Curbing John O’Neill : The Pipeline and the Saudi-Al Qaeda Connection

The late John P. O’Neill, former assistant director of the FBI, saw threat of bin Laden early on. O’Neill’s attempts to investigate connections with Saudis were thwarted.

John O’Neill, the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline:
The Saudis, the Bushes and bin Laden

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / November 13, 2009

The terrorist attack on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001, was successful in part because of flaws in this nation’s counterinsurgency efforts. There was a deliberate policy of avoiding careful scrutiny of what Saudis were doing in the United States.

Saudi ties to Al Qaeda were not examined closely. Friendship with Saudi Arabia was considered crucial for a number of reasons. One important priority was obtaining Saudi help in advancing an American controlled pipeline to bring Caspian natural gas to Pakistan and India.

Al Qaeda and the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline

The U.S. had obtained a report written by Mohammed Atef, head of military operations for Al Qaeda. It stated that the terrorist organization was alarmed by secret Taliban negotiations with the American oil companies who wanted to build the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline, fearing it would increase U.S. influence in Afghanistan. The August 1998 bombing of the two embassies in Africa was most probably an effort to end the Taliban-U.S. talks about the pipeline. It was clear that Al Qaeda had great influence within the Taliban and that it was working against an American-controlled pipeline.

This made it essential that the U.S. obtain the help of the Saudis, who were pumping money into Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was in a position to help the United States bring about the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline, The Saudis had a standing interest in moving oil across Afghanistan going back to their funding of the Taliban in the 1970s and 1980s. They were doing this even before the U.S.

Later, the American companies used the Saudi intelligence people to begin talks with the Taliban. Enron served as a consultant for Unocal. Price Turki, head of Saudi intelligence, made several trips to Afghanistan on behalf of the energy firms. He was close to the Bin Laden family and it is said that he promised them the construction contract in return for a kickback for the Saudi royal family. Some link his firing to the breakdown of pipeline talks in August, 2001.

Red Herring magazine reported that George W. Bush and his father were not in agreement on the importance of keeping close ties to Saudi Arabia and that they argued about this at Kennebunkport. After this, the Boston Herald, prompted by friends of the young president, ran an expose of the ties of some White House officials to Saudi Arabia and called it an “obscene conflict of interest.” The expose was part of a debate going on at the highest levels of government. There were also leaks from the White House about Saudi ties to terrorism.

Cheney succeeded in changing the president’s view of the Saudis perhaps by pointing out all his family’s ties to the Saudi royal house. King Abdullah’s visit to the Bushes demonstrates that a shift had occurred. The angered Israelis started leaking information on Saudi ties to terrorism.

George W. Bush with Saudi King Faisal.

‘Hands-off’ investigating the Saudis

Since the administration of George H.W. Bush, there had been a policy of not looking closely into the activities of Saudis in the United States. In 1998, Clinton backed away from that policy; he permitted the FBI to examine the activities of Saudis in the U.S. and Saudi ties to Al Qaeda. The Bush administration reverted to the “hands off” policy and strengthened it. An American intelligence source told the Guardian that the “hands off” order was necessary to prevent it from becoming public that some Saudis were paying protection money to bin Laden.

According to Greg Palast, an American journalist working in London, “A group of well-placed sources — not-all-too-savory-spooks and arms dealers — told my BBC team that before September 11 the U.S. government had turned away evidence of Saudi billionaires funding Osama bin Laden’s network.” He continued, “we got our hands on documents that backed up the story that FBI and CIA investigations had been slowed by the Clinton administration, then killed by Bush Jr. when those inquiries might upset Saudi interests.” Another reason was allegedly “Arbusto” and ”Carlyle,” terms that refer to the Bush’s business ties with Saudis.

John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor who claims to have sources within the intelligence community, claimed that Vice President Cheney ordered the FBI and intelligence agencies not to investigate Al Qaeda from January to August because these probes might endanger efforts to negotiate a pipeline deal with Afghanistan. Loftus also reported that Enron was involved in these investigations. Unfortunately, we only have the former prosecutor’s word for all this. We do know that after the brief U.S. War in Afghanistan the pipeline project was again alive and well and slated to terminate at a Pakistan city not too far from an Enron power plant in India that was in desperate need of cheap fuel.

The Guardian obtained FBI documents that indicated there were restrictions on investigating possible terrorist plots. Shown on the BBC television program NewsNight, the file was coded “199,” which was a designation for national security cases. The material indicated the FBI could not investigate two of bin Laden’s relatives who lived in Falls Church, Virginia. Abdullah and Omar bin Laden were associated with a suspected terrorist organization, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) which had an office there. Abdullah was the director of the U.S. branch of WAMY.

Two of the September 11 hijackers used a false address several blocks away from the office. The public statements of two Chicago-based FBI men indicate that from the late 1990s on there was a policy of not opening criminal investigations of potential Islamic terrorists or the financial networks that supported them. It seems clear that the White House had put counterterrorism planning on the back burner.

John P. O’Neill’s Frustrations

The late John P. O’Neill was the most active FBI agent in investigating Al Qaeda. He eventually rose to the rank of assistant director. Earlier than almost anyone else, he saw Osama bin Laden for what he was — a great threat to the security of the United States. He was obsessed with Bin Laden and told anyone who would listen about the terrorist and his vile network.

In 1997, O’Neill was special agent in charge of national security programs in the New York office. Working around the clock, he coordinated the effort to catch Ramzi Yousef. When ABC News interviewed Osama bin Laden, the producer formulated questions based on discussions with O’Neill. His messy personal life and tendency to bend the rules slowed his advancement. O’Neill could be brutally honest and his direct ways alienated people. When returning from an unsuccessful trip to Saudi Arabia with Director Louis Freeh, he said, “ They didn’t give us anything. They were just shining sunshine up your ass.”’ The director had said it was a successful operation, and did not speak to O’Neill for the next twelve hours of flight.

O’ Neill was aware of the Mohammed Atef document, which made it clear that Al Qaeda did not want a U.S.-dominated dual pipeline crossing Afghanistan. He thought concerns about oil led the administration to prevent investigations of Saudi activities in the U.S. John O’Neill resigned shortly after an article criticizing him appeared in the New York Times. He had already been removed from the fast career advancement track, and he thought that interim director Tom Pickard planted the article because incoming director Robert Mueller wanted to replace O’Neill with a minion of the Bushes. O’Neill became director of security at the World Trade Center and died trying to save lives on September 11. The truth of O’Neill’s claims about the Bush administration’s quashing of anti-terrorist activities may have gone to the grave with him.

John O’Neill’s knowledge of the Mohammed Atef document would have led him to see the connection between oil and terrorism and to focus on the Saudi-Taliban-Al Qaeda connection. He later confided to French investigators that concern for oil was behind the Bush Administration’s reluctance to do much about possible terrorism.

His investigations were continually shut down, and he began seeking information from French intelligence by using two reporters, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie. Both journalist cutouts were experts on oil and terrorism and were consultants for French intelligence. They later wrote The Forbidden Truth. Perhaps the French government permitted O’Neill to learn more because it had been cut out of the Caspian oil deals. O’Neill and another dissenter Robert Baer of the CIA would be forced into retirement in part due to their efforts to probe Saudi ties to terrorists. Much relevant information in Baer’s book, See No Evil, was blacked out by the CIA.

From 1995, the FBI and CIA operated a computer program called “Alex” that tracked Al Qaeda communications. O’Neill was the chief CIA link to the program and Michael Scheuer, was the key CIA figure in “Station Alex” at Langley. They soon learned that Al Qaeda was involved in the diamond trade, drug and arms smuggling, and teen sex businesses. Scheuer and his CIA people, in the words of an O’Neill associate “despised the FBI and they despised John O’Neill.” A CIA officer added that the working relationship with the flashy O’Neill was often very poor.

Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed bin Laden, with Faisal al-Saud, the Saudi king in the middle of the 20th century. Photo from CNN.

When O’Neill began to learn too much about Al Qaeda, his access to Alex information was lifted. O’Neill took to asking French intelligence to monitor Al Qaeda telephone calls. Scheuer resigned when he decided that the Bush administration was not doing enough about Al Qaeda. Soon the Bush Administration shut down Alex, just as it closed its military counterpart, “Able Danger.”

O’Neill had learned that his own agency continually stymied his investigative leads and he had taken to relying on the DEA and French intelligence for help. His frustrations began to mount when he was sent to Aden in 2000 to investigate the attack on the USS Cole. He received little cooperation there from local authorities and was ordered out of Yemen by the U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who gave him the cold shoulder from the outset. Bodine wanted him to dismiss his bodyguard even though O’Neill thought Mossad might move against him because he was open to the possibility that Israel was behind the Cole incident.

O’Neill foolishly spoke openly about Abu Nidal, leader of Black September, probably being a Mossad operative. She did not back him when the Yemeni authorities refused to let him interview the people who saw the explosion, to see the hat of one of the alleged attackers, or to sample sludge in the area. He wanted an explosives analysis done on the mud beneath the ship and a DNA study of hat of one of the two alleged bombers. One former FBI agent believes O’Neill was removed out of fear that he would discover that the ship had been hit by an Israeli missile. In 2001, he wanted to return to Yemen but Bodine would not give him a clearance. In February, 2001, the Yemeni Minister of the Interior announced that he had found no evidence linking the attack to Al Qaeda.

It was natural for O’Neill to rely upon the French because they had the best information in the West on Arab terrorists. They had concluded that an Arab team of 10 under a Yemeni was trained to assault a ship in 1999 at Al Qaeda’s Darounta, Afghanistan base. However, the team did not use its training and was not responsible for the Cole bombing. O’Neill probably learned this from them.

The French looked into two of their nationals who were at the Darouta training camp and found that these people worked with Muslim rebels in Bosnia. The insurgency was largely supported by western intelligence agencies and many of the funds came from the Riggs Bank account of the Bosnian Defense Fund, which was operated by American Neo-Conservatives. Much of their money came from the Middle East, including the Saudi and Egyptian governments. Some of these funds spilled over to Al Qaeda, which had operative in Bosnia working with the Islamic insurgency.

Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill took steps to dry up Al Qaeda funds and was putting pressure on Middle Eastern governments to provide information on how money from that region reached Al Qaeda. It is likely that these investigative activities generated enough opposition to result in his ouster. David D. Aufhauser, Treasury’s General Counsel, soon followed O’Neill into the private sector. He has spearheaded the effort to look into Al Qaeda financing.

In 2000, John O’Neill joined 150 other FBI agents in attending a retirement seminar in Orlando. His briefcase was stolen there, and it contained classified e-mail and a report on anti-terrorist activities. Ninety minutes after he missed the briefcase, it turned up in another hotel. A cigar cutter, a lighter and pen were missing, but the sensitive material was there. It had to be assumed that this information could have been copied.

The bureau investigated the matter and cleared O’Neill of all charges of negligence. It also said the documents had not been touched, but it is hard to imagine how that could have been established. Still, his reputation had been badly tarnished. The loss of the briefcase was used to force him to go through with retirement, and the story was later leaked when there was a chance that he would replace Richard Clarke as the new Bush administration’s chief anti-terrorism advisor. Clarke and O’Neill were friends and allies, and Clarke wanted O’Neill to be his replacement. The FBI refused to investigate the leak, despite a request to do so from the bureau chief in New York City. As it turned out, Clarke remained at the NSC but with a less important title.

The briefcase also had information that showed that O’Neill knew about Michael Dick’s investigation of Israeli agents, working for a moving company in New York and New Jersey. Dick was also aware of the Israeli agents who came to the United States under the cover of marketing art. They were shriveling all sorts of federal facilities, especially those of the DEA. They were also spying on DEA agents and FBI agents. The “Israeli artists” also followed Arabs who would later be accused of involvement in the 9/11 plot.

By 2000, he was busy trying to find Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States, but he was soon taken out of action and assigned to deskwork. Janet Parker, a Seattle veterinarian and O’Neill friend, said that O’ Neill’s superior, Tom Picard, prevented O’Neill from getting a wire tap on Shadrack Manyathella, who was tied to probably double agent Ali Mohammed and Mohammed Atta, possible ring leader of 9/11. Parker and O’Neill were keeping track of one cell through her foster daughter, who had previous ties with the terrorists.

John O’Neill resigned soon after the second Bush took power. O’Neill told two respected French investigators, “All of the answers, all of the clues allowing us to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia. ” O’Neill was extremely frustrated by the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism, claiming the administration had also made it more difficult to investigate Saudis.

O’Neill retired on August 22, after thirty years of service. He immediately took up his duties as head of security at the World Trade Center on behalf of Kroll Associates and occupied his office on the 34th floor of the North Tower. While trying to rescue people in the South Tire, he lost his life. In November 2001, weapons inspector Richard Butler told TV investigator Paula Zahn, “The most explosive charge, Paula, is that the Bush administration — the present one, just shortly after assuming office slowed down FBI investigations of al Qaeda and terrorism in Afghanistan in order to do a deal with the Taliban on oil — an oil pipeline across Afghanistan.”

It is now nine years later, and the American mainstream media still has not investigated what Butler called “the most explosive charge.” Were there, and are there restraints on the way intelligence people and the FBI deal with Saudi and Pakistani ties to terrorists? If we knew more about how important the gas pipeline is to the .US., we might be in a better position to understand why so many people in power insist on escalating the present war in Afghanistan.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history teacher. Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

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