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.