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Context of 'May 18, 2006: NSA Director Hayden Says Warrantless Wiretapping Program Would Have Prevented 9/11'

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An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden.An Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone, the type used by bin Laden. [Source: Inmarsat]During this period, Osama bin Laden uses a satellite phone to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. The phone—a Compact M satellite phone, about the size of a laptop computer—was purchased by a student in Virginia named Ziyad Khaleel for $7,500 using the credit card of a British man named Saad al-Fagih. After purchasing the phone, Khaleel sent it to Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s unofficial press secretary in London (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998). Al-Fawwaz then shipped it to bin Laden in Afghanistan. [CNN, 4/16/2001] It appears US intelligence actually tracks the purchase as it occurs (see November 1996-Late December 1999), probably because an older model satellite phone bin Laden has is already being monitored (see Early 1990s). Bin Laden’s phone (873682505331) is believed to be used by other top al-Qaeda leaders as well, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Atef. Al-Fawwaz also buys satellite phones for other top al-Qaeda leaders around the same time. Though the calls made on these phones are encrypted, the NSA is able to intercept and decrypt them. As one US official will put it in early 2001, “codes were broken.” [United Press International, 2/13/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The Los Angeles Times will report that the monitoring of these phones “produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts over two years.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] Bin Laden’s satellite phone replaces an older model he used in Sudan that apparently was also monitored by the NSA (see Early 1990s). Billing records for his new phone are eventually released to the media in early 2002. Newsweek will note, “A country-by-country analysis of the bills provided US authorities with a virtual road map to important al-Qaeda cells around the world.” [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] The countries called are:
bullet Britain (238 or 260). Twenty-seven different phone numbers are called in Britain. Accounts differ on the exact number of calls. Khalid al-Fawwaz, who helps publish statements by bin Laden, receives 143 of the calls, including the very first one bin Laden makes with this phone. Apparently most of the remaining calls are made to pay phones near him or to his associates. He also frequently calls Ibrahim Eidarous, who works with al-Fawwaz and lives near him. [CNN, 4/16/2001; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 111]
bullet Yemen (221). Dozens of calls go to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is run by the father-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar (see Late August 1998). [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002; Bamford, 2008, pp. 8]
bullet Sudan (131). Bin Laden lived in Sudan until 1996 (see May 18, 1996), and some important al-Qaeda operatives remained there after he left (see February 5, 1998). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Iran (106). Newsweek will later report: “US officials had little explanation for the calls to Iran. A Bush administration official said that US intelligence has believed for years that hard-line anti-American factions inside Iran helped bin Laden’s organization operate an ‘underground railroad’ smuggling Islamic militants to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.” [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Azerbaijan (67). An important al-Qaeda operative appears to be based in Baku, Azerbaijan. [Washington Post, 5/2/2001] This is most likely Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who is very close to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda cell there. He kidnapped by the CIA in Baku in late August 1998 (see Late August 1998).
bullet Kenya (at least 56). In the embassy bombings trial, prosecutors introduce evidence showing 16 calls are made on this phone to some of the embassy bombers in Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), apparently all before a raid in August 1997 (see August 21, 1997). The defense introduces evidence showing at least 40 more calls are made after that time (see Late 1996-August 1998). [CNN, 4/16/2001]
bullet Pakistan (59).
bullet Saudi Arabia (57).
bullet A ship in the Indian Ocean (13).
bullet The US (6).
bullet Italy (6).
bullet Malaysia (4).
bullet Senegal (2). [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002]
bullet Egypt (unknown). Newsweek reports that calls are made to Egypt but doesn’t say how many. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002]
bullet Iraq (0). Press reports note that the records indicate zero calls were made to Iraq. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] 1,100 total calls are made on this phone. Adding up the above numbers means that the destination of over 100 calls is still unaccounted for. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002] The use of this phone stops two months after the August 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. However, it appears bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders continue to use other satellite phones occasionally after this time. Shortly after 9/11, James Bamford, an expert authority on the agency, says “About a year or so ago the NSA lost all track of him.… He may still use [satellite phones] occasionally to talk about something mundane, but he discovered that the transmitters can be used for honing.” [CNN, 9/21/2001] According to a different account, bin Laden will attempt to use a different phone communication method, but US intelligence will soon discover it and continue monitoring his calls (see Late 1998 and After).

Entity Tags: Ziyad Khaleel, Saad al-Fagih, Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim Eidarous, Khalid al-Fawwaz, Mohammed Atef, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmad Salama Mabruk

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mohamed al-Owhali.Mohamed al-Owhali. [Source: CNN]Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali briefly stayed at the hub about three months before the bombings and made some calls from there. He then traveled to other locations, including Pakistan, and flew to Kenya on August 2. Beginning August 4, he makes a series of calls to al-Hada at the Yemen hub. The details of these calls have not been revealed, but they continue until about two hours before the embassy bombings take place. Al-Owhali is supposed to be martyred in the attack, but he runs away at the last minute and survives. Beginning on August 8, he repeatedly calls al-Hada, asking for help getting out of Kenya. He eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada is actually about to fly to Kenya to help al-Owhali get out when al-Owhali is arrested on August 12. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI allegedly trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan, to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a (however, it is likely that the NSA at least is already monitoring the hub phone number). Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23, 3/27/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998, pp. 1 pdf file] Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 275-8] The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 48]

Entity Tags: Mohamed al-Owhali, Mike Feghali, Ahmed al-Hada, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Al-Qaeda operatives use a communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, to “put everything together” before the bombing of the USS Cole. The communications hub is run by Ahmed al-Hada, who US officials will later describe as “a prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing.” The hub is monitored by US intelligence from 1998, at least, (see Late August 1998) and information gleaned from it is used to thwart a number of plots (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The US monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it. The hub was also used before the 1998 embassy bombings and will be used to communicate with the 9/11 hijackers before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Mirror, 6/9/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005] When the FBI arrives in Yemen to investigate the bombing, it finds that “telephone records show[…] that suspects in the Cole bombing had been in touch with suspects from the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 238] Calls between the hub and an al-Qaeda cell in Ireland that seems to have a connection to the Cole bombing are also intercepted during part of this period (see Late December 1999-October 12, 2000). It is unclear why the information does not allow the NSA to thwart the plot. Despite the scope of the monitoring, NSA Director Michael Hayden will later say there were no intercepts the NSA could have exploited to stop the bombing: “When the Cole disaster took place I had brought to my desk in, in this office, every stitch of NSA reporting on the—that could in any way be related to this. And I went thought it report by report and I sent a letter out to our entire work force, which was essentially, you performed well. Keep up the good work.” [CBS News, 6/19/2002]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI asks the NSA to pass on all calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and the US. The hub, which is run by an operative named Ahmed al-Hada and was involved in the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see Late August 1998), is a key al-Qaeda logistics center and intelligence gleaned from listening in on calls to and from it will help prevent some attacks (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Dan Coleman, one of the FBI agents who places the request, will say, “anyone who called the Yemen number is white-hot, a top suspect.” However, the NSA will not inform the FBI of all calls between the hub and the US. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] In particular, two 9/11 hijackers will call the hub while they are in the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, the information will be withheld from the FBI and various explanations will be offered for this failure (see (Spring 2000), Summer 2002-Summer 2004, and March 15, 2004 and After).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Dan Coleman

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

The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts calls between 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, but does not notify the FBI that Almihdhar is in the US. However, the NSA disseminates reports about some of the calls, which are made from phones registered to Nawaf Alhazmi (see Spring-Summer 2000). The NSA will later say that it does not usually intercept calls between the US and other countries at this time, as it believes that this should be done by the FBI. Despite this, the NSA acquires information about such calls and provides the information to the FBI in regular reporting and in response to specific requests. The FBI, which has a standing request for such information about any calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998), then uses this information in its investigations based on warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The NSA will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry the reason the FBI is not notified about Almihdhar is because it does not realize that Almihdhar is in the US. However, no explanation is offered for why the NSA fails to realize this. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 36, 73-4 pdf file] This explanation will be contradicted by one offered in a 2004 article about the issue that reports the intercepts are not exploited precisely because the NSA knows one of the parties is in the US and therefore does not want to deal with his calls (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After). In addition, the FBI used information gained from intercepted calls to and from the hub in Yemen to make a world map of al-Qaeda’s organization, indicating that the locations talking to the hub could be determined by US intelligence (see Late 1998-Early 2002). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency

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

It was disclosed in 2003 that the NSA had intercepted several calls between hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001 and Summer 2002-Summer 2004). But in 2004, after revelations that the NSA has been wiretapping inside the US, some media begin to re-examine the circumstances of the hijackers’ calls from the US, as the Bush administration uses the example of these calls as a justification for the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program. [New York Times, 12/16/2005; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 pdf file] The calls are thought to be a key aspect of the alleged intelligence failures before 9/11. In late 1998, the FBI had started plotting intercepts of al-Qaeda calls to and from the communications hub on a map (see Late 1998-Early 2002). According to author Lawrence Wright, “[h]ad a line been drawn from the [communications hub] in Yemen to Alhazmi and Almihdhar’s San Diego apartment, al-Qaeda’s presence in America would have been glaringly obvious.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 343-344] In 2006, former NSA Director Michael Hayden will tell the Senate that if the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program had been active before 9/11, the NSA would have raised the alarm over the presence of hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in San Diego. [CNN, 5/19/2006] However, reports in the press suggest otherwise. For example, in one newspaper a senior intelligence official will say that it was not technically possible for the NSA, which had a budget of around $3.6 billion in 2000, to trace the calls. “Neither the contents of the calls nor the physics of the intercepts allowed us to determine that one end of the calls was in the United States,” says the official. [Bamford, 2002, pp. 482; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] But another report flatly contradicts this. “NSA had the technical ability to pick up the actual phone number in the US that the switchboard was calling but didn’t deploy that equipment, fearing they would be accused of domestic spying.” [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It is unclear why concerns about domestic spying allegations would prevent the NSA from passing the information on to the FBI. Almihdhar and Alhazmi were not US citizens, but foreign nationals who had entered the US illegally claiming to be tourists. In addition, there was a wealth of evidence connecting them to al-Qaeda (see Early 1999, January 5-8, 2000, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). In any event, the NSA did reportedly disseminate dispatches about some of these US calls (see Spring-Summer 2000). Some FBI officials will later profess not to know what went wrong and why they were not notified of the hijackers’ presence in the US by other agencies. A senior counterterrorism official will say: “I don’t know if they got half the conversation or none of it or hung up or whatever. All I can tell you is we didn’t get anything from it—we being the people at the FBI who could have done something about it. So were they sitting on it? I don’t know.” [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The US intelligence community, through the CIA, also had access to the phone company’s records for the Yemeni communications hub, which would have shown what numbers were being called in the US (see Late 1998-Early 2002).

Entity Tags: Michael Hayden, Khalid Almihdhar, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Ahmed al-Hada, Bush administration (43), US intelligence, Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf Alhazmi

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

Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former NSA Director Michael Hayden says that if the NSA’s recently revealed warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) had been in place before 9/11, “it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al-Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.” Hayden will later say the NSA would have detected calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in San Diego (see May 18, 2006). Hayden adds: “You know, the 9/11 Commission criticized our ability to link things happening in the United States with things that were happening elsewhere. In that light, there are no communications more important to the safety of this country than those affiliated with al-Qaeda with one end in the United States.” Before the attacks, the NSA intercepted a series of calls between two of the 9/11 hijackers and a known al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), but failed to notify the FBI about them (see (Spring 2000)). [Press Club, 1/23/2006] Other administration officials make similar claims about the calls by Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the years after the NSA’s warrantless program is revealed by the New York Times (see December 17, 2005).

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Michael Hayden

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

Former NSA director and soon-to-be CIA director Michael Hayden says that a program in which the NSA listens in on calls between the US and other countries without obtaining warrants would have prevented 9/11, had it been in place then. Hayden tells a Senate hearing discussing his confirmation as CIA director, “Had this been in place prior to the attacks, the two hijackers who were in San Diego, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, almost certainly would have been identified as who they were, what they were, and most importantly, where they were.” Hayden also says, “I can demonstrate in closed session how the physics and the math would work.” [US Congress, 5/18/2006 pdf file] However, the NSA actually intercepted the calls between Alhazmi and Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), which it knew had been in contact with Osama bin Laden (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and was also involved in the East African embassy bombings (see August 4-25, 1998) and the attack on the USS Cole (see Mid-August 1998-October 2000). Before 9/11, the NSA was entitled to pass on information about the calls to the FBI, but did not do so, even though the FBI had specifically asked for information about calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998 and (Spring 2000)). Various explanations for this failure are offered after 9/11 (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After).

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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