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Context of '2000: CIA Stops Reviewing NSA Transcripts after Short Period of Time, Allegedly due to ‘Resource Constraints’'

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Barbara McNamara.Barbara McNamara. [Source: National Security Agency]Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and other senior agency officers repeatedly ask the NSA to provide verbatim transcripts of intercepted calls between al-Qaeda members. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will explain, “[V]erbatim transcripts are operationally useful, summaries are much less so.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] According to PBS, Alec Station believes that “only by carefully studying each word will it be possible to understand [Osama] bin Laden’s intentions.” This is because al-Qaeda operatives sometimes talk in a simplistic code (see (October 1993-November 2001)). Scheuer will say: “Over time, if you read enough of these conversations, you first get clued in to the fact that maybe ‘bottle of milk’ doesn’t mean ‘bottle of milk.’ And if you follow it long enough, you develop a sense of what they’re really talking about. But it’s not possible to do unless you have the verbatim transcript.” [PBS, 2/3/2009] Scheuer will also complain that the summaries “are usually not timely.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] Author James Bamford will say that the summaries are “brief” and come “once a week or something like that.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] Alec Station’s desire for verbatim transcripts will intensify when it discovers the NSA is intercepting calls between bin Laden and his operations center in Yemen (see December 1996). However, the NSA constantly rejects its requests. Scheuer will later say: “We went to Fort Meade to ask then the NSA’s deputy director for operations [Barbara McNamara] for the transcripts, and she said, ‘We are not going to share that with you.’ And that was the end.” He will add that McNamara “said that the National Security Act of 1947 gave her agency control of ‘raw’ signals intelligence, and that she would not pass such material to CIA.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004; Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] McNamara will tell the 9/11 Commission that “She does not recall being personally [asked] to provide… transcripts or raw data” for counterterrorism, but if people wanted raw data, “then NSA would have provided it.” [9/11 Commission, 12/15/2003, pp. 5]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Michael Scheuer, Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, Barbara McNamara

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, discovers that al-Qaeda has established a communications hub and operations center in Sana’a, Yemen, and that there are frequent calls between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see May 1996 and November 1996-Late August 1998). [Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] According to Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer, the CIA learns of this “communications conduit” through a CIA officer detailed to the NSA and stationed overseas. According to Scheuer, the NSA “refuse[s] to exploit the conduit and threaten[s] legal action against the agency officer who advised of its existence.” Despite the threat, the officer continues to supply the information. Scheuer asks senior CIA officials to intervene with the NSA, but this only leads to “a desultory interagency discussion without resolution.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] Author James Bamford will say: “Scheuer knew how important the house [the operations center in Yemen] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA,… Barbara McNamara, and asked for transcripts of the conversations coming into and going out of the house. And the best the NSA would do would be to give them brief summaries every… once a week or something like that, you know, just a report, not the actual transcripts or anything. And so he got very frustrated, he went back there and they still refused.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] Because of the lack of information, the CIA will actually build its own listening post to get some of the information the NSA is concealing from it (see After December 1996).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Alec Station, Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA builds a ground station to intercept calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations centre in Yemen. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004; Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] According to author James Bamford, the station is “in the Indian Ocean area, I think it was on Madagascar.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] The NSA is already intercepting the calls, but refuses to share the raw intelligence with the CIA (see February 1996-May 1998 and December 1996), which is why the agency has to build the station. However, the CIA is only able to get half the conversations, because its technology is not as good as the NSA’s. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004; Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] Bamford will add, “they were only picking up half of the conversations, apparently it was downlink, they weren’t able to get the uplink, you need a satellite.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] Presumably, Bamford means the CIA is getting the half of the calls featuring the person talking to bin Laden, but cannot hear the Afghan end of the conversation. To get the other half of the Afghanistan-Yemen calls the CIA would need a satellite. [PBS, 2/3/2009]

Entity Tags: James Bamford, Michael Scheuer, National Security Agency, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA again asks the NSA for part of the transcripts of calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations center in Yemen. The NSA has been intercepting the calls for some time (see Between May and December 1996), but refuses to share the intelligence with Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, in usable form (see December 1996). During the calls, the al-Qaeda operatives talk in a simplistic code, but the NSA apparently does not decrypt the conversations, and only gives Alec Station meaningless summaries of the calls (see February 1996-May 1998). Without the transcripts, Alec Station cannot crack the code and figure out what the operatives are really talking about. As a result, the CIA built a duplicate ground station in the Indian Ocean, and is replicating half of the NSA’s intelligence take on the calls (see After December 1996). However, it cannot obtain the other end of the calls without a satellite. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will say, “We would collect it [one end of the calls], translate it, send it to NSA, and ask them for the other half of it, so we could better understand it, but we never got it.” Author James Bamford will comment: “And so the CIA, Mike Scheuer, went back to NSA and said look,… we’re able to get… half the conversations here, but we still need the other half, and NSA still wouldn’t give them the other half. I mean this is absurd, but this is what was going on.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, James Bamford, Michael Scheuer, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Some time after he is appointed CIA Director (see July 11, 1997), but before 9/11, George Tenet negotiates a series of agreements with telecommunications and financial institutions “to get access to certain telephone, Internet, and financial records related to ‘black’ intelligence operations.” The arrangements are made personally by the companies’ CEOs and Tenet, who plays “the patriot card” to get the information. The arrangement involves the CIA’s National Resources Division, which has at least a dozen offices in the US. The Division’s main aim is to recruit people in the US to spy abroad. However, in this case the Division makes arrangements so that other intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, can access the information and records the CEOs agree to provide. [Woodward, 2006, pp. 323-5] There is a history of co-operation between the CIA’s National Resources Division and the NSA. For example, Monte Overacre, a CIA officer assigned to the Division’s San Diego office in the early 1990s, said that he worked with the NSA there, obtaining information about foreign telecommunications programs and passing it on to the Technology Management Office, a joint venture between the two agencies. [Mother Jones, 1/1998] One US official will say that the arrangements only give the CIA access to the companies’ passive databanks. However, reporter Bob Woodward will say that the programme raises “serious civil liberties questions and also demonstrate[d] that the laws had not kept pace with the technology.” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 324-5] There will be an interagency argument about the program after 9/11 (see (2003 and After)).

Entity Tags: Monte Overacre, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA Technology Management Office, Bob Woodward, George J. Tenet, CIA National Resources Division

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Following the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), CIA managers ask Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, what it most needs to improve the agency’s capabilities against al-Qaeda. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will later say that he raises “our dire need for verbatim reports derived from electronic collection.” This is a reference to his desire to get verbatim transcripts of calls to and from al-Qaeda’s operations hub in Yemen, in particular ones between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The NSA has the transcripts, but is refusing to provide them to the CIA, and the two agencies have been at loggerheads over the issue for nearly two years. Alec Station needs the transcripts, not the summaries the NSA provides, because the operatives talk in code on the phone and this code cannot be cracked based on the summaries, only using the transcripts (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, and After December 1996). Other senior CIA officers have similar trouble getting transcripts from the NSA. Higher officials order the NSA to comply, and they do, but only for less than 12 requests. Then the system returns to the way it was, with NSA only sharing summaries. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] The reason for the change back is unclear, although bin Laden stops using his satellite phone around this time (see Late August 1998).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA sends an officer from its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to the NSA to review raw transcripts of intercepted communications between terrorists. However, the officer is only there for a “brief period” and is subsequently withdrawn and not replaced, damaging the CIA’s ability to exploit the information gleaned from the intercepts. The CIA only previously received summaries of intercepted calls, not the transcripts themselves, and had been arguing for years that it needed the actual transcripts to better understand the material (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, After December 1996, and Late August 1998). After the single officer leaves the NSA, which intercepts calls between the US-based 9/11 hijackers and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen around this time (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), the reason the CIA gives for not replacing him is “resource constraints.” In 2005, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General will regard this failure as so serious that it will recommend an accountability board be convened to review the performance of the CTC managers responsible, and will suggest that officers should have been detailed to the NSA “on a consistent, full-time basis.” [Central Intelligence Agency, 6/2005, pp. xxiii pdf file] The CIA and NSA are obtaining information about people in the US from phone companies to support “black ops” at this time (see After July 11, 1997).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Office of the Inspector General (CIA), Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

While the 9/11 hijackers are in the US, the NSA intercepts several calls between them and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by Ahmed al-Hada, who is hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see August 4-25, 1998).
Summary of Calls -
bullet The first calls are made by Almihdhar and are intercepted during the spring and summer of 2000 (see Spring-Summer 2000).
bullet More calls are made by hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001).
bullet The final call from the US is intercepted just a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).
The NSA intercepted the hijackers’ calls outside the US before this (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and continues to do so in 2000 (see Summer 2000) after Almihdhar returns to Yemen (see June 10, 2000 and (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)).
Calls' Content - Some of the calls may only contain non-operational information, as they are reportedly between Almihdhar and his wife. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 343] However, the calls are also used to relay messages to the 9/11 hijackers. [Embassy of Yemen (Washington), 2/13/2002; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005]
Agencies' Roles - The CIA is the lead agency monitoring the communications hub. It has planted bugs inside it and is wiretapping all calls (see Late August 1998). Intercepts of calls to and from the hub are a major plank of the US intelligence community’s effort to fight al-Qaeda. Also involved is the FBI, which is using phone records to plot these calls on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). Some of the calls intercepted by US intelligence come from Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in Afghanistan (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). After 9/11, counterterrorism officials will say that the number was one of the hottest targets being monitored by the NSA and was an “intelligence bonanza.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 343]
Importance of Failure - Also after 9/11, counterterrorism officials will agree that the failure to follow leads to the US from this number was a huge missed opportunity to stop the 9/11 plot. For instance, FBI agent Kenneth Maxwell will say: “Two al-Qaeda guys living in California—are you kidding me? We would have been on them like white on snow: physical surveillance, electronic surveillance, a special unit devoted entirely to them.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file]
Discussed after 9/11 - The failure to roll up the plot based on these communications intercepts will be discussed following 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, National Security Agency, Hoda al-Hada, Ahmed al-Hada, Kenneth Maxwell

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A redacted summary of a report by the CIA’s inspector general into some aspects of the agency’s pre-9/11 performance is released. The report’s main points are:
bullet No CIA employees violated the law or were guilty of misconduct in the run-up to 9/11;
bullet However, some officials did not perform their duties in a satisfactory manner. The report recommended accountability boards be convened to review their performance, but former CIA Director Porter Goss decided against this recommendation in 2005 (see October 10, 2005);
bullet There was no “silver bullet” that could have prevented 9/11, but if officers had performed satisfactorily, they would have had a better chance of stopping the attacks;
bullet The CIA had no comprehensive strategy to combat al-Qaeda before 9/11 (see After December 4, 1998 and Between Mid-December 2002 and June 2004);
bullet Management of counterterrorism funds was poor (see 1997-2001);
bullet Arguments between the CIA and NSA negatively impacted counterterrorism efforts (see December 1996, Late August 1998, and 2000);
bullet Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was well-known to the CIA before 9/11, but his case was badly handled (see 1997 or After);
bullet There were numerous failures related to the CIA’s monitoring of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see Mid-January-March 2000, 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, Mid-July 2004, (After January 6, 2000), and March 5, 2000);
bullet The CIA also missed “several additional opportunities” to watchlist Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (see January 8, 2000 and August 23, 2001). Such watchlisting could have led to them being denied entry, or being placed under surveillance in the US;
bullet The CIA was confused about whether it was authorized to assassinate Osama bin Laden or not (see Mid-August 1998, December 24, 1998, December 26, 1998 and After, February 1999, February 1999, and December 1999);
bullet There were various problems with assets and operations linked to foreign services. [Central Intelligence Agency, 6/2005 pdf file]
The media picks various angles in commenting on the report (see August 21, 2007), which is criticized by current CIA Director Michael Hayden (see August 21, 2007) and former Director George Tenet (see August 21, 2007).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Inspector General (CIA)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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