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July 2000: FBI Agent O’Neill Has His Briefcase Containing Classified Material Stolen after He Leaves It Unattended

John O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, has his briefcase, which contains important classified information, stolen when he leaves it unattended during a conference and he will subsequently be placed under investigation over the incident. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; PBS, 10/3/2002] O’Neill is required to attend a pre-retirement conference in Orlando, Florida, even though he currently has no plans to retire from the FBI. He brings his division’s annual field office report with him, so he can complete it during the event. The important document outlines every counterterrorism and counterespionage case in New York, and will be used to help determine his division’s future funding levels. During the seminar, O’Neill sits at the back of the conference room so he can ignore the presentations and instead work on the report.
Briefcase Is Taken While O'Neill Makes a Phone Call - His pager goes off during the seminar. He goes out of the room to return the call, but leaves his briefcase in the room unattended while he does so. When he returns a few minutes later, he finds the other agents at the conference have left for lunch. Moreover, his briefcase is missing. He immediately realizes the seriousness of this. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 278-280; Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] FBI agents are prohibited from removing classified documents from their offices without authorization and violations can be punished by censure, suspension, or dismissal, depending on how serious they are. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] Furthermore, the annual field office report contains strategic plans that show what the FBI is doing around the issues of terrorism and counterintelligence. O’Neill knows if it fell into the hands of foreign agents or enemies of the US, these people would have details of every case the FBI is working on under his command. The report is “the crown jewel of an FBI office” and, “in the wrong hands, it would undo years of the entire division’s work,” journalist and author Garrett Graff will later comment.
Briefcase Is Found with the Report Still Inside - O’Neill immediately calls the local police to report the theft. He then calls his boss, Barry Mawn, director of the FBI’s New York office, and Neil Gallagher, the head of the FBI’s national security division, and tells them what has happened. FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno will subsequently be notified of the incident. Fortunately, the briefcase is found a few hours later in a nearby hotel. It appears to have been stolen by a petty thief who was unaware of the value of the documents in it, since the annual field office report is still there. All that has been taken are O’Neill’s Montblanc pen, his silver cigar cutter, and an expensive lighter. FBI fingerprint examiners will soon determine that no one has touched the report.
FBI Will Investigate the Incident - All the same, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) will promptly launch an investigation to determine whether any criminal charges should be brought against O’Neill over the incident. There will also be an internal investigation to determine if O’Neill violated FBI guidelines and should be punished. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 280-281; Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] The OPR inquiry will end in the summer of 2001 with a decision not to prosecute and O’Neill will retire from the FBI before the internal investigation has been completed (see August 22, 2001). [New York Times, 8/19/2001; New Yorker, 1/14/2002] O’Neill is “the FBI’s top expert on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden,” according to New York magazine. [New York Magazine, 12/17/2001] He previously got into trouble for taking his longtime girlfriend to a secret FBI garage and letting her use the bathroom there (see Summer 1999). [Graff, 2011, pp. 260-261]

Entity Tags: Janet Reno, Barry Mawn, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Neil Gallagher, Louis J. Freeh, Office of Professional Responsibility

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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