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Context of 'Late 2003: NSA Allows 9/11 Commission Access to Files, but Commission Not Interested'

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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

The 9/11 Commission initially pays very little attention to material from the NSA about al-Qaeda, as it is focusing on the CIA, FBI, and other agencies. Colonel Lorry Fenner, a former air force intelligence officer assigned to the commission’s team reviewing the structure of the intelligence community, finds this surprising. Fenner, who had previously worked closely with the NSA, is “dumfounded” when she learns nobody from the commission is making the short trip to the NSA to review its material on 9/11. The NSA tracked al-Qaeda communications for a long time before 9/11, including numerous calls between the hijackers and other al-Qaeda operatives (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), but the 9/11 Commission apparently does not realize or seem to care how important the material is. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “[F]or the Commission’s staff, [the NSA’s Maryland headquarters at] Fort Meade might as well have been Kabul, it seemed so distant.” One reason is that some people at the commission do not really understand what the NSA does, and also, according to Shenon, “[For executive director Philip] Zelikow and other staff on the commission, it was just more interesting—sexier—to concentrate on the CIA.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 87-88, 155-6]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Lorry Fenner, National Security Agency, Philip Shenon, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The NSA allows the 9/11 Commission to access its archives on al-Qaeda, but the commission does not appear interested. The commission had previously shown little interest in the NSA’s material (see Late 2002-July 2004), and is having trouble getting access to information from other agencies, but this offer does not stimulate any additional interest. Author Philip Shenon will comment, “[P]erversely, the more eager [NSA director] General Hayden was to cooperate, the less interested [9/11 Commission executive director Philip] Zelikow and others at the commission seemed to be in what was buried in the NSA files.” Lorry Fenner, a commission staffer who previously worked with the NSA, arranges for a set of relevant NSA files to be transferred to a special reading room in Washington not far from the commission’s offices, so the relevant staff members can have easy access to the material. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 156] However, this does not stimulate any interest, and Fenner begins to read through the material herself (see January 2004).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Lorry Fenner, National Security Agency, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Kevin Scheid.Kevin Scheid. [Source: Abledangerblog(.com)]After finding that nobody else on the 9/11 Commission is interested in what the NSA knew about al-Qaeda in general and the 9/11 plot in particular (see Late 2002-July 2004 and Late 2003), commission staffer Lorry Fenner decides to try to read through a portion of the material herself. Fenner is “astonished” that nobody from the commission’s team investigating the 9/11 plot is reading the material, and thinks about asking her boss, Kevin Scheid, to tell the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow that somebody should read the material. However, Scheid resists a confrontation with Zelikow, and Fenner does not want to go over her boss’s head and talk to Zelikow herself. Therefore, although she has other duties on the commission, she starts to read through the material herself. There are tens of thousands of pages of NSA documents about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and, according to author Philip Shenon, “It would take several days of reading to get through even a small portion of it.” Fenner spends “two or three hours” on “several days” between January and June in the reading room, and some colleagues help her towards the end (see June 2004 and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004), but most of the information will go unread by the 9/11 Commission. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 156-7, 370]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, National Security Agency, Kevin Scheid, Lorry Fenner, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission’s cursory review of NSA material related to the attacks and al-Qaeda in general does not find any reports about NSA intercepts of communications between the hijackers in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Neither does it find any reports about calls intercepted by the NSA between alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta (see Summer 2001 and September 10, 2001). Author Philip Shenon will write about the commission’s review of the NSA files in a 2008 book and will discuss what Commission staffers found there, but will not mention these intercepts, some of which were mentioned in declassified portions of the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004). The review is only conducted by a few staffers (see January 2004, June 2004, and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004) and is not comprehensive, so it is unclear whether the NSA does not provide the reports to the 9/11 Commission, or the commission simply fails to find them in the large number of files the NSA made available to it. However, the staffers do find material possibly linking some of the hijackers to Iran and Hezbollah (see January-June 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 87-8, 155-7, 370-3] In its final report, the commission will make passing references to some of the calls the NSA intercepted without pointing out that the NSA actually intercepted them. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 87-88, 222] However, the endnotes that indicate the sources of these sections will not contain any references to NSA reports, but instead refer to an interview with NSA Director Michael Hayden and an FBI timeline of the hijackers’ activities. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 477, 518]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Lloyd Salvetti.Lloyd Salvetti. [Source: CIA]9/11 Commission staffer Lorry Fenner, who has been reviewing material the NSA provided to the 9/11 Commission on her own (see January 2004), asks two colleagues to examine information she found in the files indicating some of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran (see January-June 2004). The first is Lloyd Salvetti, the aging head of the CIA’s museum who is on loan to the commission. Fenner asks for his opinion because the review of the NSA information is not her official job at the commission and she is uncomfortable about approaching the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, over the issue, which she feels is important. Salvetti soon finds that Fenner’s fears are “well-founded” and the NSA files are a “gold mine, full of information about al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dating back to the early 1990s—material that the commission should have read through months earlier.” He also forms the opinion that there may have been some co-operation between al-Qaeda and elements of Hezbollah and Iran on travel issues. Salvetti then asks another commission staffer, former CIA analyst Doug MacEachin, to look over the material. MacEachin is just as alarmed as Fenner and Salvetti and they realize that, even though the commission must issue its final report very soon, something needs to be done. The three inform both Zelikow and NSA director Michael Hayden, and a group of commission staffers soon spend a day at the NSA (see Between July 1 and July 17, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3]

Entity Tags: Lloyd Salvetti, Doug MacEachin, Lorry Fenner, 9/11 Commission, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After 9/11 commission staffer Lorry Fenner discovers material apparently related to 9/11 in files made available to the commission by the NSA (see January 2004), a group of commission staff goes to the NSA to have a look at its archives. The group includes Fenner, as well as Lloyd Salvetti and Doug MacEachin, who have already looked at some of the material (see June 2004). The trip is at the weekend just before the commission is to complete its final report, and the group leaves Washington at 7:00 a.m. and stays “virtually all day.” They are given “huge piles of documents” to review. MacEachin will say: “There were stacks and stacks of paper. I was angry I hadn’t seen this before.” This appears to be the only trip made by the 9/11 Commission to the NSA to review documents and many NSA documents go unseen by the Commission. Author Philip Shenon will write: “[What the commission] staff knew… perfectly well, was that the NSA archives almost certainly contained other vital information about al-Qaeda and its history. But there was no time left to search for it. [Executive director Philip] Zelikow would later admit he too was worried that important classified information had never been reviewed at the NSA and elsewhere in the government before the 9/11 commission shut its doors, that critical evidence about bin Laden’s terrorist network sat buried in government files, unread to this day. By July 2004, it was just too late to keep digging.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 373]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Doug MacEachin, Lloyd Salvetti, Lorry Fenner, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After discovering information possibly linking Iran and Hezbollah to travel by the 9/11 hijackers in 2000 and early 2001 (see January-June 2004), the 9/11 Commission becomes worried about the impact the information might have on the current political situation. The material was discovered in NSA files late on in the commission’s investigation, as the commission initially paid little attention to the NSA (see Late 2002-July 2004 and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004). Commission staffers are worried because the information about the Iran links is not conclusive and the reports about it “might raise as many questions as they would answer.” In addition, they are aware that faulty intelligence had contributed to the decision to invade Iraq, and “the Bush administration seem[s] eager to engage in saber rattling with Iran.” However, commission chairman Tom Kean comments on the Iran information in the press and these comments become headline news (see July 16, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 373] The relevant passages in the final report point out that apparent links between travel by the future 9/11 hijackers and Hezbollah officials could be a “coincidence” and that al-Qaeda detainees have stated the only reason for traveling through Iran was because it did not place telltale stamps in passports. In addition, the report says that there is “no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” and that the “topic requires further investigation by the US government.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240-1]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Hezbollah, Iran, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 2004 Elections

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