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Context of 'March 29, 2008: Media Confused over Attorney General Mukasey’s New Claim of Afghan Intercept before 9/11'

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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

Both the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission examine the NSA’s intercepts of various calls made by the hijackers to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry refers to several of the calls and gives an idea of the content of some of them. But it does not mention those made by Nawaf Alhazmi and possibly other hijackers from the US after the USS Cole bombing, which are only disclosed later in the media (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and March 15, 2004 and After). However, this section of the Inquiry report is heavily redacted so most details remain unknown. It states that, although the NSA intercepted the calls and disseminated dispatches about some of them, the NSA did not realize the hijackers were in the US at the time the calls were made. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 11-12, 143-146, 155-157 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission Report contains a briefer section on the intercepts and deals with those which led to the surveillance of the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000). In addition, it mentions that Almihdhar called his wife from San Diego in the spring of 2000, but fails to mention that his wife lived at an al-Qaeda communications hub and that the calls were intercepted by the NSA (see Spring-Summer 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 181, 222] The Los Angeles Times comments: “The [9/11 Congressional Inquiry] and the Sept. 11 commission that came after it referred indirectly to the calls from Yemen to San Diego. But neither report discloses what the NSA gleaned from the calls, or why they were never disclosed to the FBI.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The publication of the 9/11 Commission report and revelations about domestic surveillance by the NSA will lead to increased media interest in and revelations about the intercepts starting from 2004 (see March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Hoda al-Hada, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, 9/11 Commission, Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada

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 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

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