FBI terror expert lost track of top-secret
Stolen briefcase held report on N.Y. operations
David Johnston, New York Times Sunday, August 19,
Washington -- The FBI has begun an internal investigation into one
of its most senior counterterrorism officials, who lost track of
a briefcase containing highly classified information last year.
The briefcase contained a number of sensitive documents, including
a report outlining virtually every national security operation in
New York, government officials said.
The official, John O'Neill, 49, is the special agent in charge
of national security in the FBI's New York office. The job is among
the most powerful in the FBI, and, although O'Neill is not widely
known, he has overseen cases like the terrorist bombing of the Navy
destroyer Cole in Yemen last year and the bombings of American Embassies
in East Africa in 1998.
The briefcase incident was seen as potentially so serious that
the Justice Department conducted a criminal investigation. The inquiry
ended in recent weeks with a decision by the department's internal
security section not to prosecute, law enforcement officials said.
O'Neill left his briefcase in a hotel conference room while he
attended an FBI meeting in Tampa, Fla., last summer. The briefcase
was stolen, but the local authorities recovered it and returned
it to him within hours with the contents.
Jill Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said department
officials would not comment on the matter. Requests to discuss the
matter with O'Neill were made to bureau officials in New York and
Washington. In both cases, they said he declined to comment on the
After the criminal inquiry, the bureau's internal affairs unit
began its own investigation to determine whether O'Neill had violated
FBI rules against mishandling classified information.
Officials identified one document in the briefcase as a draft of
the annual field office report for national security operations
in New York. The closely guarded report contained a description
of every counterespionage and counterterrorism program in New York
and detailed the manpower for each operation.
FBI agents are prohibited from removing classified documents from
their offices without authorization. Violations are punishable by
censure, suspension or even dismissal, depending on their seriousness.
Even if the inquiry finds that O'Neill violated regulations, he
is unlikely to be sanctioned. He has been planning to retire and
told associates in recent days that he would step down this week.
He is expected to take a job as a private security consultant.
Several officials said O'Neill became the subject of intense scrutiny
partly because law enforcement officials did not want to treat the
matter lightly after the cases of John M. Deutch, the former director
of central intelligence, and Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear weapons scientist
in the federal laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.
Deutch lost his security clearances and was the subject of a Justice
Department investigation for mishandling classified material after
he placed classified documents on computers in his home. Deutch
was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in January.
Lee pleaded guilty in September 2000 to one count of mishandling
classified material just as the rest of the government's case against
In O'Neill's case, FBI officials were alarmed, in part, because
of the sensitivity of the documents involved, including details
about the bureau's counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations.
O'Neill immediately reported the incident to his superiors. But
after the Tampa authorities recovered the briefcase, it was taken
from him and the documents inside it were fingerprinted to determine
whether anyone had touched the briefcase and whether the documents
were handled by a foreign intelligence service.
The investigation concluded that the documents in the briefcase
had not been touched and that it had probably been stolen by thieves
who were thought to be responsible for several robberies in the
Tampa area at the time.
O'Neill started as an entry-level clerk at the bureau and has been
an agent for more than 25 years. Throughout his career, associates
said, O'Neill has been regarded as a dedicated, relentless and hard-charging
investigator who was one of the FBI's brightest stars. But associates
said he sometimes chafed at the restrictive rules at the bureau,
and his single-mindedness had sometimes irritated colleagues in
the bureau, at the CIA and at the State Department. O'Neill's aggressiveness
has led to serious frictions in the Cole bombing case, for example.
This year, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, blocked
O'Neill from returning to Yemen to oversee the FBI investigation
of the bombing of the Cole. O'Neill had led the initial team of
agents in Yemen after the bombing last fall, but ran afoul of Bodine
over what she considered his heavy-handed style, State Department
officials said. She considered the FBI contingent too large and
objected to the agents' insistence on carrying heavy weapons, they
But O'Neill has many admirers. Barry W. Mawn, assistant director
of the FBI in charge of the New York office, said O'Neill was a
tireless worker and had had his "complete confidence"
since Mawn took over the office last year.