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Context of 'March 27, 2008: Attorney General Makes Puzzling Claim about Pre-9/11 Communication Intercept'

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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

Around eight calls made by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar from San Diego to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by his father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada are intercepted by the NSA. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16-17, 157 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] At least one of the calls is made from a phone registered to hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in their San Diego apartment. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 251 pdf file] Other calls are made from a mobile phone registered to Alhazmi. [McDermott, 2005, pp. 296] Calls may also be made from the communications hub to the US. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004]
Dates of Calls - One of the calls takes place days after they move into their San Diego apartment in February (see January 15-February 2000). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] Another is on March 20, 2000 and lasts 16 minutes. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 10/2001, pp. 57 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 251 pdf file]
Intercepted by NSA - Although NSA analysts pick up Almihdhar’s first name, “Khalid,” they do not connect it to his second name, even though the NSA has been intercepting communications to and from the hub involving him throughout 1999 (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and he is on the NSA watch list at this point (see Mid-January 2000). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16, 157 pdf file; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] Some, or perhaps all, of these calls are between Almihdhar and his wife, who lives at the communications hub and reportedly gives birth to a daughter in early 2000 while Almihdhar is in the US. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] However, the NSA analysts suspect that Khalid is part of an “operational cadre.” [US News and World Report, 3/15/2004]
Dissemination and Content - According to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the NSA disseminates some of this information to the FBI, CIA, and other agencies, but not all of it, as it apparently does not meet reporting thresholds. It is unclear why it does not meet such thresholds, although some sources will suggest Almihdhar was just talking to his wife. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] Another source suggests operational information was passed on during the calls (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, two FBI agents who worked on al-Qaeda cases relating to Yemen, Dan Coleman and Ali Soufan, will later claim that they and other senior counterterrorism officials only learn about these calls after 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file]
Significance - Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “You know, this is the key. The NSA is all over this phone. And everybody, you know, that has any connection with it is drawing links from that phone. Now imagine eight lines from Yemen to San Diego. How obvious would it be that al-Qaeda is in America[?]” [Federal News Service, 10/5/2006]
Other Calls - The NSA also intercepts various other communications between the hijackers and the communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001).

Entity Tags: Ahmed al-Hada, Al-Qaeda, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, National Security Agency, Osama bin Laden, Lawrence Wright, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In the months after the USS Cole is bombed in autumn 2000 (see October 12, 2000), the NSA intercepts about half a dozen communications between hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] The hub and people associated with it are thought to have played a support role in the Cole bombing (see also October 14-Late November, 2000 and October 4, 2001). [CNN, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It was also involved in the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (see August 4-25, 1998). The NSA has been monitoring the number for at least two years (see Late August 1998) and the FBI has used it to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA had previously intercepted calls between hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and the hub (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001) and also intercepts a call between Alhazmi and the hub a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Around this time, the NSA intercepts telephone conversations between 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, but apparently it does not share the information with any other agencies. The FBI has had a $2 million reward for KSM since 1998 (see January 8, 1998), while Atta is in charge of hijacker operations inside the US. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002; Independent, 6/6/2002] The monitored calls between the two of them continue until September 10, one day before the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). The NSA either fails to translate these messages in a timely fashion or fails to understand the significance of what was translated. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002] However, it will later be revealed that an FBI squad built an antenna in the Indian Ocean some time before 9/11 with the specific purpose of listening in on KSM’s phone calls, so they may have learned about these calls to Atta on their own (see Before September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohamed Atta, National Security Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The NSA has been intercepting calls between at least two 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by al-Qaeda operative Ahmed al-Hada over an approximately 18-month period before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). According to MSNBC, the final intercepted call comes “only weeks” before 9/11. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] Around the same time there is great alarm in the US intelligence community over a communications intercept in Yemen indicating there was going to be a major al-Qaeda attack against US interests (see June 30-July 1, 2001). Further, the investigation of the USS Cole bombing has reignited interest in Almihdhar and Alhazmi on the part of the US intelligence community since at least June 2001 (see June 11, 2001 and July 13, 2001). The two of them are placed on an international no-fly list in late August (see August 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Khalid Almihdhar, Ahmed al-Hada, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta calls 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) in Afghanistan. KSM gives final approval to Atta to launch the attacks. The specifics of the conversation haven’t been released. [Independent, 9/15/2002] Unnamed intelligence officials later tell Knight Ridder Newspapers that the call is monitored by the NSA, but only translated after the 9/11 attacks. KSM, “using coded language, [gives] Atta final approval” for the attacks. [Knight Ridder, 9/9/2002] NSA monitored other calls between KSM and Atta in the summer of 2001 but did not share the information about this with other agencies (see Summer 2001). Additionally, it will later be revealed that an FBI squad built an antenna in the Indian Ocean some time before 9/11 with the specific purpose of listening in on KSM’s phone calls, so they may have learned about this call to Atta on their own (see Before September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: United States, Mohamed Atta, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After an NSA program to intercept telephone calls where one party is in the US and the other party is abroad is revealed (see December 15, 2005), President George Bush defends the program in a radio address. He justifies the program by implying that, if it had been in place before 9/11, it may have prevented the attacks: “As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, it was clear that terrorists inside the United States were communicating with terrorists abroad before the September the 11th attacks, and the commission criticized our nation’s inability to uncover links between terrorists here at home and terrorists abroad. Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al-Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn’t know they were here until it was too late.” There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances of the hijackers’ calls and the NSA actually intercepted them, so it is unclear why they were not exploited to prevent the attacks (see Early 2000-Summer 2001, (Spring 2000), Summer 2002-Summer 2004, and March 15, 2004 and After). [WhiteHouse(.gov), 12/17/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] It is unclear which statements of the 9/11 Commission the president thinks he is referring to. The Commission’s final report touches on the NSA intercepts of the hijackers’ calls from the US in two places; in one it says: “[T]he NSA was supposed to let the FBI know of any indication of crime, espionage, or ‘terrorist enterprise’ so that the FBI could obtain the appropriate warrant. Later in this story, we will learn that while the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA Court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role,” (note: we do not actually learn this later in the 9/11 Commission report, this is the only mention). The second passage refers to Almihdhar’s time in San Diego and does not actually mention that the NSA intercepted the relevant calls, “Almihdhar’s mind seems to have been with his family in Yemen, as evidenced by calls he made from the apartment telephone.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 87-8, 222]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Nawaf Alhazmi, George W. Bush, Khalid Almihdhar, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell write to Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, about their desire to see the Protect America Act renewed. In the letter, they mention the failure to exploit NSA intercepts of calls between the 9/11 hijackers in the US and al-Qaeda’s main global communications hub, which apparently had the potential to thwart the 9/11 plot (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). They write: “[O]ne of the September 11th hijackers communicated with a known overseas terrorist facility while he was living in the United States. Because that collection was conducted under Executive Order 12333, the intelligence community could not identify the domestic end of the communication prior to September 11, 2001, when it could have stopped that attack.” [US Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2/28/2008 pdf file] Executive Order 12333 became law in 1981 and governed general activities by the US intelligence community. [US President, 12/4/1981] The order did allow the NSA to disseminate information about US persons to law enforcement officials in the event of an impending terrorist act. [US Congress: House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 4/12/2000] The letter does not give more detailed reasons why Mukasey and McConnell think the NSA could not have traced the calls and informed the FBI of the two hijackers’ presence in the US (see (Spring 2000)). [US Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2/28/2008 pdf file] Similar incorrect statements have been made by numerous intelligence officials since December 2005, when the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was revealed (see December 17, 2005).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Michael Mukasey, Mike McConnell, Silvestre Reyes

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General Michael Mukasey makes an apparent reference to the intercepts of the 9/11 hijackers’ calls by the NSA before the attacks in a speech pleading for extra surveillance powers. Mukasey says: “[Officials] shouldn’t need a warrant when somebody with a phone in Iraq picks up a phone and calls somebody in the United States because that’s the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that’s the call that we didn’t know about. We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn’t know precisely where it went.” [FORA(.tv), 3/27/2008; New York Sun, 3/28/2008] According to a Justice Department response to a query about the speech, this appears to be a reference to the Yemen hub, an al-Qaeda communications facility previously alluded to by Mukasey in a similar context (see February 22, 2008). [Salon, 4/4/2008] However, the hub was in Yemen, not Afghanistan and, although it acted as a safe house, it was primarily a communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). In addition, the NSA did not intercept one call between it and the 9/11 hijackers in the US, but several, involving both Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, not just one of the hijackers (see Spring-Summer 2000, Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001, and (August 2001)). Nevertheless, the NSA failed to inform the FBI the hub was calling the US (see (Spring 2000)). (Note: it is possible Mukasey is not talking about the Yemen hub in this speech, but some other intercept genuinely from an al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan—for example a call between lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in the US and alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who may have been in Afghanistan when such call was intercepted by the NSA (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). However, several administration officials have made references similar to Mukasey’s about the Yemen hub since the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program was revealed (see December 17, 2005).)

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey

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

Some media outlets pick up on a claim made by Attorney General Michael Mukasey on March 27, 2008, when he said that the US intercepted a call to a 9/11 hijacker in the US from an al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan (see March 27, 2008). This was possibly a garbled reference to an al-Qaeda hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001) mentioned by several administration officials since the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping story was exposed (see December 17, 2005). The San Francisco Chronicle notes that Mukasey “did not explain why the government, if it knew of telephone calls from suspected foreign terrorists, hadn’t sought a wiretapping warrant from a court established by Congress to authorize terrorist surveillance, or hadn’t monitored all such calls without a warrant for 72 hours as allowed by law.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/28/2008] Salon commentator and former civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald will attack Mukasey over the story, commenting, “These are multiple falsehoods here, and independently, this whole claim makes no sense.” [Salon, 3/29/2008; Salon, 4/4/2008]
9/11 Commission Comment - In response to a query from Greenwald, former 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow comments: “Not sure of course what [Mukasey] had in mind, although the most important signals intelligence leads related to our report… was not of this character. If, as he says, the [US government] didn’t know where the call went in the US, neither did we.” [Salon, 4/3/2008] (Note: the 9/11 Commission report may actually contain two cryptic references to what Mukasey is talking about (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004).) [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 87-88, 222] Former 9/11 Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton initially refuses to comment, but later says: “I am unfamiliar with the telephone call that Attorney General Mukasey cited in his appearance in San Francisco on March 27. The 9/11 Commission did not receive any information pertaining to its occurrence.” [Salon, 4/3/2008; Salon, 4/8/2008]
Other Media - The topic will also be covered by Raw Story and mentioned by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who also attacks Mukasey: “What? The government knew about some phone call from a safe house in Afghanistan into the US about 9/11? Before 9/11?” He adds: “Either the attorney general just admitted that the government for which he works is guilty of malfeasant complicity in the 9/11 attacks, or he’s lying. I’m betting on lying.” [Raw Story, 4/1/2008; MSNBC, 4/1/2008; Raw Story, 4/3/2008] The story is also picked up by CBS commentator Kevin Drum, who appears to be unaware that information about some NSA intercepts of the hijackers’ calls was first made public by the Congressional Inquiry five years previously. However, Drum comments: “[T]his deserves some followup from the press. Mukasey has spoken about this in public, so if he’s claiming that FISA prevented us from intercepting a key call before 9/11 he also needs to defend that in public.” [CBS, 4/3/2008; CBS, 4/4/2008] A group of Congressmen also formally asks the Justice Department for an explanation of the matter (see April 3, 2008).

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey, Kevin Drum, Lee Hamilton, Philip Zelikow, US Department of Justice, Glenn Greenwald, Keith Olbermann

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A group of congressmen led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) asks for an explanation of a recent statement by Attorney General Michael Mukasey about a pre-9/11 NSA intercept of a call to the 9/11 hijackers in the US (see March 27, 2008 and March 29, 2008). The group calls Mukasey’s statement “disturbing” and says it “appears to suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal government’s existing surveillance authority to combat terrorism, as well as possible malfeasance by the government prior to 9/11.” Mukasey had implied that the law prior to 9/11 did not allow the call to be traced, but the congressmen state: “[I]f the administration had known of such communications from suspected terrorists, they could and should have been intercepted based on existing FISA law.… [A]s of 9/11 FISA specifically authorized such surveillance on an emergency basis without a warrant for a 48 hour period.” They ask Mukasey to clarify his comments. The congressmen also ask about a secret Justice Department memo regarding the president’s powers in wartime in the US (see April 1, 2008). [Raw Story, 4/3/2008]

Entity Tags: John Conyers, Michael Mukasey

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Author and former civil litigator Glenn Greenwald writes that he is angered, but not particularly shocked, at the US mainstream media’s failure to provide in-depth, extensive coverage of the recently released 2003 torture memo (see March 14, 2003 and April 1, 2008) and another memo asserting that the Bush administration had declared the Fourth Amendment null and void in reference to “domestic military operations” inside the US (see April 2, 2008). Greenwald also notes the lack of coverage of a recent puzzling comment by Attorney General Michael Mukasey about 9/11 (see March 27, 2008). Instead, Greenwald notes, stories about the Democratic presidential campaign (including criticism over Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Obama’s recent bowling scores) have dominated press coverage. According to a recent NEXIS search, these various topics have been mentioned in the media in the last thirty days:
bullet “Yoo and torture” (referring to John Yoo, the author of the two memos mentioned above)—102.
bullet “Mukasey and 9/11”—73.
bullet “Yoo and Fourth Amendment”—16.
bullet “Obama and bowling”—1,043.
bullet “Obama and Wright”—More than 3,000 (too many to be counted).
bullet “Obama and patriotism”—1,607.
bullet “Clinton and Lewinsky”—1,079. [Salon, 4/5/2008]
(For the record, on March 30, Obama went bowling in Pennsylvania during a campaign stop, in the company of Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). Newsmax is among the many media outlets that provided play-by-play coverage of Obama’s abysmal performance on the lanes—he scored a 37. The site reported that Obama lost “beautifully” and was “way out of his league.”) [NewsMax, 3/31/2008]
Media Attacks Obama's 'Elitism' - The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz gives over much of his column to a discussion of Obama’s eating and bowling habits, making the argument, according to Greenwald, that Obama is “not a regular guy but an arrogant elitist.” Kurtz defends his argument by compiling a raft of “similar chatter about this from Karl Rove” and others. Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson spent a week’s worth of columns calling Obama’s bowling his biggest mistake, a “real doozy.” MSNBC reported that Obama went bowling “with disastrous consequences.” Greenwald notes that the media “as always,” takes “their personality-based fixations from the right, who have been promoting the Obama is an arrogant, exotic, elitist freak narrative for some time.” In this vein, Time’s Joe Klein wrote of what he called Obama’s “patriotism problem,” saying that “this is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right.” Greenwald notes, “He trotted it all out—the bowling, the lapel pin, Obama’s angry, America-hating wife, ‘his Islamic-sounding name.’” Greenwald calls the media fixation on Obama’s bowling and his apparent failure to be a “regular guy” another instance of their “self-referential narcissism—whatever they sputter about is what ‘the people’ care about, and therefore they must keep harping on it, because their chatter is proof of its importance. They don’t need Drudge to rule their world any longer because they are Matt Drudge now.” [Salon, 4/5/2008]

Entity Tags: Michael Mukasey, Matt Drudge, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, MSNBC, Joe Klein, Barack Obama, Bob Casey, Jr, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Glenn Greenwald, Margaret Carlson, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr, Howard Kurtz, NewsMax

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Domestic Propaganda, 2008 Elections

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