Man Who Warned America: The Life and Death of John O'Neill, the FBI's Embattled Counterterror Warrior

Man Who Warned America: The Life and Death of John O'Neill, the FBI's Embattled Counterterror Warrior

by Murray Weiss

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The first comprehensive inside look at the investigation into Al Qaeda, and John O'Neill, the FBI counter–terror agent who warned that an attack like September 11 was imminent.

For many people, September 11 was the day 'the unimaginable' happened. But one FBI agent, John O'Neill, had repeatedly warned the US Government that such an attack was

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The first comprehensive inside look at the investigation into Al Qaeda, and John O'Neill, the FBI counter–terror agent who warned that an attack like September 11 was imminent.

For many people, September 11 was the day 'the unimaginable' happened. But one FBI agent, John O'Neill, had repeatedly warned the US Government that such an attack was possible. Ironically, O'Neill lost his own life on September 11, just days after beginning a new job as head of security for the World Trade Center.

As one of the FBI's foremost counter–terrorism experts, John O'Neill played a leading role in almost every major investigation of terrorism against Americans in the past decade. O'Neill was a dashing, larger–than–life character who irritated many members of US and foreign governments with his aggressive, hands–on tactics and his insistent, repeated warnings about the possibility of an attack on US soil. Disillusioned by his experiences with the FBI, O'Neill left governmental service to assume the position of chief of security for the Twin Towers in August 2001. Full of twists and turns, John O'Neill's tragic story reveals how one man's unheeded warnings came back to haunt the country he worked so hard to defend.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the 1990s, FBI counterterrorism expert John O'Neill was widely regarded as one of the government's foremost authorities on Mideastern politics and terrorism; he was also a prominent fixture at Manhattan nightlife hot spots like Elaine's. He spent nearly a decade investigating the bombings orchestrated by religious extremists, recognizing Osama bin Laden as a threat long before other federal authorities did. But O'Neill died in another bin Laden attack shortly after leaving the FBI, just a few weeks into a new job as security chief at the World Trade Center. Weiss, as criminal justice reporter for the New York Post, knew O'Neill as a valued source, but from the story he presents, it's unclear how well anybody-even those closest to him-really knew O'Neill, a man described by friends as "on the run from himself" his entire adult life. It wasn't until after his death, for example, that his three girlfriends learned about one another-and that he was still legally bound to the wife he said he had divorced. The biography acknowledges his complicated relationships without lingering over details, putting them in the context of a lifelong need for admiration and approval both personally and professionally. Weiss handles the terrorism angle with slightly less subtlety, asserting that the Clinton administration was distracted from the issue by endless scandal and suggesting that if the rest of the government had investigated it with O'Neill's tenacity, September 11 might have been avoided. But the political overtones never get in the way of this portrait of a dynamic yet enigmatic crusader who was as human as he was heroic. (Aug.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.41(d)

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The Man Who Warned America

The Life and Death of John O'Neill, the FBI's Embattled Counterterror Warrior
By Murray Weiss

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Murray Weiss All right reserved. ISBN: 0060508221

Chapter One

On the Boardwalk

Thirteen-year-old John P. O'Neill took his usual spot on the living-room couch a few minutes before his favorite television program would begin. He didn't want to risk missing even one minute of the show. It was a Sunday evening in 1965, more than a decade before casinos and hotels would sprout up behind the O'Neills' modest walk-up on Atlantic Avenue, and transform Atlantic City. Finally, at 9 P.M., the screen on the family's small black-and-white showed the opening sequence of the hit ABC-TV series The FBI, and O'Neill was transported to a world of polish, dedication, and skill, where dashing federal agents protected people like him from harm.

O'Neill was enthralled. He loved watching the way the calm agent Lewis Erskine, played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., methodically tracked down his quarry of murderers, racketeers, and saboteurs. O'Neill decided he wanted more than anything to become an agent. Millions of American kids dreamed of becoming a famous buttoned-down agent like the television character, but for John O'Neill this was a mission, not a fantasy. He began to count the days until he could leaveAtlantic City and join J. Edgar Hoover's bureau.

"It was not 'This is what I'm thinking of doing.' It was 'This is what I'm going to do! I'm going to join the FBI!'" remembers Jack Caravelli, one of O'Neill's closest boyhood friends.

O'Neill's working-class Irish background helped instill in him both an outsized determination and a clear sense of purpose. He always knew he wanted out of Atlantic City, which was not the kind of place that could accommodate his dreams. For more than a century, well-heeled Northeasterners had carried on a love affair with Atlantic City's world-famous herringbone boardwalk with its hotels, its quaint Steel Pier, and the kitschy Miss America pageant. In its heyday, Atlantic City was known as the "Queen of Resorts," bordered by gleaming fine white sand and dotted with nightclubs that attracted entertainers from W.C. Fields and Frank Sinatra to the Beatles.

But there was always an "us versus them" friction between the thirty-seven thousand locals and the outsiders - the "Shoe-bees," as they were derisively called - who descended on the beach for the day carrying shoe boxes packed with sandwiches. Atlantic City was like a small Middle American city where young people either coveted the cocoon of family and friends or hungered for broader horizons. "There were those in Atlantic City who could not get the sand out of their shoes, and others who could not help but leave," said Caravelli.

By 1952, when O'Neill was born, the city was already losing its allure. Elegant neighborhoods were giving way to vacant lots, and racial strife and crime were increasing. Resorts sprang up nearby, siphoning off tourists from Atlantic City and forcing its grand hotels into disrepair. The boardwalk became deserted much of the year, except for a season-ending rush for the Miss America pageant. The Democratic National Convention in 1964 may have represented Atlantic City's last hoorah.

Life was a struggle for O'Neill's parents. The family of three lived in a working-class neighborhood on a section of Atlantic Avenue where shops today sell "All Items 69 Cents," if they are open at all. The Atlantic City Expressway emptied onto the boardwalk only a few blocks away, the Atlantic City Hospital was down the street, and Green's Army/Navy Store and the city newspaper's offices were nearby. The family's small fourth-floor walk-up had a modest kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms that shared a bathroom.

Starting in the late 1950s, the O'Neills owned a taxi medallion and operated the Dial-a-Cab company out of their apartment. Most of the time, it dispatched one car - theirs - but at its height in the early 1960s, the operation dispatched a fleet of fifteen taxis, according to Murray Rosenberg, owner of the rival Yellow Cab Company in Atlantic City. "It was the high point of their life," he said. "They were unique in that they purchased new cabs, which helped attract business." O'Neill's mother would drive the cab during the day - and still does - and his father drove at night.

"Like most drivers, when he finished his shift and the workday ended, he had a couple and played the ponies," Rosenberg said. "He liked to drink a bit, but he was a helluva guy and that did not make him a bad guy. John was a nice guy, the kind of guy to shoot the breeze with. I have nothing to say except they are solid, honorable people."

More than a dozen taxi companies went out of business in those years, he said. "It was a tough business. There was no gold in the streets." O'Neill's father's taxi gamble, and the decline in the economy, eventually cost the O'Neills their fleet of taxis, but they stayed in business, driving their one cab eighteen hours a day and barely making ends meet even at the height of tourism season. O'Neill's mother would do what she could to pinch pennies, even darning socks for the family, and also worked shifts as a waitress when times were tough.

"It was a wonderful time moral-wise, but a difficult time financial-wise," she has said.

Even after the passage of the 1976 Casino Gambling Referendum, which brought in big-money developers who erected high-rise casino hotels along the famed but fading boardwalk, there was little change in their circumstances. The boom that local politicians had preached never materialized for area merchants and residents.

Unlike Las Vegas, which attracted guests who arrived by jet, Atlantic City gamblers were mostly day-trippers who came by car or bus from New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C...


Excerpted from The Man Who Warned America by Murray Weiss
Copyright © 2003 by Murray Weiss
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Murray Weiss, an award-winning investigative journalist and author, is the Criminal Justice Editor at the New York Post. During more than three decades with the Post and the New York Daily News, he has written extensively on law enforcement, organized crime, terrorism, criminal justice, and politics. He has appeared frequently on radio and television, including "Larry King Live" and "The O'Reilly Factor" and is co-author of Palm Beach Babylon. He lives in New York.

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