“Forget it Dick, It’s Chinatown”

That might have been a good final line to the ABC mini-series “The Path to 9/11.” Because John O’Neill didn’t survive, it would have had to be spoken to Richard Clarke.

Supposedly this two-part show was a right-wing smear attack on the Clinton Administration. Well, look. If you’re going to tell the story of how the government screwed up in protecting America from this attack, you’re going to feature characters who are part of the permanent government, such as the story’s hero, FBI Special Agent John P. O’Neill. As a rule, such people have contempt for politics, politicians and, above all, political appointees. (This is true at every level of government.  I saw it all the time at City Hall.  Elected officials and their appointees eventually figure out that there are two types of bureaucrats:  The smart, dedicated ones who think the political people are stupid, and the dumb, lazy ones who think the political people are stupid.)

It is part of the story to show there was tension between people like Clarke and O’Neill on one side, and presidential appointees like Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and, later, Condi Rice on the other. Especially in the case of O’Neill, a fierce, brilliant Irish bulldog who headed the FBI’s National Security Division.

Barbara Newman, a documentary producer for A&E, interviewed O’Neill in 1997. That interview was included in a 2002 PBS Frontline episode on O’Neill called “The Man Who Knew.” On the PBS website, Newman writes:

I had covered terrorism stemming from the Middle East since 1980, when I was a producer for ABC’s 20/20. John and I shared an interest in this area and a belief that the U.S. could suffer a tremendous blow from those who espoused a hatred of us and our society. Some found his zeal shrill and annoying. I found it reassuring.

John could be utterly charming or totally devastating. He could wither with a look, suffering fools badly. He was openly contemptuous of people he didn’t think pushed the envelope or themselves. He thought so quickly he often finished my sentences. I knew when he disagreed with me by catching an amused flicker in his eyes.

John had old-fashioned values. He was patriotic. He was religious, never missing a Sunday mass. He told me that he was so poor growing up, he had done every job, including cleaning bathrooms. He went to the FBI at age 18 and became a tour guide. The Bureau was his life; they sent him to college at American University.

Behind the bluster, John was a gentle soul. He might not admit it, but I think he would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.

John and I were friends. We were able to communicate directly, without artifice. We trusted each other and knew each other’s limits. For years John had told me that Osama bin Laden was an enormous threat to the U.S. and that I should do a documentary about him. And for years I told him that Americans weren’t interested. We were both right.

Also in 2002, the New Yorker‘s Lawrence Wright wrote a posthumous profile of O’Neill, in which Clarke played a prominent role. The whole piece is worth reading — Wright has a new book out about 9/11 that I am anxious to get. This excerpt is telling:

Clarke immediately spotted in O’Neill an obsessiveness about the dangers of terrorism which mirrored his own. “John had the same problems with the bureaucracy that I had,” Clarke told me. “Prior to September 11th, a lot of people who were working full time on terrorism thought it was no more than a nuisance. They didn’t understand that Al Qaeda was enormously powerful and insidious and that it was not going to stop until it really hurt us. John and some other senior officials knew that. The impatience really grew in us as we dealt with the dolts who didn’t understand.”

That’s right: Dolts. It’s obvious both Clarke and O’Neill didn’t like much of anybody in Washington, regardless of party. Maybe they were being unfair, or maybe they were right. But it wasn’t partisan.

“The Path to 9/11” was primarily the story of these two men and their frustration in trying to protect the nation from a threat they saw clearly and — so they thought — no one else did. “No one” is inclusive of Clinton and his appointees. It would have been untrue to the characters to have them make nice comments about the Administration, or to whitewash the contempt that numerous witnesses say they felt toward them.

The activists and Democratic Party leaders who have interpreted the dramatization of these two characters as a partisan attack don’t get it. Curiously, their furious response underscores O’Neill’s view of the political types as more interested in protecting their rear ends than protecting the country.


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