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Context of 'January 1998: CIA Aware of Al-Qaeda Meeting Planning Future Attacks'

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The National Security Agency (NSA) monitors telephone traffic passing through the Umm Haraz satellite ground station, which handles international traffic coming to and from Intelsat or Arabsat satellites. It identifies and monitors phones used by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, providing some intelligence about their organization and their activities. [Intelligence and National Security, 2003, pp. 82-83 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

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

Bin Laden holds a meeting with other top al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan this month to prepare for a new wave of attacks. CIA analysts are able to learn some about this meeting, apparently largely due to NSA communications intercepts. On US official will say later in 1998, “There were reams of intel documenting bin Laden before” the African embassy bombings later in the year (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Another official will say, “We’ve had the book on this guy for a long time.” But it is not known which attacks may have been discussed at this meeting or how much US intelligence knew about what was said there. [New York Times, 9/6/1998]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, National Security Agency, Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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