According to the PBS Frontline episode 'the man who knew' (recently rebroadcast), John O'Neill was caught with classified documents in a briefcase - and this greatly harmed his position in the FBI. Why did he have classified documents in his briefcase? Well, he was probably reading them to do his job - catch Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Nevermind that he had actually prevented Al Qaeda from bombing Times Square in New York City (the Millenium Bomb Plot). He was a bit of a 'mavercik', as the Frontline documentary put it, and the professional bureaucrats hated him for it.
When someone 'leaked' "briefcasegate" to a reporter, coincidentally for a story co-written by James Risen of the New York Times, that was the end for John. He was basically kicked out of the Bureau in 2001. Not the first time Risen had helped attack someones career in relation to classified documents - he earlier had written horribly biased stories against Wen Ho Lee, who was later vindicated when he won a million+ dollar lawsuit against several newspapers and the government for their mistreatment of him. But that's another story - ironically Risen got into hot water in 2010/2011 becasue he wrote a book full of allegedly classified information (the Jeffrey Sterling case). Again, another story.
How did this O'Neill case happen? How did the reporters find out the FBI was after him for 'mishandling' classified info in a briefcase? A man at FBI named Thomas Pickard allegedly 'leaked' the story to a reporter. Pickard also had a quote in an Esquire magazine story where he harshed on O'Neill for mishandling classified information.
O'Neill was pushed out. He got a job working security for the World Trade Center, and died on September 11.
Sandy Berger, on the other hand, mishandled classified information in his pants... and he got a slap on the wrist. He took them out of the National Archives - and basically suffered very little punishment whatsoever.
But it doesn't stop there. Reagan's head of CIA was a scatterbrain and mishandled classified info all the time. So have many other presidents and administration officials over the years. Furthermore, Pickard's alleged 'leaking' of internal FBI investigative information to a reporter was, in and of itself, a mishandling of possibly classified information.
With all we have learned about the strange nature of the word 'classified' means in the government, with everything from innocuous memo's to picnic menus being put under some kind of special distribution stamp, and with overclassification running rampant, the O'Neill case comes into sharper focus.
O'Neill was taken down for bureaucratic political reasons. He was taken down by the means of the cult of secrecy, the overclassification culture, in the federal government. This was the tool they used to get him.
It is a tool that appears to be increasingly used for political fights instead of for actual reasons of national security - the Thomas Drake case being one of the most egregious examples. State Secrets privilege is supposed to exist to protect the secrets of the nation, not the careers or reputations of various individuals in management positions.
The hard thing to accept here is that O'Neill had a good chance of stopping 9/11 before it happened. He had, after all, been tracking Bin Ladin for years, and helped stop the Millenium bomb plot.
But there is more. There were two FBI agents inside the CIA, one named Mark Rossini, working at Alec Station, who knew about al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar heading to the United States. They wanted to alert the FBI headquarters, but their CIA chief said No. This is from James Bamford's book Shadow Factory, and other sources.
On top of this, there is Robert Wright, an FBI man who had been working on terrorist financing. He allegedly had some personal issues, and was then prevented, on threat of criminal prosecution by the FBI, from publishing a book telling his story, about his belief that the FBI was completely botching it's investigations of terrorist groups within the United States in the late 1990s.
Add these three together, and the picture is not a pleasant one. All three were intimidated not becasue they were bad employees or broke the law, but because of petty politics, and misguided managers. If Rossini and his associate had been able to send a message to the FBI HQ, and if that had gotten to O'Neill, then al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar would probably never have been able to board the flight 77 and attack the Pentagon. The guys were living in the US for years before the attacks, at one point even living with an FBI informant (who found nothing suspicious about them at the time), and even before the attacks, were living a stone's throw away from NSA headquarters.
NSA was listening to millions of converastions all over the planet - but not the guys in a hotel room just down the highway.
This mismanagement and malfeasance apparently continues to be covered up. The head of the CIA, George Tenet, on duty in the late 1990s and early 2000s, got a presidential medal of freedom. I don't know what John O'Neill got but I'm guessing he got nothing. The people doing the wrong things were rewarded, and the people doing the right things were punished. Why is that? How did it happen?
And why are they still covering it up? We still don't know the name of the CIA agent who told the FBI agents (Rossini & his associate) to not pass-on information to FBI HQ about Hazmi and Mihdhar. We still don't know, for 100% certain, who all was involved in 'leaking' O'Neills briefcase story to Risen &c at the New York Times (Pickard apparently won't talk). We still don't know the exact depth and breadth of the bureaucratic decision making and management philosophy that led to a situation where the people who were tracking al-Qaeda were prevented from talking to each other.
We may have sent 4,000 people to die, and killed 100,000 or more, and created millions of refugess all over the middle east, and eroded our entire foundation of civil liberties ... but have we actually changed any of the stuff that allowed al-Qaeda to slip through in the first place? What do I mean by 'the stuff'? What stuff?
If Carl Sagan were studying it, perhaps he would say the 'reptilian brain' stuff. Submission to authority, obsession with hierarchy. He places this, in his history of thought, in opposition to to science - "[arguments from authority mean nothing]". One must question existing theories to see if they meet existing data; if not, search for something better. And gathering new data without bias or predilection to a particular set of results.
What would Thomas Drake, or Eric Schneiderman, or Elizabeth Warren, or many others say is going on in our modern world? Have we embraced science, the way of thinking? Or have we just embraced a few of the results, and disregarded the method itself?