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Context of 'September 2004: CIA Said to Have Less Operational Expertise on Al-Qaeda Now than on 9/11'

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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)

The CIA’s bin Laden unit repeatedly and formally requests assistance from the US military to help plan operations against bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Michael Scheuer, the head of the unit, later will recall, “We needed and asked for special operations officers.” But even after the US embassy bombings in August 1998, cooperation is not forthcoming. Finally, in June 1999, the unit is sent individuals who are not special operations officers and only have experience on Iran. Scheuer later will complain, “The bin Laden unit received no support from senior [CIA] officials vis-a-vis the US military.” Scheuer is fired from the unit in June 1999, so presumably his first-hand knowledge of relations between the CIA and Pentagon ends at this time. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004)

The CIA builds a ground station to intercept calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations centre in Yemen. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) According to author James Bamford, the station is “in the Indian Ocean area, I think it was on Madagascar.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) The NSA is already intercepting the calls, but refuses to share the raw intelligence with the CIA (see February 1996-May 1998 and December 1996), which is why the agency has to build the station. However, the CIA is only able to get half the conversations, because its technology is not as good as the NSA’s. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004; Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009) Bamford will add, “they were only picking up half of the conversations, apparently it was downlink, they weren’t able to get the uplink, you need a satellite.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008) Presumably, Bamford means the CIA is getting the half of the calls featuring the person talking to bin Laden, but cannot hear the Afghan end of the conversation. To get the other half of the Afghanistan-Yemen calls the CIA would need a satellite. (PBS 2/3/2009)

The CIA again asks the NSA for part of the transcripts of calls between Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda’s operations center in Yemen. The NSA has been intercepting the calls for some time (see Between May and December 1996), but refuses to share the intelligence with Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, in usable form (see December 1996). During the calls, the al-Qaeda operatives talk in a simplistic code, but the NSA apparently does not decrypt the conversations, and only gives Alec Station meaningless summaries of the calls (see February 1996-May 1998). Without the transcripts, Alec Station cannot crack the code and figure out what the operatives are really talking about. As a result, the CIA built a duplicate ground station in the Indian Ocean, and is replicating half of the NSA’s intelligence take on the calls (see After December 1996). However, it cannot obtain the other end of the calls without a satellite. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will say, “We would collect it [one end of the calls], translate it, send it to NSA, and ask them for the other half of it, so we could better understand it, but we never got it.” Author James Bamford will comment: “And so the CIA, Mike Scheuer, went back to NSA and said look,… we’re able to get… half the conversations here, but we still need the other half, and NSA still wouldn’t give them the other half. I mean this is absurd, but this is what was going on.” (Antiwar 10/22/2008; PBS 2/3/2009)

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press]Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35 a.m., local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. The attacks will be blamed on al-Qaeda. (PBS Frontline 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38 5/2/2001) The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 195) The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers will allegedly tell US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. (United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14 3/7/2001) A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last-minute delay (see August 7, 1998). (Associated Press 9/25/1998) August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia and some people will speculate that this is the reason for the date of the bombings. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 46) In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell will write: “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 195, 206) After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Following the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), CIA managers ask Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, what it most needs to improve the agency’s capabilities against al-Qaeda. Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer will later say that he raises “our dire need for verbatim reports derived from electronic collection.” This is a reference to his desire to get verbatim transcripts of calls to and from al-Qaeda’s operations hub in Yemen, in particular ones between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The NSA has the transcripts, but is refusing to provide them to the CIA, and the two agencies have been at loggerheads over the issue for nearly two years. Alec Station needs the transcripts, not the summaries the NSA provides, because the operatives talk in code on the phone and this code cannot be cracked based on the summaries, only using the transcripts (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, and After December 1996). Other senior CIA officers have similar trouble getting transcripts from the NSA. Higher officials order the NSA to comply, and they do, but only for less than 12 requests. Then the system returns to the way it was, with NSA only sharing summaries. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004) The reason for the change back is unclear, although bin Laden stops using his satellite phone around this time (see Late August 1998).

Michael Scheuer.
Michael Scheuer. [Source: Publicity photo]CIA Director George Tenet removes Michael Scheuer as head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer had headed the unit since its inception in 1996 (see February 1996), and was known as a strong advocate for more government action against bin Laden. The full name of the new head of the unit has not been released and little is known about his performance. (Zeman et al. 11/2004) Deputy Director of Operations Jack Downing tells Scheuer he is being fired because he is “mentally burned out” and because of a recent disagreement with the FBI over whether the deputy chief of Alex Station, who was detailed to the CIA from the FBI, could release information to the FBI without Scheuer’s approval. Downing tells Scheuer he was in the right, but that the criticism of his subordinate “should not have been put on paper”, and the FBI’s management is angry with him. Downing says he will get a medal and a monetary award, but should tell his subordinates he has resigned. Scheuer refuses to lie to his officers, signs a memo saying he will not accept a monetary award, and tells Downing “where he should store the medal.” (Scheuer 2005, pp. 263-4; Wright 2006, pp. 313) According to author Steve Coll, Scheuer’s CIA colleagues “could not be sure exactly [why Scheuer left] but among at least a few of them a believe settled in that [he] had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat…” In particular, he was angry about two recent missed opportunities (see 1997-May 29, 1998 and February 11, 1999) to assassinate bin Laden. (Coll 2004, pp. 449-450) Scheuer will write in 2004 that, “On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency’s senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America’s attack on bin Laden, ones that the bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among [US intelligence agencies]… The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today.” Problems include poor cooperation between agencies and a lack of experienced staff working on the bin Laden issue. Scheuer never receives a response to his memo. (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004)

The CIA sends an officer from its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to the NSA to review raw transcripts of intercepted communications between terrorists. However, the officer is only there for a “brief period” and is subsequently withdrawn and not replaced, damaging the CIA’s ability to exploit the information gleaned from the intercepts. The CIA only previously received summaries of intercepted calls, not the transcripts themselves, and had been arguing for years that it needed the actual transcripts to better understand the material (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, After December 1996, and Late August 1998). After the single officer leaves the NSA, which intercepts calls between the US-based 9/11 hijackers and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen around this time (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), the reason the CIA gives for not replacing him is “resource constraints.” In 2005, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General will regard this failure as so serious that it will recommend an accountability board be convened to review the performance of the CTC managers responsible, and will suggest that officers should have been detailed to the NSA “on a consistent, full-time basis.” (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xxiii pdf file) The CIA and NSA are obtaining information about people in the US from phone companies to support “black ops” at this time (see After July 11, 1997).

The CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, reduces the FBI’s access to NSA material tracking al-Qaeda members. The FBI had previously used such intercepts to map al-Qaeda’s global network (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA intercepts at least one call from the 9/11 hijackers in the US to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen after this (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and (August 2001)), but does not tell the FBI. Authors Joe and Susan Trento will comment that by doing this and withholding the hijackers’ identities from the FBI, “the CIA effectively ended any chance in the months leading up to 9/11 of discovering that [Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi] were actually al-Qaeda agents destined to play major roles in the 9/11 attacks.” The CIA repeatedly fails to tell the FBI what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, January 5, 2001 and After, and June 11, 2001). (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 194) There is a long history of the NSA not wanting other US government agencies to have access to NSA material about al-Qaeda (see December 1996, Late August 1998, Between 1996 and August 1998, and Before September 11, 2001).

Just prior to 9/11, the CIA and FBI do not have enough staff working on al-Qaeda. Only 17 to 19 people are working in the FBI’s special unit focusing on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. (US Congress 9/18/2002) The FBI has a $4.3 billion anti-terrorism budget, but of its 27,000 employees, just 153 are devoted to terrorism analysis. (Alcorn 6/8/2002) The FBI’s “analytic expertise has been ‘gutted’ by transfers to operational units” and only one strategic analyst is assigned full time to al-Qaeda. The FBI office in New York is very aware of the threat from bin Laden, but many branch offices remain largely unaware. (US Congress 9/18/2002) A senior FBI official later tells Congress that there are fewer FBI agents assigned to counterterrorism on this day than in August 1998, when the US embassy bombings in Africa made bin Laden a household name. (Risen 9/22/2002) The CIA has only about 35 to 40 people assigned to their special bin Laden unit. It has five strategic analysts working full time on al-Qaeda. (US Congress 9/18/2002) The CIA and FBI later complain that some of these figures are misleading. (Risen 9/18/2002) “Individuals in both the CIA and FBI units… reported being seriously overwhelmed by the volume of information and workload prior to September 11, 2001.” Despite numerous warnings that planes could be used as weapons, such a possibility was never studied, and a congressional report later blames lack of staff as a major reason for this. (US Congress 9/18/2002) Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) also notes, “Between the Department of Justice and the FBI, they had a whole task force working on finding a couple of houses of prostitution in New Orleans. They had one on al-Qaeda.” (CBS News 9/25/2002)

CIA official Michael Scheuer says that the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, is still effectively less than 30 people strong. Scheuer was head of the unit until 1999 (see June 1999, and he says this was about the size of the unit when he left. Technically, the unit has hundreds of employees, but Scheuer claims this is not really true. He says: “The numbers are big, but it’s a shell game. It’s people they move in for four or five months at a time and then bring in a new bunch. But the hard core of expertise, of experience, of savvy really hasn’t expanded at all since 9/11.” (Border 8/20/2004) There were about 35 to 40 people in the unit at the time of the 9/11 attacks (see Just Before September 11, 2001). The unit will be closed down altogether one year later (see Late 2005).

Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, complains, “In the CIA’s core, US-based bin Laden operational unit today there are fewer [operational] officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than there were on 11 September 2001. There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise among [operational] officers since 11 September… The excellent management team now running operations against al-Qaeda has made repeated, detailed, and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the al-Qaeda—and have done so for years, not weeks or months—but have been ignored…” (Atlantic Monthly 12/2004)

The CIA closes its unit that had been in charge of hunting bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders. Analysts in the unit, known as Alec Station, are reassigned to other parts of the CIA Counterterrorist Center. CIA officials explain the change by saying the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals. Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit when if formed in 1996 (see February 1996), says the move reflects a view within the CIA that bin Laden is no longer the threat he once was, and complains, “This will clearly denigrate our operations against al-Qaeda.” Robert Grenier, head of the Counterterrorist Center in 2005, is said to have instigated the closure. (Mazzetti 7/4/2006; Goldenberg 7/4/2006) The White House denies the search for bin Laden has slackened, calling the move merely a “reallocation of resources” within the CIA. (Reuters 8/17/2006)

A redacted summary of a report by the CIA’s inspector general into some aspects of the agency’s pre-9/11 performance is released. The report’s main points are:
bullet No CIA employees violated the law or were guilty of misconduct in the run-up to 9/11;
bullet However, some officials did not perform their duties in a satisfactory manner. The report recommended accountability boards be convened to review their performance, but former CIA Director Porter Goss decided against this recommendation in 2005 (see October 10, 2005);
bullet There was no “silver bullet” that could have prevented 9/11, but if officers had performed satisfactorily, they would have had a better chance of stopping the attacks;
bullet The CIA had no comprehensive strategy to combat al-Qaeda before 9/11 (see After December 4, 1998 and Between Mid-December 2002 and June 2004);
bullet Management of counterterrorism funds was poor (see 1997-2001);
bullet Arguments between the CIA and NSA negatively impacted counterterrorism efforts (see December 1996, Late August 1998, and 2000);
bullet Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was well-known to the CIA before 9/11, but his case was badly handled (see 1997 or After);
bullet There were numerous failures related to the CIA’s monitoring of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see Mid-January-March 2000, 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, Mid-July 2004, (After January 6, 2000), and March 5, 2000);
bullet The CIA also missed “several additional opportunities” to watchlist Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (see January 8, 2000 and August 23, 2001). Such watchlisting could have led to them being denied entry, or being placed under surveillance in the US;
bullet The CIA was confused about whether it was authorized to assassinate Osama bin Laden or not (see Mid-August 1998, December 24, 1998, December 26, 1998 and After, February 1999, February 1999, and December 1999);
bullet There were various problems with assets and operations linked to foreign services. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005 pdf file)
The media picks various angles in commenting on the report (see August 21, 2007), which is criticized by current CIA Director Michael Hayden (see August 21, 2007) and former Director George Tenet (see August 21, 2007).


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