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March 15, 2004 and After: Domestic Wiretapping Revelation Reignites 9/11 Hijacker Phone Call Debate

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

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