September 23, 2001
John O'Neill Is Dead at 49; Trade Center Security Chief
By ROBIN POGREBIN
John P. O'Neill, who left the F.B.I. last month to become chief of security for the World Trade Center, died in the collapse of the center on Sept. 11. He was 49.
Mr. O'Neill spent the last several years heading major investigations of the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, a prime suspect in the attacks at the trade center and the Pentagon. He also investigated the bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
In 1997, when he was head of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism division in New York, he warned at a conference on terrorism that militant terrorist groups were operating quietly within the United States. "A lot of these groups now have the capability and the support infrastructure in the United States to attack us here if they choose to," he said at the time, adding that there was a particular danger from Islamic militants.
On Sept. 11, Mr. O'Neill saw his warnings materialize.
In his career with the F.B.I., Mr. O'Neill proved to be one of the shrewdest counterterrorism officials and one of the most controversial. Associates have said that he sometimes chafed at the bureau's restrictive rules and that his single-mindedness occasionally irritated colleagues in the bureau, at the C.I.A. and at the State Department.
Last month, F.B.I. sources confirmed that Mr. O'Neill was under investigation after he left a briefcase containing classified information unattended in a hotel in Tampa, Fla., last year. The briefcase — which was recovered and returned to Mr. O'Neill — contained several documents that included a report outlining virtually every national security operation in New York.
As chief of the counterterrorism section at the bureau's Washington headquarters, Mr. O'Neill helped capture the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, coordinated information in the Oklahoma City bombing that led to the arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and played a key role in the investigation of the crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800.
Born in Atlantic City, Mr. O'Neill received a Bachelor of Science degree from American University in Washington and a master's degree in forensic science from George Washington University in Washington. After joining the bureau in 1976, Mr. O'Neill worked in the foreign counterintelligence, organized crime and white collar crime units.
After assignments in Baltimore, Washington and Chicago, Mr. O'Neill headed the group charged with investigating violence against abortion clinics and the counterterrorism section at headquarters.
It was in the wake of the lost-briefcase incident that Mr. O'Neill announced last month that he would retire at the end of the month.
Editorial Obituary published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on September 23, 2001.
The Head of Security
John O'Neill of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a relative newcomer to New York, but nearly everybody saw him as New York to the bone. And not just any New Yorker, but a New Yorker of a certain pure strain — the gregarious, high-living, deeply curious Irish cop, who loved wit and companionship and, most of all, investigating crimes.
During his six years as head of national security at the New York F.B.I. office, he seemed to have become acquainted with half the population of the city. One after another, said Valerie James, his companion, people would stop by his table at Elaine's or Bruno's or one of the other restaurants he frequented nearly every night. He would order a Chivas with water and a twist and a hearty, meaty meal, smoke a Dominican cigar and talk — to cops, colleagues, movie stars, kitchen workers, musicians.
He was a complicated man, with a life full of contradictions. Long estranged — but not divorced — from Christine O'Neill, his wife in New Jersey, he lived with Ms. James, a fashion sales director he met in Chicago. As well as a driven F.B.I. investigator, he was a well-studied lover of jazz and French Impressionism. He led the agency's investigations into the terror attacks on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and was its foremost expert on Osama bin Laden. In August, he retired from the F.B.I. to become head of security at the World Trade Center, which he intended to protect against the enemies he had studied so deeply.
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on January 27, 2002.