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Context of 'January 16, 2008: Director of National Intelligence Falsely Claims US Intelligence Was Not Allowed to Track 9/11 Hijackers in US'

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Following the revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation into the excesses of the CIA (see April, 1976), and the equally revealing New York Times article documenting the CIA’s history of domestic surveillance against US citizens for political purposes (see December 21, 1974), Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In essence, FISA prohibits physical and electronic surveillance against US citizens except in certain circumstances affecting national security, under certain guidelines and restrictions, with court warrants issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), operating within the Department of Justice as well as with criminal warrants. FISA restricts any surveillance of US citizens (including US corporations and permanent foreign residents) to those suspected of having contact with “foreign powers” and terrorist organizations. FISA gives a certain amount of leeway for such surveillance operations, requiring that the administration submit its evidence for warrantless surveillance to FISC within 24 hours of its onset and keeping the procedures and decisions of FISC secret from the public. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 9/27/2001; Legal Information Institute, 11/30/2004] On September 14, 2001, Congress will pass a revision of FISA that extends the time period for warrantless surveillance to 72 hours. The revision, part of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002, will also lower the standard for the issuance of wiretap warrants and make legal “John Doe,” or generic, warrants that can be used without naming a particular target. FISA revisions will also expand the bounds of the technologies available to the government for electronic and physical surveillance, and broaden the definitions of who can legally be monitored. [US Senate, 9/14/2001; Senator Jane Harman, 2/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, New York Times, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, US Department of Justice, Church Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Damage to the USS Cole, shown in dry dock.Damage to the USS Cole, shown in dry dock. [Source: US Navy]9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is in Yemen when the USS Cole is attacked in Aden harbor there (see October 12, 2000), and is reported to have had a role in the bombing. Almihdhar leaves shortly after the attack, together with al-Qaeda operative Khallad bin Attash. [McDermott, 2005, pp. 209] Bin Attash is quickly identified as one of the masterminds of the operation (see Late October-Late November 2000). Almihdhar will subsequently be accused of participating in the operation by the prime ministers of Yemen and Britain (see Early October 2001 and October 4, 2001). The Yemeni militant group Islamic Army of Aden takes credit for the bombing, and a friend of Almihdhar in San Diego will later say that Almihdhar told him he was a member of that group (see Early 2000). The Cole attack was a repeat of a failed attempt to bomb the USS The Sullivans (see January 3, 2000), of which Almihdhar had foreknowledge (see Late 1999). Almihdhar, who trained with the Cole bombers (see Late 1999) and attended an apparent planning session for the operation (see January 5-8, 2000), may also be involved in a later ship-bombing operation in Singapore (see June 2001). Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a close associate of the hijackers, also leaves Yemen around this time and is also suspected of involvement in the bombing (see October 10-21, 2000).

Entity Tags: Islamic Army of Aden, Khalid Almihdhar, Khallad bin Attash

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Atta’s immigration record for his arrival on January 10, 2001, after alteration in early May.Atta’s immigration record for his arrival on January 10, 2001, after alteration in early May. [Source: 9/11 Commission]The Miami Herald will report: “INS documents, matched against an FBI alert given to German police, show two men named Mohamed Atta [arrive] in Miami on January 10, each offering different destination addresses to INS agents, one in Nokomis, near Venice, the other at a Coral Springs condo. He (they?) is admitted, despite having overstayed his previous visa by a month. The double entry could be a paperwork error, or confusion over a visa extension. It could be Atta arrived in Miami, flew to another country like the Bahamas, and returned the same day. Or it could be that two men somehow cleared immigration with the same name using the same passport number.” [Miami Herald, 9/22/2001] Officials will later call this a bureaucratic snafu, and insist that only one Atta entered the US on this date. [Associated Press, 10/28/2001] In addition, while Atta arrives on a tourist visa, he tells immigration inspectors that he is taking flying lessons in the US, which requires an M-1 student visa. [Washington Post, 10/28/2001] The fact that he had overstayed his visa by over a month on a previous visit also does not cause a problem. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/2001] The INS will later defend its decision, but “immigration experts outside the agency dispute the INS position vigorously.” For instance, Stephen Yale-Loehr, co-author of a 20-volume treatise on immigration law, will assert: “They just don’t want to tell you they blew it. They should just admit they made a mistake.” [Washington Post, 10/28/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mohamed Atta, Stephen Yale-Loehr

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Marwan Alshehhi.Marwan Alshehhi. [Source: FBI]Future 9/11 hijacker Marwan Alshehhi is able to reenter the US without trouble, after a brief, mysterious trip to Morocco (see January 11-18, 2001), despite having overstayed his previous visa by about five weeks. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/2001; US Department of Justice, 5/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Marwan Alshehhi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Satam Al Suqami becomes an illegal overstay on this day. He entered the US on April 23 (see April 23-June 29, 2001) and was allowed to stay for 30 days, so, according to the 9/11 Commission, his permission to remain in the US expires on this day. He remains in illegal status until 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 8, 21, 23 pdf file] Hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi also overstayed their visas at times (see January 10, 2001 and January 18, 2001). At least one more of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, lied on his visa application form, meaning he was in the US illegally (see August 29, 2001).

Entity Tags: Satam Al Suqami

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A warrant is issued for the arrest of Mohamed Atta in the state of Florida. On April 26, Atta had been stopped in a random inspection near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and given a citation for having no driver’s license (see April 26, 2001). He failed to show up for his May 28 court hearing, resulting in the arrest warrant. After this, Atta will fly all over the US using his real name, and even flies to Spain and back in July (see July 8-19, 2001), but is never stopped or questioned. The police apparently never try to find him. [Wall Street Journal, 10/16/2001; Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 11/12/2001] Atta will be stopped for speeding in July, but apparently his arrest warrant will not have been added to the police database by then (see July 5, 2001). Three other future 9/11 hijackers are also stopped for speeding in the US (see April 1, 2001, August 1, 2001, and September 9, 2001). Curiously, on the day of 9/11, a woman claiming to be Atta’s wife will go to a Florida courthouse and attempt to clear this from Atta’s record, but Atta does not have a wife (see September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohamed Atta

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Although the FBI is aware that 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar lied in an application for a visa on which he entered the US the previous month (see July 4, 2001), it does not fully realize that this means his entry into the US was illegal. If the FBI realized this, it would be able to open a criminal investigation to locate Almihdhar, instead of an intelligence investigation. The New York office, which conducts the search for him, would have preferred a criminal investigation, as more agents could have worked on it, possibly allowing the office to locate Almihdhar before and stop 9/11. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will remark after 9/11: “Thus, there was a clear basis to charge Almihdhar criminally with false statements or visa fraud. Significantly, this information had been provided to the FBI without the restrictive caveats placed on NSA reports and other intelligence information. As a result, if Almihdhar had been found, he could have been arrested and charged with a criminal violation based on the false statements on his visa application. However, the FBI did not seem to notice this when deciding whether to use criminal or intelligence resources to locate Almihdhar.” Almihdhar’s passport also lacks an expiry date and he is a terrorist posing as a tourist (see July 4, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 351 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Khalid Almihdhar, Dina Corsi, Steve Bongardt, FBI New York Field Office, FBI Headquarters

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell says that the 9/11 hijackers could not be monitored in the US because they did not commit any crimes. He says in a speech: “[I]f Mohamed Atta had been in Pakistan and we were tracking him, some way to track him—he went to Turkey, went to Europe, got over to Canada, we’d track him as foreign intelligence target, and he crosses into the United States, he’s now a US person; he gets all of the rights and privileges that you get. He’s invisible to your intelligence community. As long as he doesn’t break the law, law enforcement can’t conduct surveillance because they don’t have a probable cause. Al-Qaeda recognized that and that is why 9/11 happened in my view.” [Director of National Intelligence, 1/17/2008 pdf file] The 9/11 hijackers committed various offenses for which they could have been arrested in the US, such as lying on visa application forms (see August 29, 2001), overstaying their visas (see January 18, 2001, May 20, 2001 and January 10, 2001), driving without a license (note: a warrant for Mohamed Atta’s arrest was even issued in the summer of 2001—see June 4, 2001), and having a known role in blowing up the USS Cole, thereby murdering 17 US servicemen (see Around October 12, 2000). The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was also specifically designed so that the FBI and other agencies could monitor agents of foreign powers in the US even if they did not commit a crime (see 1978).

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mike McConnell, Mohamed Atta, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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