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Context of '9:53 a.m. September 11, 2001: NSA Intercepts Al-Qaeda Phone Call Predicting Fourth Attack'

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At least two messages in Arabic are intercepted by the NSA. One states, “The match is about to begin” and the other states, “Tomorrow is zero hour.” Later reports translate the first message as, “The match begins tomorrow.” [Reuters, 9/9/2002] The messages were sent between someone in Saudi Arabia and someone in Afghanistan. The NSA will claim that they are not translated until September 12, and that even if they had been translated in time, “they gave no clues that authorities could have acted on.” [ABC News, 6/7/2002; Reuters, 6/19/2002] Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Bob Graham will later confirm that the messages were from al-Qaeda sources—a location or phone number—that made them a high priority, but that they were not from bin Laden or one of his top commanders. [Graham and Nussbaum, 2004, pp. 139] On the morning of September 12, 2001, the CIA will tell President Bush that a recently intercepted message from al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida referred to the 9/11 attacks as “zero hour,” but it is not clear if this is the same message or a different message (see September 12, 2001). These messages turn out to be only two of about 30 pre-9/11 communications from suspected al-Qaeda operatives or other militants referring to an imminent event. An anonymous official will say of these messages, including the “Tomorrow is zero hour” message: “You can’t dismiss any of them, but it does not tell you tomorrow is the day.” [Reuters, 9/9/2002] There will be a later attempt to explain the messages away by suggesting they referred to the killing of Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud the day before (see September 9, 2001). [Reuters, 10/17/2002]

Entity Tags: Ahmed Shah Massoud, Al-Qaeda, National Security Agency, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

At the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, Michael Hayden, the agency’s director, orders the evacuation of all nonessential personnel from the NSA complex. His two reasons for this, he later says, are “just pure safety,” and to protect the people who work at the agency by sending “them home on the dispersal plan.” In a 2007 speech, he will state that he gave this order at 9:30 a.m. But in the account of author James Bamford, around the time Hayden gives the order he hears “some early reports about the explosion at the Pentagon.” Yet the attack on the Pentagon does not occur until 9:37 (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). The reason for this discrepancy is unclear. Hayden’s evacuation order is announced over loudspeakers throughout the NSA, and many of the 16,000 employees there leave. After hearing for sure that the Pentagon has been struck and that one or more hijacked aircraft is heading toward Washington, Hayden orders the three to four thousand remaining essential personnel to immediately evacuate the agency’s three tall towers and relocate to the low-rise Ops 1 Building. However, as Hayden later says, “[W]e really couldn’t afford to move the counterterrorism shop” where experts and linguists who track terrorists’ foreign communications work, even though it is located near the top of one of the NSA’s high-rise buildings. Maureen Baginski, the NSA’s director of signals intelligence, goes up there shortly after the time of the Pentagon attack to calm down the workers who, according to Hayden, are “emotionally shattered.” [US Congress, 10/17/2002; Bamford, 2004, pp. 52-54; National Journal, 6/19/2006; Central Intelligence Agency, 5/4/2007] At 9:53, analysts in the counterterrorism office will pick up and quickly translate a phone call from a bin Laden operative in Afghanistan, apparently referring to the attacks (see 9:53 a.m. September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, Maureen Baginski

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Pentagon explodes. 
The Pentagon explodes. [Source: Donley/ Sipa]Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon. All 64 people on the plane are killed. A hundred-and-twenty-four people working in the building are killed, and a further victim will die in hospital several days later. Hijackers Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi presumably are killed instantly. (Typically, they are not included in the death counts.) [CNN, 9/17/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/18/2001; Guardian, 10/17/2001; Washington Post, 11/21/2001; USA Today, 8/13/2002; Associated Press, 8/21/2002; MSNBC, 9/3/2002; ABC News, 9/11/2002; CBS News, 9/11/2002] Flight 77 hits the first floor of the Pentagon’s west wall. The impact and the resulting explosion heavily damage the building’s three outer rings. The path of destruction cuts through Army accounting offices on the outer E Ring, the Navy Command Center on the D Ring, and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s comptroller’s office on the C Ring. [Vogel, 2007, pp. 431 and 449] Flight 77 strikes the only side of the Pentagon that had recently been renovated—it was “within days of being totally [renovated].” [US Department of Defense, 9/15/2001] “It was the only area of the Pentagon with a sprinkler system, and it had been reconstructed with a web of steel columns and bars to withstand bomb blasts. The area struck by the plane also had blast-resistant windows—two inches thick and 2,500 pounds each—that stayed intact during the crash and fire. While perhaps, 4,500 people normally would have been working in the hardest-hit areas, because of the renovation work only about 800 were there.” More than 25,000 people work at the Pentagon. [Los Angeles Times, 9/16/2001] Furthermore, the plane hits an area that has no basement. As journalist Steve Vogel later points out, “If there had been one under the first floor, its occupants could easily have been trapped by fire and killed when the upper floors collapsed.” [Vogel, 2007, pp. 450]

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, US Department of Defense, Salem Alhazmi, Majed Moqed, Pentagon

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly intercepts a phone call from one of bin Laden’s operatives in Afghanistan to a phone number in the Republic of Georgia. The caller says he has “heard good news” and that another target is still to come (presumably, the target Flight 93 is intended to hit). [CBS News, 9/4/2002] The caller is also supposed to say that the attackers are following through on “the doctor’s program.” This is said to be a reference to al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has a doctorate in medicine. [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] Since the 9/11 crisis began, NSA translators have been told to focus on Middle Eastern intercepts and translate them as they are received instead of oldest first, as is the usual practice. This call is translated in the next hour or two, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld hears about it just after noon. [CBS News, 9/4/2002; Bamford, 2004, pp. 54]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda, National Security Agency, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A section from Rumsfeld’s notes, dictated to Stephen Cambone.A section from Rumsfeld’s notes, dictated to Stephen Cambone. [Source: Defense Department] (click image to enlarge)Stephen Cambone, the Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, makes the following note for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld at an emergency policy meeting, “AA 77—3 indiv have been followed since Millennium + Cole. 1 guy is assoc of Cole bomber. 2 entered US in early July (2 of 3 pulled aside and interrogated?).” Although four of the subsequently alleged Flight 77 hijackers were known to the authorities in connection with terrorism before 9/11, it appears that the three referred to here as being followed are Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, and Salem Alhazmi, due to their ties to an al-Qaeda Malaysia summit around the Millennium (see January 5-8, 2000) and ties to the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000). Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar initially arrived in the US shortly before or after the Millennium plot was due to come to fruition (see November 1999 and January 15, 2000), even entering at Los Angeles Airport (LAX), a target of the plot. If the note is literally correct that some US authorities were following these three since the Millennium, this would contradict the 9/11 Commission’s position that the trail of the three was lost shortly after the Millennium. The comment that one of the hijackers is an associate of a Cole bomber could refer to photos the CIA had before 9/11 identifying Almihdhar standing next to Cole bomber Fahad al-Quso (see Early December 2000) or photos of him standing next to Cole bomber Khallad bin Attash (see January 4, 2001). The note’s mention that two of them entered the US in July is also accurate, as Salem Alhazmi entered the US on June 29 (see April 23-June 29, 2001) and Khalid re-entered on July 4 (see July 4, 2001). [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 pdf file; US Department of Defense, 2/6/2006 pdf file] Earlier in the day, Cambone took notes for Rumsfeld that indicate Rumsfeld is keen to move against Iraq following the 9/11 attacks, even though he was aware there may be no connection between Iraq and 9/11 (see (2:40 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 pdf file; Guardian, 2/24/2006]

Entity Tags: Khalid Almihdhar, Stephen A. Cambone, Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf Alhazmi, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Liz Cheney.Liz Cheney. [Source: US Department of State]After attending President Bush’s meeting with his principal advisers in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center beneath the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney heads back upstairs, accompanied by his wife Lynne Cheney and his two top aides, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and David Addington. They all head out onto the White House’s South Lawn and get onto Marine Two, the vice president’s helicopter, being joined on it by a military aide, a communications expert, three Secret Service agents, and Cheney’s doctor. They take off, in violation of long-standing protocol, according to which only the president takes off from the South Lawn. Only a few of the most senior White House officials are informed of their destination. About 30 minutes later they arrive at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, about 70 miles from the White House. Again going against tradition, Cheney and his family settle into the cabin usually reserved for the president, Aspen Lodge. Liz Cheney, the vice president’s eldest daughter, and her young family, joins them there. This is the first of many nights that Cheney spends in “secure, undisclosed locations” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (see September 12, 2001-2002). [Federation of American Scientists, 10/2/2000; Hayes, 2007, pp. 345-346] He will return to Washington the following morning for an 8 a.m. meeting at the White House (see September 12, 2001). [Washington Post, 1/28/2002]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Elizabeth (“Liz”) Cheney, Lynne Cheney, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, David S. Addington

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mike Morell.Mike Morell. [Source: Public domain]CIA Director George Tenet arrives at the White House to give the president his daily intelligence briefing. With him is Mike Morell, the president’s regular CIA briefer. They meet with Bush at 8 a.m. in the Oval Office, joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) on this day is about ten to twelve pages long, and a further twelve pages includes full reports from case officers, the Directorate of Intelligence, and the National Security Agency. The PDB includes a review of the available intelligence tracing the previous day’s attacks back to Osama bin Laden and his top al-Qaeda associates. Among the evidence presented:
bullet Several reports identify Capitol Hill and the White House as intended targets of the attacks.
bullet One report says a bin Laden associate incorrectly “gave thanks for the explosion in the Congress building.”
bullet A key figure in the al-Qaeda charity front the Wafa Humanitarian Organization had initially claimed that “The White House has been destroyed,” but then had to correct himself.
bullet A report shows that al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan had said at 9:53 a.m. the previous day that the attackers were following through with “the doctor’s program” (see 9:53 a.m. September 11, 2001). This is thought to be a reference to the second-ranking member of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician often referred to as “the Doctor.”
bullet The CIA and the FBI have evidence connecting at least three of the alleged hijackers to Osama bin Laden and his training camps in Afghanistan. Hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, and Salem Alhazmi were quickly linked to al-Qaeda on the day of 9/11, as two of them were on a US watch list even before 9/11 (see 9:53 p.m. September 11, 2001). The attacks were also consistent with intelligence reports throughout the summer that indicated bin Laden was planning “spectacular attacks” against US targets.
bullet A report out of Kandahar, Afghanistan shows the attacks were “the results of two years’ planning.”
bullet Another report says the attacks were “the beginning of the wrath.”
bullet A key piece of evidence involves Abu Zubaida, who has been identified as the chief field commander for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. A supposedly reliable report received after the 9/11 attacks stated that Zubaida had referred to September 11 as “zero hour.” It is not known is an intercepted message from before 9/11 saying “tomorrow is zero hour,” or some other message (see September 10, 2001).
According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, “For Tenet, the evidence on bin Laden was conclusive—game, set, match.” Though Tenet, along with Rice and other officials, has already spent several months working on a plan to vastly expand covert action in Afghanistan and worldwide, he tells Bush that an even more extensive plan will soon be presented for approval, and this will be very expensive. The president tells him, “Whatever it takes.” [Woodward, 2002, pp. 39-41; Washington Post, 1/28/2002; Kessler, 2003, pp. 231-233; Tenet, 2007, pp. 165] Bush will approve Tenet’s plan by the following Monday (see September 17, 2001).

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, Salem Alhazmi, Michael J. Morell, Osama bin Laden, Khalid Almihdhar, George J. Tenet, Wafa Humanitarian Organization, Abu Zubaida, George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Condoleezza Rice, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

CIA Director George Tenet and Cofer Black, the director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, meet at 9:30 a.m. in the White House Situation Room with President Bush and the National Security Council. Tenet presents a plan for tracking down Osama bin Laden, toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, and confronting terrorism worldwide. According to journalist Bob Woodward, the plan involves “bringing together expanded intelligence-gathering resources, sophisticated technology, agency paramilitary teams and opposition forces in Afghanistan in a classic covert action. They would then be combined with US military power and Special Forces into an elaborate and lethal package designed to destroy the shadowy terrorist networks.” A key concept is to utilize the Northern Alliance, which is the main opposition force in Afghanistan. Despite being “a strained coalition of sometimes common interests,” Tenet says that along with the CIA teams “and tons of money, the Alliance could be brought together into a cohesive fighting force.” Black gives a presentation describing the effectiveness of covert action. He says they will need to go after the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda, as the two are joined at the hip. He wants the mission to begin as soon as possible, and adds, “When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs.” Black claims that once they are on the ground, victory could be achieved in weeks. According to Bob Woodward, “No one else in the room, including Tenet, believed that was possible.” Black also warns the president, “Americans are going to die.… How many, I don’t know. Could be a lot.” Bush responds, “That’s war. That’s what we’re here to win.” This is the second presentation laying out an increasingly detailed set of CIA proposals for expanding its fight against terrorism. (George Tenet had given the first when he met with the president the day before (see September 12, 2001).) Tenet will give a more detailed presentation of the CIA’s covert action plan two days later, at Camp David (see September 15, 2001). [Woodward, 2002, pp. 50-53; Washington Post, 1/29/2002; Kessler, 2003, pp. 233-234]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Cofer Black, George W. Bush, National Security Council, Osama bin Laden, Northern Alliance, Taliban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

On September 15, 2001, at Camp David, CIA Director George Tenet had given a presentation to President Bush and his war cabinet, laying out an extensive plan for combating global terrorism and giving the CIA sweeping new powers (see September 15, 2001). [Washington Post, 1/31/2002] Bush had thanked Tenet and said he would think about his proposals, as well as those put forward by his other advisers, and would get back with his decisions by the following Monday. By this day, September 17, he has decided to agree to all of Tenet’s requests, which include an extra $1 billion of funding. Reportedly, Bush wants “the CIA to be first on the ground, preparing the way for the military with both intelligence officers and paramilitary officers.” [Kessler, 2003, pp. 234-235; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 333] Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin will later recall that “we all assembled in the Cabinet Room, and the president lays down about 12 decisions, just like that, machine-gun fashion.… [T]he thing that stands out in my memory, because it hit me vividly, was he said, ‘I want CIA in there first.’” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] In one of these decisions, Bush gives the CIA broad powers to capture, kill, and/or interrogate high-ranking al-Qaeda figures (see September 17, 2001).

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, George W. Bush, Central Intelligence Agency, John E. McLaughlin

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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