptation to be mischievous.” Naik and the other American participants deny that the pipeline was an issue at the meeting. [Salon, 8/16/2002]

Entity Tags: Uzbekistan, Tom Simons, Russia, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Mullah Omar, Lee Coldren, Niaz Naik, Osama bin Laden, Karl Inderfurth, Taliban, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A senior official in the Taliban’s defense ministry tells journalist Hamid Mir that the US will soon invade Afghanistan. Mir will later recall that he is told, “[W]e believe Americans are going to invade Afghanistan and they will do this before October 15, 2001, and justification for this would be either one of two options: Taliban got control of Afghanistan or a big major attack against American interests either inside America or elsewhere in the world.” Mir reports this information before 9/11, presumably in the newspaper in Pakistan that he works for. [Bergen, 2006, pp. 287] Interestingly, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar made a similar prediction to Mir several months before (see April 2001). Also, several weeks earlier, US officials reportedly passed word to Taliban officials in a back channel meeting that the US may soon attack Afghanistan if the Taliban do not cooperate on building an oil and gas pipeline running through the country. According to one participant in the meeting, the US attack would take place “by the middle of October at the latest” (see July 21, 2001).

Entity Tags: Taliban, Hamid Mir

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 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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