If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
Which happily foreknowing may avoid,
—Hamlet Act I, Scene One
“In a cruel twist of fate,” wrote Nancy Fraser, a professor of philosophy and political science at the New School in New York City a few years ago for The Guardian, “the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society.” In other words, feminism has become just another means of exploitation, an argument she illustrates by way of the feminist “critique of the ‘family wage’: the ideal of a male breadwinner-female homemaker family that was central to state-organised capitalism.” That criticism, Fraser claims, has opened the way to today’s “flexible” labor market, in which longterm security and a pension have become the merest dream to most Americans. Such an argument, of course, is difficult to demonstrate—it’s hardly likely that the CEOs of the Fortune 500 were, sometime in the 1970s, spending their idle hours reading back copies of Madison, Wisconsin’s own Women’s Action Movement Newsletter. But Fraser’s thought—that feminism may have provided the rationale for, say, the fact that essentially nobody except CEOs and other Wall Street types have gotten a raise since 1973—does open the door to other possible speculations. To wit: was feminism responsible for 9/11? The question is nearly, but not quite, as absurd as it might sound.
“Drama may be more profitable than reality,” wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times a decade ago, in response to an ABC miniseries about the events of 9/11, “but at what cost to our national history?” Although Bodine might appear to be making the standard attack on the distortions of fiction against the heathens of television, in fact her complaint was a bit more personal. In specific, she complained about how the miniseries depicted the professional relationship she had as ambassador with FBI agent John O’Neill, while he was investigating Al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s chief harbor, Aden, in the autumn of 2000—just less than a year before the fall of the towers of the World Trade Center.
As the PBS documentary series, Frontline, depicts the response to the bombing, there was some question about who would take the lead in the investigation. According to Barry Mawn, who was O’Neill’s boss as the director of the Bureau’s New York City field office where O’Neill was stationed at the time, some people thought that O’Neill had “sharp elbows”—i.e., that his personal demeanor wasn’t the most personable. Yet, eventually the Bureau decided that what it needed on scene in Aden, in Mawn’s words, was “somebody that knows what to do and is going to do it and get it done.” So O’Neill went.
In Aden, O’Neill’s operation ran into problems with his Yemeni counterparts. “It was very difficult to get information out of the Yemeni security forces,” Michael Dorsey of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, also assigned to the case, told Frontline later. According to Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article about O’Neill, “The Counter-Terrorist” (which would later form part of Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11), “Yemen was a particularly difficult place to start a terrorist investigation, as it was filled with active Al Qaeda cells and with sympathizers at very high levels of government.” Compounding their difficulty, the investigators—worried about their own safety in a country that was, after all, Osama bin Laden’s homeland—felt it necessary to travel heavily armed, in convoys. That approach, in turn, “quickly angered the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, who felt his actions were harming U.S.-Yemeni government relations.” When O’Neill flew home for Thanksgiving, after roughly a month investigating the bombing, Bodine refused to renew O’Neill’s visa to Yemen—the incident depicted in the ABC miniseries.
By refusing to allow O’Neill to return to Yemen, Frontline and other sources conclude, Bodine prevented the FBI agent from connecting several dots that, had they been pursued vigorously, might have led to the conspiracy that would bring down the two towers of the World Trade Center less than a year after the Cole was bombed. Most vitally, a thorough investigation might have turned up evidence of what has been called the “Kuala Lumpur Summit,” a meeting held in January of 2000 in that Malaysian city among several Al Qaeda members meant “to discuss plans for 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole,” as Lawrence Wright put it in a 2014 New Yorker article. Had O’Neill discovered that meeting—and, most significantly, found that some of its attendees had already entered the United States and were taking up flying lessons—well, according to his colleague Joe Cantamessa’s account to Frontline, O’Neill had an “aggressive nature … [a] willingness to go forward when it may not [have been] politically correct.” Given that sort of willingness, it is possible that O’Neill might have connected dots that no one else in the American intelligence services did.
It’s exactly that conclusion that Barbara Bodine, who is still alive, wishes to forestall. Although several writers have portrayed her differences with O’Neill as essentially personal—Murray Weiss, for example, wrote in The Man Who Warned America, a biography of the FBI agent, that Bodine “took an immediate and strong dislike to O’Neill”—Bodine has tried to make their differences a matter of their differing roles. “According to the mythmakers,” Bodine wrote for the L.A. Times about her conflict with O’Neill, “a battle ensued between a cop obsessed with tracking down Osama bin Laden [O’Neill] and a bureaucrat more concerned with the feelings of the host government than the fate of Americans and the realities of terrorism”—a depiction Bodine considered “false.” Hence, her piece takes the standard bureaucratic tack of saying she had a higher responsibility: whereas all O’Neill had to do was to investigate the crime, Bodine’s mission was to “maintain the Yemeni-American relationship.” In that sense, the struggle between the diplomat and the investigator could be thought of as the usual conflict between the “soft power” of the State Department and the hard realities of a criminal investigation.
The State Department and the FBI, after all, have two different “cultures,” as the organizational psychologists might say. The personnel of the State Department, as Senator Bob Graham once remarked, might be best described as “white, male, and Yale”—much like their counterparts at the CIA, which (as Julie Post reported in the Yale News in 2004), “has historically proven to be a popular career choice for many Yale graduates.” And as Mark Riebling wrote in his book, Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11, How the Secret War Between the FBI and the CIA Has Endangered National Security, “Agency people are still perceived by FBI agents as intellectual, Ivy League, wine drinking, pipe smoking, international relations types,” while the “Bureau’s people are regarded by CIA as cigar smoking, beer drinking, door-knocking cops.” If the State Department and the CIA can be taken as possessing roughly equivalent “world views,” then the conflict between O’Neill (a graduate of the American University) and Bodine (a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara) could be explained in those terms—terms that are, essentially, matters of class, and do not have a particular connection to either party’s gender.
Whether it was this, essentially class-based, difference that led to the conflict between Bodine and O’Neill is difficult to conclude at this distance. Yet, one moment in Frontline’s documentary does provide some insight: at an earlier moment in O’Neill’s career, when he was investigating the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (in which 19 American soldiers died), he came to suspect that the Saudi government was not fully cooperating—a conclusion that the director of the FBI at the time, Louis Freeh, did not share. During a flight from Saudi Arabia back to the United States O’Neill told the director he was wrong in a particularly graphic way: according to Frontline, “O’Neill uttered an indelicate phrase, telling his boss the Saudis were blowing smoke up a particular portion of the director’s anatomy.” That moment, it seems, led to a great cooling over O’Neill’s career: according to Frontline, the “two flew home in silence for 12 hours.” That incident may have played no little part in Bodine’s ability to keep the agent from returning to Yemen later.
All of which, it might be said, has little to do with feminism. Yet, as Nancy Fraser says, feminism has done a great deal to obscure class analysis within the United States: “In the era of state-organised capitalism,” she wrote in her 2013 Guardian piece, feminists “rightly criticised a constricted political vision that was so tightly focused on class inequality that it could not see such ‘non-economic’ injustices as domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression.” Although it may not have been the intention of academics, what that criticism has meant practically is a de-emphasis on studies of class within the academy: what Fraser calls “a one-sided focus on ‘gender identity’ at the expense of bread and butter issues.” The literal trillion-dollar question, of course, is whether feminism’s victory over class as an available analytic lens within the academy is what propelled Bodine to dismiss O’Neill from the crime scene in Yemen—and hence prevented the man who Lawrence Wright called the “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists” from doing his job. We’ll never know, of course—but cruel twists of fate are, surely, plentiful these days.