Informal conversation with John Judge, co-founder of Coalition on Politcal Assassinations (COPA) and co-founder of 911citizenswatch.org, given prior to a talk at the University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Center February 12, 2002 in Seattle.
In his work regarding more recent history, Mr. Judge cofounded the 9/11 Citizens Watch to monitor the operations of the official 9/11 Commission, the independent and bipartisan body created by congressional legislation to prepare a full account of the attacks.
He briefly worked as an assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), who was widely rebuked when she suggested that President George W. Bush’s administration might have had advance notice of the terrorist strike.
Former congressman Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who met Mr. Judge during his Capitol Hill employment, described him as “brilliant” and said he had been “very impressed” by Mr. Judge’s research abilities.
“I may not have agreed with him on everything,” Kucinich said of Mr. Judge in an interview, but he was “an original, independent thinker and someone who immersed himself in hidden history.”
watched Episode 1 of this show last night & was pleasantly surprised. wasn't expecting much (& still not), but it's a step closer to the truth (passed off as intelligence failure I'm guessing). I'm always interested to see how conspiratorial events are portrayed in mainstream films.
NEW YORK — When Hulu debuts the first episode of “The Looming Tower” on Wednesday, it will attempt a rare feat in post-9/11 Hollywood: Tell a slick scripted story of U.S. intelligence that isn’t fictional.
Entertainment and politics have intersected a lot lately, so it makes sense to see TV taking a big Washington swing.
But very few Hollywood creations, from the Jason Bourne movies to “Homeland,” try the trick of “The Looming Tower.” In telling about the rise of Islamic radicalism and the inadequacy of the United States’ response to it, the 10-episode show drapes only the thinnest action-thriller garb on a work of journalism, history and policy-critique.
“We wanted to show what the very significant issues were,” showrunner Dan Futterman said in an interview this month in New York, where he lives and the show was partly shot. “There were real problems, especially with intelligence-sharing among the FBI and CIA.”
And because “The Looming Tower” lacks the cover of invention in the manner of a “Homeland,” it’s a lot more likely to stir discontent among the agencies it’s chronicling.
The CIA, which “The Looming Tower” portrays in a worse light than the FBI, had for months said nothing.
But this week a spokesman broke the silence and dismissed the show to The Washington Post.
“There is a comprehensive, factual account of the 9/11 attacks and it is the work of the 9/11 Commission — not this made-for-TV series,” said the spokesman, Dean Boyd. The CIA did not cooperate with “The Looming Tower” producers, who had sought agency input, though producers had reached some ex-officers on their own.
The FBI did cooperate with the production, granting permission to talk to some agents, according to FBI spokesman Christopher Allen. He declined to further comment on the series.
At a time when the White House is at war with its own intelligence services — President Trump recently targeted the FBI for missing “all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter” — the series also vibrates with topicality.
Dramatized from Lawrence Wright’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower” tells of FBI agents John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and their counterparts at the CIA, embodied by composite character Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), who began tracking the terrorist threat as it emerged in the 1990s.
The groups’ intelligence was often solid. But ego, territoriality and philosophical differences resulted in paralysis — and ultimately, the material suggests, lead to an inability to prevent 9/11. The FBI wanted access to intelligence it accused the CIA of hoarding. The CIA feared that sharing would cause an arrest-minded agency to blow its operation by apprehending lower-level suspects. So everyone sat pat as al-Qaeda grew stronger.
“There’s a natural antagonism between the CIA and FBI because they do things differently,” said Wright, the author, noting that matters have improved in the interim. “The lesson here is that [when they don’t] division can be fatal.”
While “The Looming Tower” gives airtime to each side’s motivations, the CIA comes off decidedly worse than the FBI in the first three episodes, which were made available to press. FBI agents are seen as hotheaded but well-meaning; CIA officers are at times depicted as arrogant and even dangerous.
Hulu executives say the show’s hot-button nature was part of its rationale for making it.
“We don’t court controversy, but we do feel it could spark a conversation,” said Craig Erwich, the company’s senior vice president of content. Hulu had a similar effect with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which generated a rich discussion about gender and patriarchy and won the best-drama Emmy in September.
Sarsgaard said he didn’t think the show “was blaming one side more than the other” but allowed that the CIA “did things you can question in hindsight.”
That critique has previously been made in published materials, such as the 9/11 Commission Report from 2004. It’s one thing to list findings in a dense document. But it’s another to suggest U.S. officers have blood on their hands in premium, star-laden entertainment.
“One of the hopes here is that this series can be an agent provocateur to ask tough questions about what happened,” said Alex Gibney, who created the series with Wright and directed the first episode. “We felt enough time had passed that Americans were ready to reckon with the problem.”
He added that the populist tool of a streaming series could ensure a new swath of the public understands how the intelligence community failed it. “There’s been a huge refusal in many quarters to criticize the CIA for fear of undermining the morale of the agency,” Gibney said. “I find that to be a kind of cheap excuse. It’s time the agency was held to account, because I don’t think anyone has done that.”
The real-life Soufan, who helped produce the series, said that “all the documents that are dumped in FOIA requests are very different from being able to watch events and connect it to characters. Hopefully this will start changing minds,” added the former agent, who now runs a security consulting firm.
The CIA’s Boyd declined to say what the prospect of a popular TV series could do to the agency’s image or the views of its policies. But there is precedent for it changing how people perceive the agency.
One of the few other times Hollywood undertook a fact-based story about the agency, with Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden story “Zero Dark Thirty,” the CIA set out to shape its reception. By chronicling how torture played a role in the manhunt, Sony Pictures’ December 2012 release had painted the agency in a competent but problematic light, prompting a backlash from both the CIA and elected officials.
Michael Morell, who was the acting agency director at the time, said then that the film “departs from reality” and urged Americans not to trust its portrayal of events. Statements like that, along with those from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other politicians, turned the movie into a D.C. football and sunk its once golden best-picture chances.
That pattern could be repeated here. Futterman sought to play down the comparison — “that dealt with a fundamental issue [of] ‘did a piece of information come from torture?’ ” — and he acknowledged both the precedent and the fact that the once-nonpartisan task of intelligence-gathering had become more politicized in the years since that movie came out.
It’s 1998, and John O’Neill, Jeff Daniels’ FBI agent character on the new Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower, knows something is coming. Something really, really bad. Of course, we, the omniscient audience of the future, know what’s coming. The knowledge of the events that would transpire on September 11, 2001, hang over each scene in the riveting show.
Daniels’ character is based on an entirely real person. In fact, the entire TV show is adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, which recounts the years leading up to 9/11. The real John O’Neill was a larger-than-life figure who stood out among the FBI’s more conservative personalities. While working in New York, he was the kind of person who knew everyone. He once said to a friend while at Elaine’s, his favorite New York haunt, “‘What’s the point of being sheriff if you can’t act like one?’”
O’Neill was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1952. After becoming obsessed with the TV show The F.B.I., O’Neill knew what he wanted to do for a living. O'Neill's involvement with the FBI started small — he worked as a fingerprint clerk and a tour guide at the bureau. But in 1976, after getting a Masters in forensics at George Washington University, O’Neill became a full-time special agent. By that point, O’Neill had a wife and son. He married his high school sweetheart, Christine, when he was a freshman in college; they had their first son when O’Neill was 20.
After working in government fraud for over a decade, O’Neill made the transition to counterterrorism in January 1995, when he became the FBI’s Chief of the Counterterrorism Section in Washington. His first few days on the job, O’Neill orchestrated the successful capture of Ramzi Youssef, the mastermind behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. After this, O’Neill educated himself in the infrastructure of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Ramzi Youssef. In January 1996, he also helped create the CIA station entirely devoted to tracking down and understanding Al Qaeda, codenamed Alex (seen in the opening shots of The Looming Tower).
As early as November 1996, O’Neill was convinced that a major attack on American soil was imminent. In a speech he gave at the Explosives Detection Symposium and Aviation Security Technology Conference in New Jersey, O’Neill said that moving forward, terrorism would be carried out by transnational groups like Al Qaeda. “We see the intent is for a large number of casualties,” he said.
At the time of The Looming Tower, O’Neill is working in New York’s FBI office. In real life, he got the job of Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Counterterrorism and National Security in New York in January 1997. His mistress, Valerie, moved to New York with him. While in New York, O’Neill became frustrated by the way the FBI fought terrorism. He wanted a more centralized system, and for different government organizations (and international agencies) to work together.
The threat of an attack on U.S. soil was heightened around the new millennium. O'Neill cancelled Christmas leave, and had employees work around the clock. Their effort paid off — a terrorist named Ahmed Ressam was caught at the U.S.-Canada border with 130 pounds of explosives, and other arrests were made.
Despite his expertise and accomplishments when dealing with international terrorist attacks, O’Neill never ascended as high in the FBI as he aspired to. Trouble began in July 2000, when, during a FBI conference in Orlando, O’Neill left behind a briefcase containing important documents (including a detailed outline of every security initiative in New York). The bag was stolen, and O'Neill called the police. Later, the bag was returned, with nothing missing but a pen and a lighter. This incident tarnished his reputation — he was seen as unreliable. Relations with the FBI continued to deteriorate during a month-long trip to Yemen, when he clashed with Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
Cut to the summer of 2001, when O’Neill was, once again, sure that a terrorist attack was heading to the United States — as sure as he’d been during the millennium. But since he had significantly less power in the FBI due to the events of the last year, he felt powerless.
“He knew that there was a lot of noise out there and that there were a lot of warnings, a lot of red flags, and that it was a similar level that they were hearing before the millennium, which was an indication that there was something going on. Yet, he felt that he was frozen out, that he was not in a capacity to really do anything about it anymore because of his relationship with the FBI. So it was a source of real anguish for him,” his friend, Chris Isham, told Frontline.
The clash with Bodine and the briefcase incident were written about in the press. O’Neill was frustrated, and decided to resign from the FBI in August 2001. He had a job offer on the civilian side, one that paid twice his rate at the FBI. He was to be the head of security at the World Trade Center.
Before starting the job, O’Neill told Isher that he suspected an attack on the WTC was imminent. “They’ve always wanted to finish that job,” he said, referring to the 1993 bombing. “I think they’re going to try again.”
On the morning of September 11, 2001, O’Neill was in his office on the 34th floor of the North Tower. O’Neill managed to make it out of the building after the plane collided. He called his loved ones. And then, he turned around and walked towards the South Tower. The last person to speak to O’Neill was FBI agent Wesley Wong, who was at the command center.
“He was in FBI mode. Then he turned and kind of looked at me and went toward the interior of the complex. From the time John walked away to the time the building collapsed was certainly not more than a half hour or 20 minutes,” Wong told Esquire.
O'Neill's body was recovered days later. The funeral was held in the church O'Neill had attended as a child in Atlantic City. Over 1,000 people were in attendance, including his wife, his lover Valerie, and two other girlfriends.
John O'Neill's legacy, and his unforgettable personality, are memorialized in The Looming Tower. To prepare for the role, Jeff Daniels spent time with O'Neill's former colleagues. One agent, Mark Rossini, told Daniels that O'Neill "gulped life."
By the agents' account, Daniels nails the part. “We’ve got some other F.B.I. people that have been working on this show and when they look at him on screen, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know, he really is John,'" Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, told Vanity Fair.
When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: John O’Neill.
If only they’d listened to him, John O’Neill, FBI master counterterrorist, might have prevented the attack on the World Trade Center instead of perishing in it that day himself. Or so the story goes. The truth, like the man, is far more complicated. A tale of international espionage, multiple lives, and the first man in American intelligence to name the enemy as Osama bin Laden.
Ali H. Soufan is a Lebanese-American former FBI agent who was involved in a number of high-profile anti-terrorism cases both in the United States and around the world. A New Yorker article in 2006 described Soufan as coming closer than anyone to preventing the September 11 attacks, even implying that he would have succeeded had the CIA been willing to share information with him. He resigned from the FBI in 2005 after publicly chastising the CIA for not sharing intelligence with him, which could have prevented the attacks. In 2011, he published a memoir, which includes some historical background on al-Qaeda: The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. In 2017, he published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State. He is the CEO of The Soufan Group.
"we're looking for them overseas & they were here. people in our own government knew they were here & we were not told"