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Context of 'Mid-July 2004: 9/11 Commission Staffers Worried about Impact of Newly Discovered Information about Iran on Political Situation'

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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

9/11 hijacker Ahmed Alghamdi apparently flies to Beirut. Based on NSA reporting drafted shortly after September 11, the 9/11 Commission will say that a senior Hezbollah operative is on the same flight, although it will point out that this is “perhaps by coincidence.” The commission will suggest this is the first leg on a journey to Afghanistan, and say that this flight may be part of Iranian assistance to al-Qaeda consisting of allowing operatives to transit Iran without stamping their passports on the way to and from Afghanistan (see After October 12, 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240, 529; Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3] Alghamdi obtained a US visa in Saudi Arabia on September 3, 2000. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 13 pdf file] What he did between obtaining the visa and taking this flight is unknown, as is the place from which he flies to Beirut.

Entity Tags: Ahmed Alghamdi, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Waleed Alshehri.Waleed Alshehri. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]Based on intelligence reports, the 9/11 Commission will later say that 9/11 hijackers Wail Alshehri, Waleed Alshehri, and Ahmed Alnami travel in a group from Saudi Arabia to Beirut and then onward to Iran in mid-November 2000. An associate of a senior Hezbollah operative is also on the flight from Beirut to Iran. According to US intelligence, Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran are expecting the arrival of a group at around this time and this group is important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hezbollah. The commission will say that this flight may be part of Iranian assistance to al-Qaeda consisting of allowing operatives to transit Iran without stamping their passports on the way to and from Afghanistan (see After October 12, 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240, 529]
Contradicted by Families' Claims - However, two to three years before the 9/11 Commission publishes these claims, the families of both Ahmed Alnami and the Alshehri brothers will deny they travel anywhere at this time, and say they leave home in December, not the middle of November. After 9/11, Alnami’s father will initially say Alnami has been missing since December 2000 and will later repeat that he left home in December 2000 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. [Washington Post, 9/25/2001; Daily Telegraph, 9/15/2002] The Alshehri brothers’ family will also claim they do not leave until after mid-November 2000. Initially, the father will say that they left “last Ramadan.” [Arab News, 9/17/2001] The month of Ramadan begins on November 27 in 2000. [Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 11/26/2000] Based on a 2002 interview with one of their brothers, the Boston Globe will also later say that they leave in December. [Boston Globe, 3/3/2002] If this is true, the story of their travel with a Hezbollah operative would probably be incorrect.
9/11 Commission's Sourcing - The 9/11 Commission cites intelligence reports, mostly drafted between October and December 2001, as its sources. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240, 529] These reports come from the NSA. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-373]
Alnami Possibly Tracked by Saudi Intelligence - According to the 9/11 Commission, Alnami may have had a passport with an indicator of Islamic extremism (see November 6, 1999). Such indicators were used by the Saudi authorities to track some of the hijackers before 9/11 (see November 2, 2007).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Wail Alshehri, Ahmed Alnami, Waleed Alshehri

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

9/11 Commission staffer Lorry Fenner.9/11 Commission staffer Lorry Fenner. [Source: Public domain]9/11 Commission staffer Lorry Fenner, who is reading through NSA material related to al-Qaeda on her own initiative (see January 2004), finds material possibly linking Iran and Hezbollah to al-Qaeda. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 157, 370-1] The material indicates that between eight and ten of the future hijackers traveled between Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and other destinations via Iran. For example, in November 2000, one of the hijackers, Ahmed Alghamdi, took the same flight as a senior Hezbollah official (see November 2000), although the 9/11 Commission report will say this may be a “coincidence.” An associate of a senior Hezbollah operative took the same flight as another three of the hijackers in November 2000, and Hezbollah officials were expecting an undefined group to arrive at the same time. However, the hijackers’ families will say they were in Saudi Arabia at this time (see Mid-November, 2000). Based on information such as this, the commission will conclude that Iran helped al-Qaeda operatives transit Iran by not stamping their passports, but that neither it nor Hezbollah had any knowledge of the 9/11 plot. Under interrogation, detainees Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh say that some of the hijackers did transit Iran, but that they had no assistance from the Iranian authorities. However, such statements were apparently made after they were tortured, bringing their reliability into question (see June 16, 2004 and August 6, 2007). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 240-1] The NSA intelligence reports the information about Iranian and Hezbollah is based on were mostly drafted between October and December 2001, so it is possible that the NSA was monitoring Hezbollah in 2000 and then matched up travel by that organization’s operatives with the 9/11 hijackers’ travel, ascertained from airlines, for example, after 9/11. One of the reports, entitled “operative’s claimed identification of photos of two Sept. 11 hijackers,” is dated August 9, 2002. It is unclear who the operative is or how he allegedly came into contact with the alleged 9/11 hijackers. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Lorry Fenner, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Hezbollah, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Iran, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 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

The 9/11 Commission releases a new report on how the 9/11 plot developed. Most of their information appears to come from interrogations of prisoners Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), the 9/11 mastermind, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a key member of the al-Qaeda Hamburg cell. In this account, the idea for the attacks appears to have originated with KSM. In mid-1996, he met bin Laden and al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan. He presented several ideas for attacking the US, including a version of the 9/11 plot using ten planes (presumably an update of Operation Bojinka’s second phase plot (see February-Early May 1995)). Bin Laden does not commit himself. In 1999, bin Laden approves a scaled-back version of the idea, and provides four operatives to carry it out: Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Khallad bin Attash, and Abu Bara al Taizi. Attash and al Taizi drop out when they fail to get US visas. Alhazmi and Almihdhar prove to be incompetent pilots, but the recruitment of Mohamed Atta and the others in the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell solves that problem. Bin Laden wants the attacks to take place between May and July 2001, but the attacks are ultimately delayed until September. [9/11 Commission, 6/16/2004] However, information such as these accounts resulting from prisoner interrogations is seriously doubted by some experts, because it appears they only began cooperating after being coerced or tortured. For instance, it is said that KSM was “waterboarded,” a technique in which his head is pushed under water until he nearly drowns. Information gained under such duress often is unreliable. Additionally, there is a serious risk that the prisoners might try to intentionally deceive. [New York Times, 6/17/2004] For instance, one CIA report of his interrogations is called, “Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s Threat Reporting—Precious Truths, Surrounded by a Bodyguard of Lies.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/23/2004] The Commission itself expresses worry that KSM could be trying to exaggerate the role of bin Laden in the plot to boost bin Laden’s reputation in the Muslim world. [9/11 Commission, 6/16/2004] Most of what these prisoners have said is uncorroborated from other sources. [New York Times, 6/17/2004] In 2007, it will be alleged that as much as 90 percent of KSM’s interrogation could be inaccurate, and that he has recanted some of his confessions (see August 6, 2007).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, 9/11 Commission, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 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

John Brennan.John Brennan. [Source: PBS]An article in the New Yorker magazine reveals that the CIA interrogations of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) were not as reliable as they are typically made out to be. Mohammed was interrogated with methods such as waterboarding that are regarded as torture by many. CIA official John Brennan, former chief of staff for CIA Director George Tenet, acknowledges, “All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.” One former top CIA official estimates that “ninety per cent of the information was unreliable.” Cables of Mohammed’s interrogation transcripts sent to higher-ups reportedly were prefaced with the warning that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” [New Yorker, 8/6/2007] For instance, one CIA report of his interrogations was called, “Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s Threat Reporting—Precious Truths, Surrounded by a Bodyguard of Lies” (see June 16, 2004). [Los Angeles Times, 6/23/2004] Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel asks, “What are you going to do with KSM in the long run? It’s a very good question. I don’t think anyone has an answer. If you took him to any real American court, I think any judge would say there is no admissible evidence. It would be thrown out.” Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) says, “A guy as dangerous as KSM is, and half the world wonders if they can believe him—is that what we want? Statements that can’t be believed, because people think they rely on torture?” [New Yorker, 8/6/2007] Journalist James Risen wrote in a 2006 book, “According to a well-placed CIA source, [Mohammed] has now recanted some of what he previously told the CIA during his interrogations. That is an enormous setback for the CIA, since [his debriefings] had been considered among the agency’s most important sources of intelligence on al-Qaeda. It is unclear precisely which of his earlier statements [he] has now disavowed, but any recantation by the most important prisoner in the global war on terror must call into question much of what the United States has obtained from other prisoners around the world…” [Risen, 2006, pp. 33] In a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, a former senior CIA official familiar with the interrogation reports on Mohammed will say, “90 percent of it was total f_cking bullsh_t.” A former Pentagon analyst will add: “KSM produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Levin, John O. Brennan, Bruce Riedel, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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