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Profile: National Security Agency (NSA)
National Security Agency (NSA) was a participant or observer in the following events:
Page 1 of 4 (332 events)previous
The NSA, working with British intelligence, begins secretly intercepting and reading millions of telegraph messages between US citizens and international senders and recipients. The clandestine program, called Operation Shamrock and part of a larger global surveillance network collectively known as Echelon (see April 4, 2001 and Before September 11, 2001), begins shortly after the end of World War II, and continues through 1975, when it is exposed by the “Church Committee,” the Senate investigation of illegal activities by US intelligence organizations (see April, 1976). [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] The program actually predates the NSA, originating with the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) then continuing when that turned into NSA (see 1952). [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] The program operates in tandem with Project Minaret (see 1967-1975). Together, the two programs spy on both foreign sources and US citizens, especially those considered “unreliable,” such as civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters, and opposition figures such as politicians, diplomats, businessmen, trades union leaders, non-government organizations like Amnesty International, and senior officials of the Catholic Church. The NSA receives the cooperation of such telecommunications firms as Western Union, RCA, and ITT. [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] (Those companies are never required to reveal the extent of their involvement with Shamrock; on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and presidential chief of staff Dick Cheney, in 1975 President Ford extends executive privilege to those companies, precluding them from testifying before Congress.) [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] In the 1960s, technological advances make it possible for computers to search for keywords in monitored messages instead of having human analysts read through all communications. In fact, the first global wide-area network, or WAN, is not the Internet, but the international network connecting signals intelligence stations and processing centers for US and British intelligence organizations, including the NSA, and making use of sophisticated satellite systems such as Milstar and Skynet. (The NSA also builds and maintains one of the world’s first e-mail networks, completely separate from public e-mail networks, and highly secret.) At the program’s height, it operates out of a front company in Lower Manhattan code-named LPMEDLEY, and intercepts 150,000 messages a month. In August 1975, NSA director Lieutenant General Lew Allen testifies to the House of Representatives’ investigation of US intelligence activities, the Pike Committee (see January 29, 1976), that “NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable.” He also admits that “messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence,” and acknowledges that the NSA uses “watch lists” of US citizens “to watch for foreign activity of reportable intelligence interest.” [Telepolis, 7/25/2000] The Church Committee’s final report will will call Shamrock “probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.” [Church Committee, 4/23/1976] Shortly after the committee issues its report, the NSA terminates the program. Since 1978, the NSA and other US intelligence agencies have been restrained in their wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who will become the NSA’s director in 1977, and who testifies before the Church Committee as director of Naval Intelligence, will later say that he worked actively to help pass FISA: “I became convinced that for almost anything the country needed to do, you could get legislation to put it on a solid foundation. There was the comfort of going out and saying in speeches, ‘We don’t target US citizens, and what we do is authorized by a court.’” [Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] Shamrock is considered unconstitutional by many US lawmakers, and in 1976 the Justice Department investigates potential criminal offenses by the NSA surrounding Shamrock. Part of the report will be released in 1980; that report will confirm that the Shamrock data was used to further the illegal surveillance activities of US citizens as part of Minaret. [Telepolis, 7/25/2000]
After 9/11, the NSA will once again escalate its warrantless surveillance of US citizens, this time monitoring and tracking citizens’ phone calls and e-mails (see After September 11, 2001). It will also begin compiling an enormous database of citizens’ phone activities, creating a “data mine” of information on US citizens, ostensibly for anti-terrorism purposes (see October 2001).
The National Security Agency (NSA) is founded. It is the successor to the State Department’s “Black Chamber” and other military code-breaking and eavesdropping operations dating back to the earliest days of telegraph and telephone communications. It will eventually become the largest of all US intelligence agencies, with over 30,000 employees at its Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters. It focuses on electronic surveillance, operating a large network of satellites and listening devices around the globe. More even than the CIA, the NSA is the most secretive of US intelligence organizations, [New York Times, 12/16/2005] The agency will remain little known by the general public until the release of the 1998 film Enemy of the State, which will portray the NSA as an evil “Big Brother” agency spying on Americans as a matter of course. [CNN, 3/31/2001] After it is disclosed during the 1970s that the NSA spied on political dissenters and civil rights protesters, the NSA will be restricted to operating strictly overseas, and will be prohibited from monitoring US citizens within US borders without special court orders. [New York Times, 12/16/2005]
US intelligence agencies, including the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, run a clandestine and highly illegal surveillance operation called Project MINARET that uses “watch lists” to electronically and physically spy on “subversive” activities by civil rights and antiwar leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Joan Baez—all members of Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” [Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000; Pensito Review, 5/13/2006] MINARET operates in tandem with a much more extensive electronic surveillance operation, SHAMROCK, run by the NSA (see 1945-1975). Almost 6,000 foreigners and nearly 1,700 organizations and US citizens are monitored as part of MINARET. In August 1975, NSA director Lew Allen testifies before the Senate’s investigative commission on US intelligence activities, the Church Committee (see April, 1976), that the NSA has issued over 3,900 reports on the US citizens on MINARET’s watch lists, and the NSA’s Office of Security Services has maintained reports on at least 75,000 citizens between 1952 and 1975, reports that later became part of MINARET’s operations. MINARET, like SHAMROCK, will be terminated shortly after the Church Committee goes public with its information about the illegal surveillance program. [Bamford, 1983; Pensito Review, 5/13/2006]
The NSA launches the first of seven satellites, code-named “Canyon,” that can pick up various types of voice and data traffic from Earth orbit. Canyon will lead to a more sophisticated satellite intelligence system, code-named “Rhyolite” (later “Aquacade”—see Early 1970s). [Federation of American Scientists, 7/17/1997]
The NSA, following up on its successful pilot program of satellite-based intelligence gathering called “Canyon” (see 1968), develops a much more sophisticated satellite surveillance program called “Rhyolite.” Rhyolite, later renamed “Aquacade,” is a breakthrough in the world of signal intelligence (sigint). Most importantly, it can monitor microwave transmissions, used extensively by the Soviet Union for its most secure transmissions. Its possibilities, says one insider, are “mind-blowing.” Britain’s own security agency, GCHQ, is a full party to Rhyolite/Aquacade. Former Army sigint officer Owen Lewis recalls in 1997, “When Rhyolite came in, the take was so enormous that there was no way of handling it. Years of development and billions of dollars then went into developing systems capable of handling it.” The NSA will pass much of the information it gathers to the GCHQ for transcription and analysis. Subsequently, the NSA will deploy new and even more sophisticated surveillance systems, code-named “Chalet” and “Vortex.” In doing so, it constructs numerous listening stations on friendly foreign soil, including the Menwith Hill facility that will later become a linchpin of the satellite surveillance program known as Echelon (see February 27, 2000). The new programs will revitalize the lapsed sigint alliance between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (see July 11, 2001). [Federation of American Scientists, 7/17/1997]
President Nixon meets with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director Richard Helms, and the heads of the NSA and DIA to discuss a proposed new domestic intelligence system. His presentation is prepared by young White House aide Tom Charles Huston (derisively called “Secret Agent X-5” behind his back by some White House officials). The plan is based on the assumption that, as Nixon says, “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans—mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.” Nixon complains that the various US intelligence agencies spend as much time battling with one another over turf and influence as they do working to locate threats to national security both inside and outside of the country. The agencies need to prove the assumed connections between the antiwar demonstrators and Communists. The group in Nixon’s office will now be called the “Interagency Committee on Intelligence,” Nixon orders, with Hoover chairing the new ad hoc group, and demands an immediate “threat assessment” about domestic enemies to his administration. Huston will be the White House liaison. Historian Richard Reeves will later write: “The elevation of Huston, a fourth-level White House aide, into the company of Hoover and Helms was a calculated insult. Nixon was convinced that both the FBI and the CIA had failed to find the links he was sure bound domestic troubles and foreign communism. But bringing them to the White House was also part of a larger Nixon plan. He was determined to exert presidential control over the parts of the government he cared most about—the agencies dealing with foreign policy, military matters, intelligence, law, criminal justice, and general order.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 229-230]
President Nixon approves the “Huston Plan” for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Four days later he rescinds his approval. [Washington Post, 2008] Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston comes up with the plan, which involves authorizing the CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence agencies to escalate their electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats” in the face of supposed threats from Communist-led youth agitators and antiwar groups (see June 5, 1970). The plan would also authorize the surreptitious reading of private mail, lift restrictions against surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information, plant informants on college campuses, and create a new, White House-based “Interagency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security.” Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.” Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element—that he personally authorize any break-ins. Nixon orders that all information and operations to be undertaken under the new plan be channeled through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, with Nixon deliberately being left out of the loop. The first operations to be undertaken are using the Internal Revenue Service to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “[m]aking sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore,” since the administration has no “reliable political friends at IRS.” He adds, “We won’t be in control of the government and in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots of the IRS.” Huston suggests breaking into the Brookings Institute to find “the classified material which they have stashed over there,” adding: “There are a number of ways we could handle this. There are risks in all of them, of course; but there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful as each day goes by.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 235-236] In 2007, author James Reston Jr. will call the Huston plan “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 102]
Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, National Security Agency, Richard M. Nixon, Brookings Institution, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ford Foundation, Internal Revenue Service, Tom Charles Huston, James Reston, Jr
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate
Bella Abzug. [Source: Spartacus Educational]Staffers from the Church Committee (see April, 1976), slated with investigating illegal surveillance operations conducted by the US intelligence community, approach the NSA for information about Operation Shamrock (see 1945-1975). The NSA ostensibly closes Shamrock down the very same day the committee staffers ask about the program. Though the Church Committee focuses on a relatively narrow review of international cables, the Pike Committee in the House (see January 29, 1976) is much more far-ranging. The Pike Committee tries and fails to subpoena AT&T, which along with Western Union collaborated with the government in allowing the NSA to monitor international communications to and from the US. The government protects AT&T by declaring it “an agent of the United States acting under contract with the Executive Branch.” A corollary House subcommittee investigation led by Bella Abzug (D-NY)—who believes that Operation Shamrock continues under a different name—leads to further pressure on Congress to pass a legislative remedy. The Ford administration’s counterattack is given considerable assistance by a young lawyer at the Justice Department named Antonin Scalia. The head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Scalia’s arguments in favor of continued warrantless surveillance and the unrestricted rights and powers of the executive branch—opposed by, among others, Scalia’s boss, Attorney General Edward Levi—do not win out this time; Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, ultimately signs into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). But Scalia’s incisive arguments win the attention of powerful Ford officials, particularly Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s assistant, Dick Cheney. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 36-37] Scalia will become a Supreme Court Justice in 1986 (see September 26, 1986).
Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Church Committee, Bella Abzug, Antonin Scalia, AT&T, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford administration, National Security Agency, Western Union, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Edward Levi, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Pike Committee, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The NSA maintains a watch list of high-tech companies based in Germany and Switzerland that are suspected of helping Pakistan with its nuclear weapons program. The companies’ telexes and faxes are “routinely intercepted and translated for signs of nuclear trafficking with Pakistan.” [New Yorker, 3/29/1993]
President Ford issues Executive Order 11905, which limits the power of the CIA, the NSA, and military intelligence to engage in surveillance of US citizens. Perhaps its most well-known provision is a total ban on “political assassinations” by US government personnel. [Gerald R. Ford, 2/18/1976; Roberts, 2008, pp. 38] The provision is sparked by the Church Commission’s finding (see April, 1976) that assassination is “unacceptable in our society,” and a political embarassment, especially botched attempts such as the CIA’s efforts to kill Cuba’s Fidel Castro. [Grant J. Lilly, 4/6/2006]
The US Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board recommended in 1970 that “economic intelligence be considered a function of national security” equal to that of other intelligence. In 1977, the NSA, CIA, and Department of Commerce forms a joint “Office of Intelligence Liaison” (later renamed the “Office of Executive Support”) specifically authorized to handle “foreign intelligence” of interest to the Commerce Department, much of it provided by the NSA. The other countries using Echelon, the NSA’s satellite surveillance program, which include Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all operate similar programs. President Bill Clinton will extend this operation in 1993. In 1993, the European company Panavia will be specifically targeted over aircraft sales to the Middle East. In 1994, US companies will be given NSA and CIA intelligence intercepts that help them win contracts in Indonesia. Other information that will be provided by US intelligence to US and allied corporations include information about the emission standards for Japanese automobiles, 1995 trade negotiations over the US importing of Japanese luxury cars, France’s participation in the GATT trade negotiations of 1993, and the 1997 Asian-Pacific Economic Conference. [Science and Technology Assessments Office, 8/15/2000]
David Blee, head of counterintelligence at the CIA, asks the NSA, FBI, and allied representatives to form a committee to evaluate the potential for a signals intelligence project codenamed VENONA and directed against the Soviet Union over the next two years. Howard W. Kulp and Mildred Hayes, who will go on to head the VENONA unit in later years, represent the NSA on the committee. [Center for Cryptologic History, 1/1/2001 ]
Michael Barnes. [Source: Covington and Burling]Representative Michael Barnes (D-MD) is targeted by the NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance program on orders from Reagan administration officials. Barnes, an outspoken opponent of Reagan’s Central American policies, had phone conversations with Nicaraguan officials intercepted and recorded, including one conversation between Barnes and the foreign minister of Nicaragua. Barnes learns of the surveillance after White House officials, apparently attempting to discredit Barnes, leaks transcripts of the taped conversations to reporters. CIA director William Casey shows Barnes a Nicaraguan embassy cable reporting a meeting between embassy staff and one of Barnes’s aides; Casey demands that Barnes fire the aide. Barnes refuses, noting that the aide had visited the embassy on legitimate business concerning international affairs. Barnes will say in 1995, “I was aware that NSA monitored international calls, that it was a standard part of intelligence gathering. But to use it for domestic political purposes is absolutely outrageous and probably illegal.” Former senator Dennis DeConcini (R-AZ) says he worries about the NSA spying on US citizens: “It has always worried me. What if that is used on American citizens? It is chilling. Are they listening to my private conversations on my telephone?” [Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000]
The PROMIS database application is used for a program called “Follow the Money” to track loans made by Western banks to the Soviet Union and its allies. The top-secret program is run for the National Security Council (NSC) by Norman Bailey, who uses NSA signals intelligence to track the loans. Bailey will later say that the PROMIS application is “the principal software element” used by the NSA and the Treasury Department in their electronic surveillance programs that track financial flows to the Soviet bloc, organized crime, and terrorist groups. According to Bailey, this program marks a significant shift in resources from human spying to electronic surveillance, as a way to track money flows to suspected criminals and American enemies. [Salon, 7/23/2008]
Strom Thurmond. [Source: US Government]Former Lockheed software manager Margaret Newsham, who worked at the Menwith Hill facility of the NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance operation in 1979, says she heard a real-time phone intercept of conversations involving senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC). She was shocked, she recalls, because she thought only foreign communications were being monitored. Newsham, who was fired from Lockheed after she filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging fraud and waste, tells the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Louis Stokes (D-OH), of the overheard conversations. In July, Capital Hill staffers will leak the story to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Thurmond says he doesn’t believe Newsham’s story, but his office admits that it has previously received reports that Thurmond had been a target of NSA surveillance. Thurmond will decline to press for an investigation, and the reason for the surveillance has never been revealed. [CBS News, 2/27/2000; Patrick S. Poole, 8/15/2000]
Erwin Griswold. [Source: US Department of Justice]Former Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, who represented the United States before the Supreme Court in the landmark Pentagon Papers case in 1971 (see March 1971 and June 30, 1971), now writes that he saw nothing in those documents that threatened national security. In 1971, without ever actually reading the documents, Griswold argued that their publication constituted a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Griswold writes in a Washington Post op-ed that he relied on the judgment of “three high officials, one each from the Defense Department, the State Department and the National Security Agency” to explain to him why the documents posed such a threat. (In 2006, then-White House counsel John Dean will write that Griswold “did not insist on knowing what was actually contained in the Pentagon Papers, and he never found out, even as he insisted on the importance of their continued secrecy.”) In 1971, Griswold told the Court: “I haven’t the slightest doubt myself that the material which has already been published and the publication of the other materials affects American lives and is a thoroughly serious matter. I think to say that it can only be enjoined if there will be a war tomorrow morning, when there is a war now going on, is much too narrow.” Griswold now writes: “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication [of the documents]. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.… It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.” [Washington Post, 2/15/1989; FindLaw, 6/16/2006; Siegel, 2008, pp. 200]
As part of its ongoing battle against drug trafficking, the US routinely monitors the phone records of thousands of US citizens and others inside the country who make phone calls to Latin America. The NSA works with the Drug Enforcement Agency in collecting phone records that show patterns of calls between the US, Latin America, and other drug-producing regions. The program is significantly expanded after George W. Bush takes office in 2001. Government officials will say in 2007 that the phone conversations themselves are not monitored, but the NSA and DEA use phone numbers and e-mail addresses to analyze possible links between US citizens and foreign nationals. The program is approved by Justice Department officials in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, and does not require court approval to demand communications records. In 2004, one US telecommunications firm, who is not identified, will refuse to turn over its phone records to the government (see 2004). [New York Times, 12/16/2007] The Bush administration will repeatedly claim that the government did not begin monitoring US citizens until after the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, this NSA/DEA program proves otherwise.
The National Imagery Office, which coordinates all US satellite activity, begins satellite surveillance of bin Laden’s bases and training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan. Also, bin Laden’s voice print, a computerized record of his voice is made from tapes of his speeches that were distributed in Saudi Arabia around the time of the Gulf War. The NSA is able to use the voice print to scan satellite and cell phone calls for a match. As a result, “on numerous occasions the NSA and CIA” are able to monitor bin Laden’s calls even if he is not using his usual satellite phone. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 206]
Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. [Source: FBI]Despite being on a US terrorist watch list for three years, radical Muslim leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman enters the US on a “much-disputed” tourist visa issued by an undercover CIA agent. [Village Voice, 3/30/1993; Atlantic Monthly, 5/1996; Lance, 2003, pp. 42] Abdul-Rahman was heavily involved with the CIA and Pakistani ISI efforts to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, and became famous traveling all over the world for five years recruiting new fighters for the Afghan war. The CIA gave him visas to come to the US starting in 1986 (see December 15, 1986-1989) . However, he never hid his prime goals to overthrow the governments of the US and Egypt. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/1996] FBI agent Tommy Corrigan will later say that prior to Abdul-Rahman’s arrival, “terrorism for all intents and purposes didn’t exist in the United States. But [his] arrival in 1990 really stoke the flames of terrorism in this country. This was a major-league ballplayer in what at the time was a minor-league ballpark. He was… looked up to worldwide. A mentor to bin Laden, he was involved with the MAK over in Pakistan.” The charity front Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) is also known as Al-Kifah, and it has a branch in Brooklyn known as the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. The head of that branch, Mustafa Shalabi, picks up Abdul-Rahman at the airport when he first arrives and finds an apartment for him. Abdul-Rahman soon begins preaching at Al Farouq mosque, which is in the same building as the Al-Kifah office, plus two other locals mosques, Abu Bakr and Al Salaam. [Lance, 2006, pp. 53] He quickly turns Al-Kifah into his “de facto headquarters.” [Atlantic Monthly, 5/1996] He is “infamous throughout the Arab world for his alleged role in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.” Abdul-Rahman immediately begins setting up a militant Islamic network in the US. [Village Voice, 3/30/1993] He is believed to have befriended bin Laden while in Afghanistan, and bin Laden secretly pays Abdul-Rahman’s US living expenses. [Atlantic Monthly, 5/1996; ABC News, 8/16/2002] For the next two years, Abdul-Rahman will continue to exit and reenter the US without being stopped or deported, even though he is still on the watch list (see Late October 1990-October 1992).
Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Osama bin Laden, Meir Kahane, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Kifah Refugee Center, US Department of State, Abu Bakr Mosque, Al Farouq Mosque, Al Salaam Mosque, Anwar Sadat, World Trade Center
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
Bin Laden’s house in Khartoum, Sudan. [Source: PBS]It has not been revealed when US intelligence begins monitoring bin Laden exactly, though the CIA was tailing him in Sudan by the end of 1991 (see February 1991- July 1992). But in late 1995 the FBI is given forty thick files on bin Laden from the CIA and NSA, mostly communications intercepts (see October 1995). The sheer amount of material suggests the surveillance had been going on for several years. Dan Coleman, an FBI agent working with the CIA’s bin Laden unit, will begin examining these files and finds that many of them are transcripts from wiretapped phones tied to bin Laden’s businesses in Khartoum, Sudan, where bin Laden lives from 1991 to 1996. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 148-149; Wright, 2006, pp. 242-244] CIA Director George Tenet will later comment, “The then-obscure name ‘Osama bin Laden’ kept cropping up in the intelligence traffic.… [The CIA] spotted bin Laden’s tracts in the early 1990s in connection with funding other terrorist movements. They didn’t know exactly what this Saudi exile living in Sudan was up to, but they knew it was not good.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 100] The London Times will later report that in Sudan, “bin Laden used an $80,000 satellite phone and al-Qaeda members used radios to avoid being bugged…” [London Times, 10/7/2001] Bin Laden is mistaken in his belief that satellite phones cannot be monitored; a satellite phone he buys in 1996 will be monitored as well (see November 1996-Late August 1998).
At the outset of the war in Bosnia, a small three- or four-man team from the CIA and National Security Agency determine from satellite images that the Serb’s artillery guns are in vulnerable positions and can be easily “eliminated in one single day of air strikes-right at the start of the siege.” When a diplomat who is working with the team sends word of this to Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Tom Niles, the intelligence is ignored by US officials who do not want to US to get militarily involved. Two months later, officials from the Pentagon and CIA will incorrectly tell the Senate foreign relations committee that striking Serbian artillery positions would be impossible because of the dense forests and mountainous terrain. The diplomat will later take his story to the Guardian, suggesting that claims the Bosnian War was unexpected by US intelligence were without merit and that the Senate Committee was deliberately misled. [Guardian, 5/20/1995]
A National Security Agency (NSA) linguist runs afoul of his superiors after he and other linguists submit a report concluding that Islamist terrorists are planning attacks on America. The analyst, who insists on remaining anonymous and is nicknamed “J” by press reports, is fluent in an unusual number of languages. His and his colleagues’ study of Arabic language messages, and the flow of money to terrorist organizations from Saudi Arabia, lead them to believe that Saudi extremists are plotting an attack. J will recall in January 2006: “You could see, this was the pure rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and his group, the exact same group, and we had an early indication.… All of us in the group had this view of a burgeoning threat, and suddenly we were all trotted off to the office of security. Then came the call to report for a battery of psychological tests.” J will issue further warnings of potential terrorist strikes, this time involving hijackers, passenger planes, and US buildings, in May 2001 (see May 2001). In 2006, other current and former NSA officials will claim that the NSA routinely uses unfavorable psychological evaluations to retaliate against whistleblowers and those employees who come into conflict with superiors (see January 25-26, 2006). [Cybercast News Service, 1/25/2006]
Dollis Hill, the London street where Khalid al-Fawwaz runs bin Laden’s de facto press office. [Source: Telegraph]Khalid al-Fawwaz moves to London and becomes bin Laden’s de facto press secretary there. Al-Fawwaz, a Saudi, had fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan and lived with him in Sudan. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 180, 192] He headed the al-Qaeda cell in Kenya for about a year until early 1994 when he was arrested there. He went to London shortly after bribing his way out of Kenyan custody. [Daily Telegraph, 9/19/2001; Financial Times, 11/29/2001] He opens a London office of the Advice and Reformation Committee (ARC), a bin Laden front. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 180, 192] Authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory will later call this bin Laden’s “European headquarters.” [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 110] Al-Fawwaz also allegedly opens an account at Barclays Bank. US officials believe he uses the account to channel funds to al-Qaeda operatives around the world. He will be heavily monitored by Western intelligence agencies for most of this time. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 180, 192] For instance, the NSA will record bin Laden phoning him over 200 times from 1996 to 1998 (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Bin Laden also frequently calls al-Fawwaz’s work phone, and Ibrahim Eidarous and Adel Abdel Bary, who work with al-Fawwaz at the London ARC office. [Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002] He works directly with some al-Qaeda cells during this time. For instance, a letter found on Wadih El-Hage’s computer in a late 1997 raid (see August 21, 1997) will repeatedly mention al-Fawwaz by his real first name. One part of the letter says that al-Fawwaz “asked me also to write periodically about the entire situation of the [al-Qaeda Nairobi] cell and the whole group here in east Africa.” [Reeve, 1999, pp. 180, 192] Al-Fawwaz publishes a total of 17 fatwas issued by bin Laden between 1996 and 1998 and also arranges media interviews with him (see August 1996 and February 22, 1998). [Daily Telegraph, 9/19/2001; O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 111] But al-Fawwaz, along with Eidarous and Abdel Bary, will not be arrested until shortly after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998 and September 23, 1998-July 12, 1999). Many years after their arrests, the three of them will remain in a British prison without being tried while fighting extradition to the US (see December 12, 2001 and After). [Daily Telegraph, 9/19/2001; Financial Times, 11/29/2001]
Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz. [Source: Public domain]By 1994, if not earlier, the NSA is collecting electronic intercepts of conversations between Saudi Arabian royal family members. Journalist Seymour Hersh will later write, “according to an official with knowledge of their contents, the intercepts show that the Saudi government, working through Prince Salman [bin Abdul Aziz], contributed millions to charities that, in turn, relayed the money to fundamentalists. ‘We knew that Salman was supporting all of the causes,’ the official told me.” By July 1996 or soon after, US intelligence “had more than enough raw intelligence to conclude… bin Laden [was] receiving money from prominent Saudis.” [Hersh, 2004, pp. 324, 329-330] One such alleged charity front linked to Salman is the Saudi High Commission in Bosnia (see 1996 and After). Prince Salman has long been the governor of Riyadh province. At the time, he is considered to be about fourth in line to be king of Saudi Arabia. His son Prince Ahmed bin Salman will later be accused of having connections with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see Early April 2002). [PBS, 10/4/2004] It appears this surveillance of Saudi royals will come to an end in early 2001 (see (February-March 2001)).
The National Security Agency (NSA) monitors telephone traffic passing through the Umm Haraz satellite ground station, which handles international traffic coming to and from Intelsat or Arabsat satellites. It identifies and monitors phones used by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, providing some intelligence about their organization and their activities. [Intelligence and National Security, 2003, pp. 82-83 ]
Andrew Warren, who will later be accused of date rape while serving as CIA station chief in Algeria (see September 2007 and February 17, 2008), works for the NSA, according to a website he launches after publishing a book in 2002. [peopleoftheveil(.com), 3/2002] However, it is unclear if this claim is correct. Upon the publication of the book, Warren will also claim to have worked for the State Department in the late 1990s. [peopleoftheveil(.com), 3/2002; New York Beacon, 4/10/2002; Virginian-Pilot, 9/20/2002] That claim appears to be untrue. After the date rape allegations surface, media outlets will report he worked for the CIA before 9/11, but not mention any service at the State Department. [ABC News, 1/28/2009; Los Angeles Times, 1/29/2009] Therefore, it appears that the story of his employment by the State Department may simply have been cover for his work for the CIA.
Melissa Boyle Mahle. [Source: Publicity photo]According to a later account by CIA agent Melissa Boyle Mahle, “a tidbit received late in the year revealed the location” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) in Qatar (see 1992-1996). [Mahle, 2005, pp. 247-248] This presumably is information the FBI learned in Sudan that KSM was traveling to Qatar (see Shortly Before October 1995). However, US intelligence should also have been aware that KSM’s nephew Ramzi Yousef attempted to call him in Qatar in February 1995 while Yousef was in US custody (see After February 7, 1995-January 1996). Mahle is assigned to verify KSM’s identity. She claims that at the time the CIA is aware of KSM’s involvement in the Bojinka plot in the Philippines (see January 6, 1995) and in the 1993 WTC bombing (see February 26, 1993) She is able to match his fingerprints with a set of fingerprints the CIA already has in their files. [Guardian, 3/31/2005] By October 1995, the FBI tracks KSM to a certain apartment building in Qatar.
Then, using high-technology surveillance, his presence in the building is confirmed. [Miniter, 2003, pp. 85-86] Mahle argues that KSM should be rendered out of the country in secret. The US began rendering terrorist suspects in 1993 (see 1993), and a prominent Egyptian extremist is rendered by the CIA in September 1995 (see September 13, 1995). She argues her case to CIA headquarters and to the highest reaches of the NSA, but is overruled. [Guardian, 3/31/2005] Instead, the decision is made to wait until KSM can be indicted in a US court and ask Qatar to extradite him to the US. Despite the surveillance on KSM, he apparently is able to leave Qatar and travel to Brazil with bin Laden and then back to Qatar at the end of 1995 (see December 1995). KSM will be indicted in early 1996, but he will escape from Qatar a few months later (see January-May 1996).
The Saudi Arabian government, which allegedly initiated payments to al-Qaeda in 1991 (see Summer 1991), increases its payments in 1996, becoming al-Qaeda’s largest financial backer. It also gives money to other extremist groups throughout Asia, vastly increasing al-Qaeda’s capabilities. [New Yorker, 10/16/2001] Presumably, two meetings in early summer bring about the change. Says one US official, “96 is the key year.… Bin Laden hooked up to all the bad guys—it’s like the Grand Alliance—and had a capability for conducting large-scale operations.” The Saudi regime, he says, had “gone to the dark side.” Electronic intercepts by the NSA “depict a regime increasingly corrupt, alienated from the country’s religious rank and file, and so weakened and frightened that it has brokered its future by channeling hundreds of millions of dollars in what amounts to protection money to fundamentalist groups that wish to overthrow it.” US officials later privately complain “that the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, is refusing to confront this reality, even in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks.” [New Yorker, 10/16/2001] Martin Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, will later write, “The Saudis had protected themselves by co-opting and accommodating the Islamist extremists in their midst, a move they felt was necessary in the uncertain aftermath of the Gulf War. Since Saddam Hussein remained in power, weakened but still capable of lashing out and intent on revenge, the Saudis could not afford to send their American protector packing. Instead, they found a way to provide the United States with the access it needed to protect Saudi Arabia while keeping the American profile as low as possible.… [O]nce Crown Prince Abdullah assumed the regency in 1996 (see Late 1995), the ruling family set about the determined business of buying off its opposition.” Saudi charities are “subverted” to help transfer money to militant causes. “[T]he Clinton administration indulged Riyadh’s penchant for buying off trouble as long as the regime also paid its huge arms bills, purchased Boeing aircraft, kept the price of oil within reasonable bounds, and allowed the United States to use Saudi air bases to enforce the southern no-fly zone over Iraq and launch occasional military strikes to contain Saddam Hussein.” [Foreign Affairs, 1/1/2002]
I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of bin Laden’s satellite phone with other agencies (see December 1996). The squad develops a plan to build their own antennas near Afghanistan to capture the satellite signal themselves. As a result, the NSA gives up transcripts from 114 phone calls to prevent the antennas from being built, but refuses to give up any more. Presumably, this must have happened at some point before bin Laden stopped regularly using his satellite phone around August 1998 (see December 1996). [Wright, 2006, pp. 344] Also presumably, some of these transcripts will then be used in the embassy bombings trial that takes place in early 2001 (see February-July 2001), because details from bin Laden’s satellite calls were frequently used as evidence and some prosecutors in that trial were members of I-49. [CNN, 4/16/2001]
I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing with them data it has obtained through the monitoring of al-Qaeda. To get around this, the squad builds a satellite telephone booth in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for international calls. The FBI squad not only monitors the calls, but also videotapes the callers with a camera hidden in the booth. [Wright, 2006, pp. 344] It has not been revealed when this booth was built or what information was gained from it. However, the New York Times will later paraphrase an Australian official, who says that in early September 2001, “Just about everyone in Kandahar and the al-Qaeda camps knew that something big was coming, he said. ‘There was a buzz.’” Furthermore, also in early September 2001, the CIA monitors many phone calls in Kandahar and nearby areas where al-Qaeda operatives allude to the upcoming 9/11 attack (see Early September 2001).
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]
During Michael Scheuer’s time as head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit Alec Station from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996 and June 1999), the unit has conflicts with other parts of the US intelligence community. Scheuer has an angry and dogmatic style that sometimes alienates people.
Conflict with Counterterrorism 'Tsar' Clarke - Scheuer and Richard Clarke, the US counterterrorism “tsar,” do not get along, even though both are among the first people in government to take the Osama bin Laden threat seriously. Clarke can also be abrasive. One former CIA insider will later say, “I can say that, among individuals that I tend to trust, Clarke was regarded as more serious about terrorism in the 1990s than just about anybody else in the US government, but he was a truly painful individual to work with.” Clarke will later similarly criticize Scheuer, saying: “Throwing tantrums and everything doesn’t help.… [You shouldn’t be] so dysfunctional within your agency that you’re making it harder to get something done.” And Scheuer will later criticize Clarke, saying: “[He] was an interferer of the first level, in terms of talking about things that he knew nothing about and killing them.… He was always playing the FBI off against us or us against the NSA.”
Conflict with the FBI - The bin Laden unit does not get along with some FBI agents assigned to it as well. From the very start, some FBI officials, including bin Laden expert John O’Neill, resist cooperating with the unit. CIA official John MacGaffin will later claim, “O’Neill just fought it and fought it [cooperating with Alec Station].” O’Neill and Scheuer “were at each other’s throats.” On one occasion an FBI agent at the bin Laden unit is caught hiding CIA files inside his shirt to take them back to O’Neill. Scheuer will also claim that the FBI rarely follows up leads the bin Laden unit sends it. Furthermore, the FBI never shares information. “I bet we sent 700 or 800 requests for information to the FBI, and we never got an answer to any of them,” Scheuer says.
Conflicts with CIA Higher-Ups - The bin Laden unit also has conflicts with others within the CIA, including powerful superiors. An incident in 1996 leads to a breakdown of trust between Scheuer and his superiors (see 1996). John MacGaffin, who is a top CIA official for clandestine operations at the time, will later say of Scheuer, “He’s a good guy, [but] he’s an angry guy.”
Situation Improves after Scheuer - In June 1999, Richard Blee replaces Scheuer as head of the bin Laden unit, and he will stay involved in the bin Laden issue until after 9/11 (see December 9, 2001). Vanity Fair will later comment that Blee “was just as heated up over bin Laden as Scheuer had been, but obviously less likely to cause the kind of friction that would discomfit the [CIA director].” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]
Rolf Ekeus. [Source: United Nations]US intelligence services use United Nations arms controls teams to spy on the Iraqi military, without the knowledge of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) that oversees the teams. US intelligence infiltrates agents and espionage equipment into the UN inspection teams. Clinton administration officials have previously admitted inserting eavesdropping equipment into Iraq with the inspectors, but said that they did so in cooperation with UNSCOM to penetrate Iraqi concealment of its illegal weapons. However, US intelligence agents rig UNSCOM equipment and office space, without UNSCOM permission or knowledge, to intercept Iraqi military communications. Most of these communications have nothing to do with UNSCOM’s special weapons mandate. US government officials admit that they considered the risk that discovery of their infiltrations would discredit the UNSCOM teams, but they dismissed the risk as being quite low, and the intelligence gathered on the Iraqi military as critically needed.
US Installs Surveillance Equipment During Upgrade - The surveillance begins in March 1996, when UNSCOM upgrades a widespread video surveillance system to transmit signals from the camera to the inspectors’ offices in Baghdad, and terminates no later than December 1998, when the Iraqis ask all UNSCOM inspectors to leave the country. While the new system gives UNSCOM inspectors views of distant facilities in “near real time,” unknown to UNSCOM officials, the US signals and sensor technicians who install and maintain the system have covert transmission systems built into the UNSCOM transmitters that capture the Iraqi communications. The designer of the new system is a military intelligence operative and engineer; two of the technicians who install the system are CIA agents.
UNSCOM Says Surveillance Destroyed Its Ability to Function inside Iraq - UNSCOM officials now claim that the covert surveillance undertaken by the US has helped to destroy the agency’s ability to function inside Iraq, and have given credibility to Iraqi claims—previously dismissed—that the US was using UNSCOM to spy on their military facilities. (UNSCOM is aware of another, simultaneous surveillance operation called “Shake the Tree,” that used commercial scanners to intercept Iraqi radio transmissions; US officials now say that they chose to pursue the surreptitious eavesdropping because they wanted to preserve their “independence of access” to Iraqi military communications, according to a US official. “We did not want to rely on a multinational body that might or might not continue to operate as it was operating.” The US government decides not to inform either Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who is UNSCOM’s executive chairman, or his Australian successor, Richard Butler, about the second eavesdropping operation. However, the CIA does inform the American deputy to both men, Charles Duelfer, to ensure that UNSCOM staff members do not interfere with the operation.
'Played for Suckers' - Ekeus will later say that while he has difficulty believing the US could have built covert antennas into the video relay system without the Iraqis’ knowledge, if the US did so, “We have always stood against that.” Though Butler refuses to comment publicly on the issue, a source reports that privately he is angered by the operation. “If all this stuff turns out to be true, then Rolf Ekeus and I have been played for suckers, haven’t we?” he is reported as saying. “I’ve spent a lifetime of helping build and defend the nonproliferation regimes. Piggybacking in this manner [by US intelligence] can only serve the interests of those who reject meaningful efforts at arms control.” In May 1997, British officials in the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) ask their counterparts, the American National Security Agency (NSA), if such an operation exists, and the NSA does not respond. A US official will explain: “We don’t tell the British everything, even if they are our closest intelligence ally. They don’t tell us everything they’re doing either.” [Washington Post, 3/2/1999]
According to counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, US intelligence monitoring al-Qaeda communications learn that al-Qaeda is canceling an attack on Western targets in Singapore. On April 18, 1996, 108 Lebanese civilians seeking refuge at a UN camp in Qana, Lebanon, are killed by mortars fired by Israeli forces. Bin Laden “was keen not to dissipate what he envisaged as widespread revulsion against Israel’s action and hence called off the strike in Southeast Asia. Al-Qaeda’s team in question was very determined to go ahead, having spent years preparing the attack, and according to the intercepts it proved difficult for Osama to convince it otherwise.” Gunaratna claims the US learned this through the NSA’s Echelon satellite network (see Before September 11, 2001) “and other technical monitoring of their communications traffic.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 133-134] If true, this case supports other evidence that the US was successfully monitoring bin Laden’s communications from an early date (see Early 1990s) and that al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia operations were penetrated years before an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia discussing the 9/11 plot (see January 5-8, 2000).
The NSA discovers a communications hub al-Qaeda uses to coordinate its global operations. The hub was set up in May 1996 by Ahmed al-Hada, a close associate of Osama bin Laden (see May 1996), and is discovered at some time in the next six months. [Bamford, 2008, pp. 16] According to a PBS documentary, the NSA discovers the hub by monitoring bin Laden’s calls from his satellite phone in Afghanistan (see November 1996-Late August 1998): “Once he starts dialing from Afghanistan, NSA’s listening posts quickly tap into his conversations.… By tracking all calls in and out of Afghanistan, the NSA quickly determines bin Laden’s number: 873-682505331.” According to CIA manager Michael Scheuer, bin Laden’s satellite phone is a “godsend,” because “[i]t gave us an idea, not only of where he was in Afghanistan, but where al-Qaeda, as an organization, was established, because there were calls to various places in the world.” As bin Laden’s phone calls are not encrypted, there is no code for the NSA to break. Instead, NSA voice interceptors and linguists translate, transcribe, and write summaries of the calls. In addition, human analysts plot out which numbers are being called from bin Laden’s phone and how frequently. [PBS, 2/3/2009]
A passenger ferry capsizes on Lake Victoria in East Africa and one of the more than 800 who drown is Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military commander (his job will be taken over by Mohammed Atef). Al-Qaeda operatives Wadih El-Hage and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul) show up at the disaster scene to find out if al-Banshiri is still alive. There are many journalists covering the disaster and a Western investigator recognizes Fazul and El-Hage when they happen to appear in some of the widely broadcast footage. [Washington Post, 11/23/1998] El-Hage sends a computer file about the drowning to double agent Ali Mohamed in California. Mohamed’s computer hard drive will be copied by US intelligence in 1997 (see October 1997-September 10, 1998). The CIA already has much of El-Hage’s biography on file by this time. It appears this event, along with the defection of Jamal al-Fadl (see June 1996-April 1997), only strengthen knowledge of the Kenya cell gained earlier in the year (see April 1996). By August 1996, if not earlier, the phones of El-Hage and Fazul in Nairobi are bugged and closely monitored by the CIA and NSA. Apparently, not much is learned from these phone calls because the callers speak in code, but the CIA does learn about other al-Qaeda operatives from the numbers and locations that are being called. This information is shared with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and the JTTF becomes “convinced that flipping El-Hage [is] the best way to get to bin Laden.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 200]
In 1999, a retired CIA official will claim that two days after the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (see June 25, 1996), bin Laden is congratulated by colleagues about the bombing. Both Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda’s number two leader, and Ashra Hadi, head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are monitored by the NSA as they call bin Laden. This helps confirm that bin Laden was being monitored while using his first satellite phone (see Early 1990s). It will be widely reported that he was monitored after he started using his second satellite phone later in 1996 (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Bin Laden does not exactly publicly take credit for the bombing, but later in the year he will say, “When I got the news about these blasts, I was very happy. This was a noble act. This was a great honor but, unfortunately, I did not conduct these explosions personally.” [Reeve, 1999, pp. 187; New Yorker, 9/9/2002]
US intelligence begins monitoring telephones connected to the Kenyan branch of the charity Mercy International. By mid-1996, US intelligence began wiretapping telephones belonging to Wadih El-Hage, an al-Qaeda operative living in Nairobi, Kenya, and the NSA is also monitoring bin Laden’s satellite phone. By the end of 1996, the number of monitored phones in Kenya increases to five, and two of those are to Mercy International’s offices. What led investigators to this charity is unknown, and details of the calls have never been revealed. [New York Times, 1/13/2001] The Mercy International office will be raided shortly after the 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and incriminating files belonging to El-Hage will be found there (see October 1997). It will be discovered that the office worked closely with al-Qaeda. For instance, it issued identity cards for al-Qaeda leaders Ali Mohamed, Mohammed Atef, and even bin Laden himself. [Bergen, 2001, pp. 140; Financial Times, 11/28/2001] An al-Qaeda defector, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, will testify in a 2001 trial that al-Qaeda was heavily interacting with Mercy International’s Kenya branch, and a number of employees there, including the manager and accountant, were actually al-Qaeda operatives. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 8, 2/21/2001] A receipt dated just two weeks before the embassy bombings made a reference to “getting the weapons from Somalia.” [New York Times, 1/22/2000] Most crucially, there were a number of calls between Mercy director Ahmad Sheik Adam and bin Laden. [East African, 2/16/2000] And Adam’s mobile phone was used 12 times by El-Hage to speak to bin Laden or his associates. Presumably, such calls would have drawn obvious attention to the Kenya al-Qaeda cell and their embassy attack plans, yet none of the cell members were arrested until after the attack. The Kenya branch of Mercy International will be shut down by the end of 1998, but in 2001 it will be reported that Adam continues to live in Kenya and has not been arrested. [Agence France-Presse, 12/17/1998; BBC, 1/3/2001]
Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, discovers that al-Qaeda has established a communications hub and operations center in Sana’a, Yemen, and that there are frequent calls between it and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see May 1996 and November 1996-Late August 1998). [Antiwar, 10/22/2008; PBS, 2/3/2009] According to Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer, the CIA learns of this “communications conduit” through a CIA officer detailed to the NSA and stationed overseas. According to Scheuer, the NSA “refuse[s] to exploit the conduit and threaten[s] legal action against the agency officer who advised of its existence.” Despite the threat, the officer continues to supply the information. Scheuer asks senior CIA officials to intervene with the NSA, but this only leads to “a desultory interagency discussion without resolution.” [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] Author James Bamford will say: “Scheuer knew how important the house [the operations center in Yemen] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA,… Barbara McNamara, and asked for transcripts of the conversations coming into and going out of the house. And the best the NSA would do would be to give them brief summaries every… once a week or something like that, you know, just a report, not the actual transcripts or anything. And so he got very frustrated, he went back there and they still refused.” [Antiwar, 10/22/2008] Because of the lack of information, the CIA will actually build its own listening post to get some of the information the NSA is concealing from it (see After December 1996).
A lieutenant general meets with Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio and Dean Wandry, who heads Qwest’s government business unit. According to documents filed in 2006 by Nacchio
concerning his trial on insider trading charges (see October 12, 2007), the general “told Mr. Wandry that he ran the largest telecom operation in the world, he had looked at Qwest’s network, and he wanted to use it for government purposes.” The general in question could be NSA Director Kenneth Minihan, who will be replaced in 1999 by another lieutenant general, Michael Hayden, but neither Minihan nor Hayden will comment on the allegation. Many former intelligence officials will say that it is likely Minihan who met with Nacchio and Wandry. Nacchio’s court documents indicate that he and Wandry agree to work with the general. Nacchio is not allowed to announce the contract publicly, but according to the court documents, he “understood at the time this was the beginning of a relationship which had enormous potential for future work. This proves increasingly true as time went on.” By 1999 Qwest is working extensively with the NSA. Minihan is particularly concerned about the potential of “cyberwarfare” by foreign governments, terrorist organizations, drug cartels, and organized crime, a prospect which he felt the NSA is unprepared. He particularly worries about Russia and China; in June 1998, he will testify are training personnel in potential cyber-attacks. “These opportunists, enabled by the explosion of technology and the availability of inexpensive, secure means of communication, pose a significant threat to the interests of the United States and its allies,” Minihan will state. In 2007, a former senior NSA official will say that the agency felt those groups knew US privacy laws all too well and were capable of using those laws against the NSA and other intelligence agencies. He will say, “There was such a nuanced understanding of how to tie us in knots and use American law against us, that there were certainly pockets of people saying, ‘We’ve got to be assertive; we’ve got to be more aggressive on this.’” Hayden, Minihan’s successor, will be particularly willing to push agency operations to the edge of legality. After 9/11, Hayden will say, “We’re pretty aggressive within the law. As a professional, I’m troubled if I’m not using the full authority allowed by law.” [National Journal, 11/2/2007] The NSA will approach Qwest will a similar offer in the months before 9/11 (see February 2001).
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]
Some time after he is appointed CIA Director (see July 11, 1997), but before 9/11, George Tenet negotiates a series of agreements with telecommunications and financial institutions “to get access to certain telephone, Internet, and financial records related to ‘black’ intelligence operations.” The arrangements are made personally by the companies’ CEOs and Tenet, who plays “the patriot card” to get the information. The arrangement involves the CIA’s National Resources Division, which has at least a dozen offices in the US. The Division’s main aim is to recruit people in the US to spy abroad. However, in this case the Division makes arrangements so that other intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, can access the information and records the CEOs agree to provide. [Woodward, 2006, pp. 323-5] There is a history of co-operation between the CIA’s National Resources Division and the NSA. For example, Monte Overacre, a CIA officer assigned to the Division’s San Diego office in the early 1990s, said that he worked with the NSA there, obtaining information about foreign telecommunications programs and passing it on to the Technology Management Office, a joint venture between the two agencies. [Mother Jones, 1/1998] One US official will say that the arrangements only give the CIA access to the companies’ passive databanks. However, reporter Bob Woodward will say that the programme raises “serious civil liberties questions and also demonstrate[d] that the laws had not kept pace with the technology.” [Woodward, 2006, pp. 324-5] There will be an interagency argument about the program after 9/11 (see (2003 and After)).
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who claims to have made many secret trips into Afghanistan and to have fought with the mujaheddin, later describes to Congress a missed opportunity to capture bin Laden. He claims that “a few years” before 9/11, he is contacted by someone he knows and trusts from the 1980s Afghan war, who claims he could pinpoint bin Laden’s location. Rohrabacher passes this information to the CIA, but the informant isn’t contacted. After some weeks, Rohrabacher uses his influence to set up a meeting with agents in the CIA, NSA, and FBI. Yet even then, the informant is not contacted, until weeks later, and then only in a “disinterested” way. Rohrabacher concludes, “that our intelligence services knew about the location of bin Laden several times but were not permitted to attack him… because of decisions made by people higher up.” [US Congress, 9/17/2001]
Bin Laden holds a meeting with other top al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan this month to prepare for a new wave of attacks. CIA analysts are able to learn some about this meeting, apparently largely due to NSA communications intercepts. On US official will say later in 1998, “There were reams of intel documenting bin Laden before” the African embassy bombings later in the year (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Another official will say, “We’ve had the book on this guy for a long time.” But it is not known which attacks may have been discussed at this meeting or how much US intelligence knew about what was said there. [New York Times, 9/6/1998]
Luc Besson. [Source: Publicity photo]Hollywood film studio 20th Century Fox works on producing WW3.com, a movie about cyber-terrorists declaring war on the United States, which will include a 9/11-like scene where a Boeing 767 crashes into New York’s Central Park. [Variety, 1/26/1998; Fox News, 6/3/2002] The storyline of WW3.com is rooted in a 1997 article in Wired magazine, which described the potential for the US becoming engaged in a cataclysmic and nation-crippling “information war.” [Wired, 5/1997; Variety, 8/24/2000; New York Times, 6/27/2007] 20th Century Fox acquires the rights to this article in January 1998, as source material for the movie. Screenwriter David Marconi, who previously wrote the action movie Enemy of the State, works on the script.
Idea behind Movie Is a 'Blueprint for Disaster' - WW3.com will “blend the tensions of a Cold War thriller with a high-concept, special effects-laden storyline involving cyber-terrorists who have declared war on the United States,” according to Variety magazine. [Variety, 1/26/1998] The idea of the movie, according to Marconi, is “about basically turning the US into Kuwait. It was a blueprint for disaster.” The climax of the story features a Boeing 767 crashing into a Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park, just a few miles from the World Trade Center. [Fox News, 6/3/2002] The two planes that crash into the WTC on September 11 are also Boeing 767s. [Fox News, 9/11/2003] Marconi will later comment that the screenplay for WW3.com “was incredibly prescient about the events of September 11.”
NSA Employees Suggest 9/11-Like Scenarios - Experts from the National Security Agency (NSA) assist Marconi while he is working on the screenplay. These experts, Marconi will recall, are “more than helpful in laying out situations not dissimilar from what happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” on September 11, although he will provide no details of these situations. Marconi will add: “One of my experts [at the NSA] told Boeing they had trouble with their avionics. He came up with scenarios. One was that a guy disguises himself as someone who works in food service in order to get on the plane. It’s much more low-tech than you think.” On the day of the 9/11 attacks, one of the people at the NSA who has been assisting Marconi calls the screenwriter and says to him, “Turn on the TV, it’s happening.” [Fox News, 6/3/2002]
Movie 'in Limbo' by 2002 - In August 2000, Variety reports that the well-known French film writer, director, and producer Luc Besson will produce WW3.com, although at this time the movie is still without a director. [Variety, 8/24/2000] But in June 2002, Fox News will report that the movie has been “lost in limbo.” [Fox News, 6/3/2002] The script will eventually be rewritten and made into the fourth Die Hard movie, Live Free or Die Hard, which is released in 2007. [Variety, 7/6/2004; New York Times, 6/27/2007] WW3.com is one of a number of movies and television dramas featuring storylines about terrorism that are canceled or rewritten after the 9/11 attacks (see February 1999-September 11, 2001; June-September 11, 2001; Before Before September 11, 2001; September 13, 2001; September 27, 2001; November 17, 2001). [Denver Post, 9/17/2001; Village Voice, 12/4/2001; Washington Times, 3/7/2002]
Khalid al-Fawwaz. [Source: CNN]The NSA is monitoring phone calls between bin Laden in Afghanistan and Khalid al-Fawwaz in London, yet no action is taken after al-Fawwaz is given advanced notice of the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Fawwaz, together with Ibrahim Eidarous and Adel Abdel Bary, are operating as bin Laden’s de facto international media office in London, and the NSA has listened in for two years as bin Laden called them over 200 times (see November 1996-Late August 1998). On July 29, 1998, al-Fawwaz is called from Afghanistan and told that more satellite minutes are needed because many calls are expected in the next few days. Al-Fawwaz calls a contact in the US and rush orders 400 more minutes for bin Laden’s phone. A flurry of calls on bin Laden’s phone ensues, though what is said has not been publicly revealed. [Knight Ridder, 9/20/2001] On August 7 at around 4:45 a.m., about three hours before the bombings take place, a fax taking credit for the bombings is sent to a shop near al-Fawwaz’s office. The fingerprints of his associates Eidarous and Abdel Bary are later found on the fax. They fax a copy of this to the media from a post office shortly after the bombings and their fingerprints are found on that fax as well. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/13/1999; Daily Telegraph, 9/19/2001] Canadian intelligence is monitoring an operative named Mahmoud Jaballah who is serving as a communication relay between operatives in Baku and London. He is monitored talking to people both in Baku and London just before the fax is sent from Baku to London (see August 5-7, 1998). The NSA has also been monitoring the operatives in Baku (see November 1996-Late August 1998). It is not clear why the Canadians or the NSA fail to warn about the bombings based on these monitored phone calls. Before 9/11, bin Laden’s phone calls were regularly translated and analyzed in less an hour or so. It has not been explained why this surge of phone calls before the embassy bombings did not result in any new attack warnings. The three men will be arrested shortly after the embassy bombings (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998).
Mohamed al-Owhali. [Source: CNN]Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali briefly stayed at the hub about three months before the bombings and made some calls from there. He then traveled to other locations, including Pakistan, and flew to Kenya on August 2. Beginning August 4, he makes a series of calls to al-Hada at the Yemen hub. The details of these calls have not been revealed, but they continue until about two hours before the embassy bombings take place. Al-Owhali is supposed to be martyred in the attack, but he runs away at the last minute and survives. Beginning on August 8, he repeatedly calls al-Hada, asking for help getting out of Kenya. He eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada is actually about to fly to Kenya to help al-Owhali get out when al-Owhali is arrested on August 12. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI allegedly trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan, to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a (however, it is likely that the NSA at least is already monitoring the hub phone number). Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23, 3/27/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998, pp. 1 ] Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 275-8] The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 48]
Calls are made using Osama bin Laden’s satellite telephone to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which is involved in the embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). According to MSNBC, two of the calls from bin Laden’s phone are made “days before” the bombings. The NSA is intercepting calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone at this time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and his phone is used to make dozens of calls to the Yemen communications hub from 1996 to 1998, but it is unclear what is done with the intercepts, as the NSA is sometimes unwilling to share information with other US intelligence agencies (see Between 1996 and August 1998, December 1996, Between 1996 and September 11, 2001, and Before September 11, 2001). [Los Angeles Times, 10/10/2001; MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002] The communications hub is run by veteran mujaheddin Ahmed al-Hada, an associate of one of the embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali. Al-Owhali stays at the hub in the months before the bombing and obtains a fake passport in Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998 ] The NSA continues to intercept calls to and from the hub after the embassy bombings (see Late August 1998 and August 4-25, 1998).
Al-Qaeda operatives use a communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, to “put everything together” before the bombing of the USS Cole. The communications hub is run by Ahmed al-Hada, who US officials will later describe as “a prominent al-Qaeda member who is believed to have been involved in the Cole bombing.” The hub is monitored by US intelligence from 1998, at least, (see Late August 1998) and information gleaned from it is used to thwart a number of plots (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The US monitors the house through bugs planted inside and through spy satellites to monitor people leaving and entering it. The hub was also used before the 1998 embassy bombings and will be used to communicate with the 9/11 hijackers before 9/11 (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Mirror, 6/9/2002; MSNBC, 5/2005] When the FBI arrives in Yemen to investigate the bombing, it finds that “telephone records show[…] that suspects in the Cole bombing had been in touch with suspects from the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 238] Calls between the hub and an al-Qaeda cell in Ireland that seems to have a connection to the Cole bombing are also intercepted during part of this period (see Late December 1999-October 12, 2000). It is unclear why the information does not allow the NSA to thwart the plot. Despite the scope of the monitoring, NSA Director Michael Hayden will later say there were no intercepts the NSA could have exploited to stop the bombing: “When the Cole disaster took place I had brought to my desk in, in this office, every stitch of NSA reporting on the—that could in any way be related to this. And I went thought it report by report and I sent a letter out to our entire work force, which was essentially, you performed well. Keep up the good work.” [CBS News, 6/19/2002]
Through its own monitoring of Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, the CIA determines that he intends to travel to a training camp in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The CIA has to use its own equipment to do this because of a dispute with the NSA, which refused to provide it with full details of its intercepts of bin Laden’s calls (see December 1996). Although the CIA can only get half of what the NSA gets, shortly after the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), it determines that bin Laden will travel to Khost the next day. On that day, the US launches several missile strikes, one of which is against Khost (see August 20, 1998), but bin Laden does not travel there, evading the missiles. Some will later claim that bin Laden changes his mind on the way there for no particular reason, but there will also be allegations that the Pakistani ISI warned him of the upcoming attack (see July 1999). [Wright, 2006, pp. 283]
Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS NOVA]The investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) led to the discovery of the phone number of an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). The hub is run by an al-Qaeda veteran named Ahmed al-Hada, who is helped by his son Samir and is related to many other al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and elsewhere. He is also the father in law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, whose wife, Hoda al-Hada, lives at the hub with their children. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 277, 309, 343, 378] Several of Ahmed al-Hada’s relatives die fighting for al-Qaeda before 9/11, a fact known to US intelligence. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Guardian, 2/15/2006] The NSA may already be aware of the phone number, as they have been intercepting Osama bin Laden’s communications for some time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and, according to Newsweek, “some” of bin Laden’s 221 calls to Yemen are to this phone number. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; Media Channel, 9/5/2006] The US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to monitor the number. The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] US intelligence also learns that the communications hub is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002] The joint effort enables the FBI to map al-Qaeda’s global organization (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and at least three of the hijackers use the number, enabling the NSA to intercept their communications and find out about an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999 and January 5-8, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until Samir al-Hada dies resisting arrest in early 2002 (see February 13, 2002).
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).
The FBI asks the NSA to pass on all calls between an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen and the US. The hub, which is run by an operative named Ahmed al-Hada and was involved in the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see Late August 1998), is a key al-Qaeda logistics center and intelligence gleaned from listening in on calls to and from it will help prevent some attacks (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Dan Coleman, one of the FBI agents who places the request, will say, “anyone who called the Yemen number is white-hot, a top suspect.” However, the NSA will not inform the FBI of all calls between the hub and the US. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] In particular, two 9/11 hijackers will call the hub while they are in the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, the information will be withheld from the FBI and various explanations will be offered for this failure (see (Spring 2000), Summer 2002-Summer 2004, and March 15, 2004 and After).
Princess Diana at a mine field in Angola in 1997. [Source: Tim Graham / Corbis]The NSA admits that US intelligence agencies possess 1,056 pages of classified information regarding Britain’s Princess Diana. British tabloids portray the documents as rife with salacious information on Diana’s “most intimate love secrets” about her relationship with Egyptian billionaire Dodi al-Fayed, but the actual documentation may not be so lurid. The NSA recently denied a Freedom of Information request from the Internet news service APB Online about information it has collected on Diana, who died in a tragic car accident in 1997. (It is unclear whether US intelligence has any unreleased information about the circumstances of Diana’s death. [APB Online, 11/30/1998; Washington Post, 12/12/1998] The NSA has denied monitoring Diana on the night of her death, an allegation raised by The Observer in 2006.) [MSNBC, 12/11/2006] In the two-page letter denying the request, the NSA admits to possessing a “Diana file,” but refuses to divulge what is in that file. A US intelligence official says the information is made up of conversations between other people who mentioned Diana; the references to Diana in those intercepted conversations are “incidental.” The official says Diana was never a particular target of the NSA’s Echelon surveillance program. However, the NSA has classified 124 pages of the “Diana documents” as top secret “because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” According to a recent report by the European Parliament, the NSA routinely monitors virtually “all e-mail, telephone and fax communications… within Europe” (see July 11, 2001). Intelligence expert Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists says “the US and our allies promiscuously collect electronic communications around the world. Whether the descriptions of Echelon are accurate or not, that much is definitely true.” Some believe that lurid snippets of information leaked to the British press regarding Diana’s affair with Fayed, and her ambivalent relationship with Prince Charles, may have come from Echelon wiretaps and surveillance. Another FAS scientist, John Pike, says the NSA and other US intelligence agencies may have been monitoring Diana to protect her from terrorist attacks. Pike says it is also possible she may have been monitored because of her involvement in banning land mines, a position opposed by the Pentagon. [APB Online, 11/30/1998; Washington Post, 12/12/1998] Former NSA official Wayne Madsen will say in 2000, “[W]hen NSA extends the big drift net out there, it’s possible that they’re picking up more than just her conversations concerning land mines. What they do with that intelligence, who knows?” [CBS News, 2/27/2000] In August 1999, the NSA will deny another Freedom of Information request about its “Diana file” from the British newspaper The Guardian. [Guardian, 8/6/1999]
Dan Coleman [Source: CNN]Beginning in the autumn of 1998, the FBI uses the phone records of an al-Qaeda communications hub run by operative Ahmed al-Hada and his son Samir to build a map of al-Qaeda’s global organization. A map showing all the places in the world that have communicated with the hub is posted on the wall of the interagency counterterrorism I-49 squad in New York. The hub’s telephone number was uncovered during the East African embassy bombings investigation (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late August 1998). [Al Ahram, 2/21/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] According to FBI agent and I-49 squad member Dan Coleman, al-Hada is “uncle of half the violent jihadists we knew in the country.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] Several of his sons and sons-in-law are al-Qaeda operatives and some die fighting and training with radical Islamists; this is known to US intelligence before 9/11. Hijacker Khalid Almihdhar is also a son-in-law of al-Hada. [MSNBC, 2/14/2002; Fox News, 2/14/2002; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005] The number is monitored by the NSA and over the next three years it mines intelligence that helps authorities foil a series of plots, including planned attacks on the US Embassy in Paris and the US Consulate in Istanbul, along with an attempted airline hijacking in Africa. However, the hub also serves as a planning center for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which is successful (see October 12, 2000). [US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] The CIA, as the primary organization for gathering foreign intelligence, has jurisdiction over conversations on the al-Hada phone. Helped by the NSA, it stakes out the house—tapping the phone, planting bugs, and taking satellite photographs of its visitors. However, the CIA apparently does not provide the FBI with all the relevant information it is obtaining about al-Qaeda’s plans. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] For example, the FBI is not informed that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi make calls to the communications hub from the US between spring 2000 and summer 2001 (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001). The FBI also asks the NSA to pass any calls between the communications hub and the US to the FBI, but the NSA does not do this either (see Late 1998). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94]
A joint project team run by the CIA and NSA slips into Afghanistan and places listening devices within range of al-Qaeda’s tactical radios. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001]
Richard Barlow, a former intelligence analyst who was repeatedly fired for correctly claiming that Pakistan had a nuclear weapons program (see 1981-1982, August 1987-1988 and August 4, 1989), is awarded a total of $1 million by President Bill Clinton in compensation for the treatment he received. However, Barlow does not receive the money, as the settlement has to be ratified by Congress. When it runs into procedural problems, it is moved to the Court of Federal Claims to be reviewed. After Clinton is replaced by George W. Bush, CIA Director George Tenet and NSA Director Michael Hayden assert the government’s “state secrets privilege” (see March 9, 1953) over Barlow’s entire legal claim, causing it to collapse due to lack of evidence. [Guardian, 10/13/2007]
Salem Alhazmi. [Source: FBI]As the NSA continues to monitor an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father-in-law (see Late August 1998), they find references to Almihdhar and the hijacker brothers, Salem and Nawaf Alhazmi. They also learn that Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi are long time friends. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004] In early 1999, the NSA intercepts communications mentioning the full name “Nawaf Alhazmi.” However, this information is not disseminated to the intelligence community, as it apparently does not meet NSA reporting thresholds. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say, “Those thresholds vary, depending on the judgement of the NSA analyst who is reviewing the intercept and the subject, location, and content of the intercept.” Another intelligence organisation intercepts the same or similar calls and reports this to the NSA. The Inquiry comments: “NSA’s practice was to review such reports and disseminate those responsive to US intelligence requirements. For an undetermined reason, NSA did not disseminate the […] report.” [Associated Press, 9/25/2002; US Congress, 10/17/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ] The NSA continues to intercept such calls and finds more information a few months later (see Summer 1999 and Late Summer 1999). Near the end of 1999, there will be additional intercepts that give Khalid Almihdhar’s full name and the first names of the other two (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999). But while the NSA will provide some information about these new intercepts to the CIA and other agencies, they will not go back to the earlier intercepts to figure out Nawaf’s full name and close connection to Almihdhar (see December 29, 1999).
The NSA intercepts more calls (see Early 1999) involving Khalid Almihdhar, who is at an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, with his family (see Late August 1998). The identity of the person he is talking to and the content of the intercepts is so sensitive that the whole passage regarding these communications is redacted in the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry’s report. After the redacted passage, the Inquiry comments, “At about the same time, the name [of al-Qaeda leader] Khallad [bin Attash] came to the attention of the NSA for the first time,” so the calls may involve bin Attash in some way. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 155-6 ] Almihdhar is staying at the communications hub at this time and will stay there later as well (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000) and Late October 2000-July 4, 2001).
The NSA intercepts more calls involving an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see Early 1999 and Summer 1999). The names of Khaled, who turns out to be 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, and others are mentioned in the calls. However, the NSA reportedly does not think the intelligence gleaned from the calls is important and does not disseminate it. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 156 ] However, the FBI regarded the hub as a key element in al-Qaeda’s communications network and after 9/11 a senior US counterterrorism official will say, “The NSA was well aware of how hot the number was… and how it was a logistical hub for al-Qaeda.” Several plots are stopped based on information obtained from listening to calls to and from the hub (see Late 1998-Early 2002). [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005]
NSA servers used to collect and sift data. [Source: FrancesFarmersRevenge.com]The National Security Agency (see 1952) begins building a massive data-mining system, code-named “Trailblazer,” that is intended to sift through reams of digital communications intercepts and find nuggets of information relevant to national security. The program’s task is huge—to sort through the 2 million bits of data the NSA collects every hour—and one made even more complex by the relatively new types of wireless, Internet, cell phone, and instant messaging communications now becoming ever more commonplace. Trailblazer is strongly embraced by General Michael Hayden, who became the NSA’s director in March 1999. Hayden recognizes from the outset that the NSA is years behind the technological curve, and casts Trailblazer as the future of the agency’s intelligence gathering and sorting. In November 1999, Hayden makes Trailblazer the centerpiece of his “100 Days of Change,” his plan to transform the agency into a leaner, more efficient organization, fast-tracking the program to vault it ahead of other initiatives. “It was going to structure us to handle the digital revolution,” a former intelligence official will recall. But from the outset the program has problems: a meeting between NSA and other government officials in December 1999 is unpromising, and, according to one government oversight official, the program “kicked off with not a real great definition of what it was trying to achieve.” Program managers fail to define standard data formats to allow for the proper sorting of information. After six years, $1.2 billion in expenditures, and endless man-hours of work, the utterly failed program will be recognized as the “biggest boondoggle… in the intelligence community” (see January 2006). [Baltimore Sun, 1/29/2006]
In the winter of 1999, a covert four-man CIA and NSA team arrives in the part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. They set up a listening post within range of al-Qaeda’s tactical radios. The Northern Alliance is shown how to run it, and then the team leaves. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001; Miniter, 2003, pp. 197-198] In March 2000, CIA agent Gary Berntsen leads a small CIA team into Northern Alliance territory (see March 2000). While there, they improve the existing listening post and set up a new one closer to Taliban-controlled territory. [Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005, pp. 57-61] The US makes little use of the intelligence gained from these intercepts, leading Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud to conclude that the US is “not serious” about getting bin Laden. [Miniter, 2003, pp. 197-198]
The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism and houses the I-49 squad that focuses on Osama bin Laden (see January 1996), receives information from the NSA about a wiretap on the phone of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. The information concerns travel by Almihdhar, fellow alleged hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, and other operatives to an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, Shortly Before December 29, 1999, and January 5-8, 2000), but the office, like the rest of the FBI, is not told Almihdhar has a US visa (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). However, the New York office apparently does not realize it has this information and when investigators become aware of its importance in June 2001 they will conduct a running argument with FBI headquarters and the CIA over whether they can receive it again (see June 11, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 293 ]
The NSA, monitoring a telephone in an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002), has listened in on phone calls revealing that hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi are to attend an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999). Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned, as well as the first names of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. On this day, the NSA shares this information with the CIA’s Alec Station bin Laden unit. Other US intelligence agencies, including FBI headquarters and the FBI’s New York field office, are told as well. Although Khalid Almihdhar’s full name was mentioned in one call, the NSA only passes on his first name. Also, the NSA has already learned from monitoring the Yemen hub that Nawaf’s last name is Alhazmi and that he is long-time friends with Almihdhar (see Early 1999). However, they either don’t look this up in their records or don’t pass it on to any other agency. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 ; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 239 ; Wright, 2006, pp. 310] An NSA analyst makes a comment that is shared between US intelligence agencies, “Salem may be Nawaf’s younger brother.” This turns out to be correct. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 ] A CIA officer will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that information from the Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) was reviewed in late 1999 during a worldwide effort to disrupt millennium attack plots (see December 15-31, 1999) and “a kind of tuning fork… buzzed when two [of the hijackers] reportedly planning a trip to [Malaysia] were linked indirectly to what appeared to be a support element… involved with the Africa bombers.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ] The fact that they are connected to the Yemen communication hub already indicates some importance within al-Qaeda. It is learned they are connected to the embassy bombings in some way (see October 4, 2001 and Late 1999). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 ] The NSA report about them on this day is entitled, “Activities of Bin Laden Associates,” showing the clear knowledge of their ties to bin Laden. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 502; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The CIA will track Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to the Malaysia summit (see January 2-5, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000).
Entity Tags: Salem Alhazmi, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI New York Field Office, Khalid Almihdhar, FBI Headquarters, Al-Qaeda, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Ahmed al-Hada, National Security Agency, Nawaf Alhazmi
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
The NSA has been monitoring a telephone in an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). According to Vanity Fair, “Amid the storm of pre-millennial ‘chatter,’ the [NSA] intercepted communications among three Arabic men, each of whom bore some connection to the East Africa bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) and to al-Qaeda.” The men are hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Apparently, the NSA listens in on a phone call between al-Qaeda figure Khallad bin Attash and hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, who is staying at the hub. Attash mentions Almihdhar’s full name, as well as the first names of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. He says he wants the three of them to come to an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see January 5-8, 2000). The NSA has already heard the names of the three hijackers mentioned repeatedly in 1999 while monitoring the Yemen hub (see Early 1999). Apparently, US intelligence does not yet know bin Attash’s full name or role in al-Qaeda and won’t figure it out until late 2000 (see Early December 2000). [Wright, 2006, pp. 310] At the same time, US officials in Pakistan intercept Nawaf Alhazmi in Karachi calling Almihdhar at the Yemen hub. They learn Nawaf is planning a trip to Malaysia on January 4, 2000. The NSA is also monitoring Nawaf calling his brother Salem (the location of Salem at this time has not been revealed). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 143-144 ; Asia Times, 3/19/2004] The NSA will share details of these calls with the CIA and other agencies on December 29, 1999 (see December 29, 1999) and the CIA will eventually track Almihdhar to the Malaysia summit (see January 2-5, 2000).
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 ] 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 fails to ask the NSA for information about Nawaf Alhazmi. The CIA is monitoring a summit of al-Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, along with local authorities there (see January 5-8, 2000), and is aware that one of the attendees is sometimes referred to by the first name Nawaf, and one is sometimes referred to by the last name Alhazmi. However, it apparently fails to put these two names together (see January 8-9, 2000). If asked, the NSA, which has been monitoring Alhazmi’s calls for at least a year (see Early 1999), could easily have realized “Nawaf” and “Alhazmi” were the same person. The 9/11 Commission will comment, “NSA’s analysts would promptly have discovered who Nawaf was, that his full name might be Nawaf Alhazmi, and that he was an old friend of Khalid [Almihdhar].” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 145 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 353-4] The CIA does actually tell the NSA about Almihdhar and ask for information about him (see January 10, 2000 and Mid-January 2000), but, according to author James Bamford, “inexplicably” does not do this for Alhazmi. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 156 ; Bamford, 2004, pp. 227] According to NSA director Michael Hayden, had the NSA been asked at this point, it may also have been able to identify Nawaf Alhazmi’s brother Salem, another of the hijackers. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 145 ]
The CIA sends the NSA some information about 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, including information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000), which Almihdhar attended, as well as the name of a person who helped him in Kuala Lumpur, where the summit was held. The NSA is also told Almihdhar’s primary purpose for coming to Malaysia was to meet with other people. The CIA knows Almihdhar has a US visa (see January 2-5, 2000), but it is unclear whether the NSA is informed of this. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 156 ] At this time, the NSA has some information about Almihdhar, whose calls it has been intercepting for at least a year (see Early 1999, Summer 1999, Late Summer 1999, and Shortly Before December 29, 1999), that has not been disseminated. In particular, the NSA seems to have overheard something in early 1999 that should have been disseminated, but was not. This new information from the CIA does not cause the NSA to re-examine its material on Almihdhar or disseminate any important information to other US agencies. However, Almihdhar is subsequently put on the NSA watchlist (see Mid-January 2000) and the NSA intercepts calls between his home in Yemen and him in the US (see Spring-Summer 2000), but fails to alert the FBI to his presence in the US (see (Spring 2000)).
Following a request by the CIA, the NSA puts hijacker 9/11 Khalid Almihdhar on its watch list. This means that the NSA should pass details of any new monitored communications involving him to the CIA. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004, pp. 6 ] The CIA is looking for Almihdhar and knows he has a US visa (see January 13, 2000), but fails to add him to the State Department’s watch list until 19 months later (see August 23, 2001). The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will later state: “In mid-January 2000, NSA queried its databases for information concerning Khaled [redacted]. These queries remained active until May 2000, but did not uncover any information.” In fact, the NSA intercepts eight of Almihdhar’s calls from San Diego to Yemen during this time and even gives some details about some of the calls to the FBI (see Spring-Summer 2000). However, they do not tell the CIA everything about them, despite the watch list requirement to provide the information. It is not clear why the NSA failed to share this with the CIA. It is also not known if or when Almihdhar was removed from the NSA watch list before 9/11. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 ]
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 -
The first calls are made by Almihdhar and are intercepted during the spring and summer of 2000 (see Spring-Summer 2000).
More calls are made by hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001).
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 ]
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).
The NSA’s Echelon satellite surveillance system has eavesdropped on numerous public figures, human rights organizations, charities, and even the Vatican, former British intelligence officials admit (see February 27, 2000). The NSA, which shares information with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, has eavesdropped on, among others, Princess Diana (see November 30, 1998), Mark Thatcher (the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher), the Pope, Mother Teresa, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, and others. It is unclear exactly when the NSA performed its surveillance operations, and what information it collected. The officials choose to speak out after the European Parliament announces it will open an inquiry into Echelon’s operations (see July 11, 2001). Former NSA official Wayne Madsen says, “Anybody who is politically active will eventually end up on the NSA’s radar screen.” The NSA routinely monitors charities and human rights organizations operating overseas because they often have access to information about regimes opposed to Western interests. Madsen believes the NSA spied on Diana because of her human rights work; he says that “undisclosed material held in US government files on Princess Diana was collected because of her work with the international campaign to ban landmines.” Mark Thatcher was monitored in the 1980s because of his work on the huge al-Yamamah arms contract being negotiated between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The NSA also monitored conversations by officials of the Panavia consortium, which builds the Tornado fighter plane. British Aerospace is a major partner in the consortium. “I just think of Echelon as a great vacuum cleaner in the sky which sucks everything up,” says former Canadian intelligence officer Mike Frost. “We just get to look at the goodies.” Former US computer software manager Margaret Newsham, who worked during the 1980s at the Menwith Hill listening station in Yorkshire, says, “I was aware that massive security violations were taking place. If these systems were for combating drugs or terrorism, that would be fine. But not for use in spying on individuals.” Newsham recalls being shocked when she overheard conversations by then-US senator Strom Thurmond (see April, 1988). “It was evident American constitutional laws had been broken,” she says. [London Times, 2/27/2000]
Entity Tags: Strom Thurmond, Wayne Madsen, Panavia, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Christian Aid, British Aerospace, Amnesty International, Echelon, European Parliament, Margaret Newsham, Margaret Thatcher, National Security Agency, Mark Thatcher, Mike Frost
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Mike Frost. [Source: NineMSN]One of the few commercial media reports about Echelon, the NSA’s global surveillance network (see April 4, 2001), appears on CBS’s 60 Minutes. The report is disturbing in its portrayal of Echelon as a surveillance system capable of, in host Steve Kroft’s words, capturing “virtually every electronic conversation around the world.” Kroft continues, “[V]irtually every signal radiated across the electromagnetic spectrum is being collected and analyzed,” including land line and cell phone signals, ATM transactions, fax machines,public and private radio broadcasts, even baby monitors. Mike Frost, a former intelligence officer for the CSE, the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency which often works closely with the NSA, says, “The entire world, the whole planet” is being surveilled. “Echelon covers everything that’s radiated worldwide at any given instant.… Every square inch is covered.” Listening stations around the world transmit their data to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where, as Kroft says, “acres of supercomputers scan millions of transmissions word by word, looking for key phrases and, some say, specific voices that may be of major significance.” Frost adds, “Everything is looked at. The entire take is looked at. And the computer sorts out what it is told to sort out, be it, say, by key words such as ‘bomb’ or ‘terrorist’ or ‘blow up,’ to telephone numbers or—or a person’s name. And people are getting caught, and—and that’s great.” Echelon is so secret that even its successes are not publicly documented, though it is believed that, among other successes, it helped capture international terrorist “Carlos the Jackal,” and helped identify two Libyans accused of planting a bomb on PanAm Flight 103 [CBS News, 2/27/2000] which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. [Washington Post, 12/22/1988] “I say, never over-exaggerate the capacity of a system such as Echelon,” Frost noted in a 1999 interview with the Australian press. “Never ever over-exaggerate the power that these organizations have to abuse a system such as Echelon. Don’t think it can’t happen in Australia. Don’t think it can’t happen in Canada, because it does.” [NineMSN, 5/23/1999]
Monitoring Legal Conversations - As successful as Echelon has been in capturing terrorists, international drug dealers, and various criminals, it has raised serious concerns for its capability of monitoring ordinary, innocent civilians. Frost says that such monitoring happens every day: “Not only possible, not only probable, but factual. While I was at CSE, a classic example: A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a—a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, ‘Oh, Danny really bombed last night,’ just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w—was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist.” Though the NSA has a long and checkered history of spying on American citizens, including extensive monitoring of antiwar and civil rights protesters during the 1970s, the agency refuses to provide any information about its activities—not to the public and not even to Congress. Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) has for years pressed for more information about the program, which he recently said “engages in the interception of literally millions of communications involving United States citizens.” Even the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Porter Goss (R-FL) had trouble getting information when he requested it last year. At the time, Goss said, “[T]here was some information about procedures in how the NSA people would employ some safeguards, and I wanted to see all the correspondence on that to make sure that those safeguards were being completely honored. At that point, one of the counsels of the NSA said, ‘Well, we don’t think we need to share this information with the Oversight Committee.’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re sorry about that. We do have the oversight, and you will share the information with us,’ and they did.” Goss had to threaten to cut the NSA’s budget before the agency would share even limited information with him. When asked how he can be sure the NSA isn’t listening in on ordinary citizens’ communications, Goss merely says, “We do have methods for that, and I am relatively sure that those procedures are working very well.”
Princess Diana, Human Rights Organizations Monitored - Evidence presented in the broadcast also suggests the NSA was monitoring Princess Diana (see November 30, 1998), as well as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and other groups (see February 27, 2000). [CBS News, 2/27/2000]
British Ministers Monitored - Frost cites an instance where then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher monitored two of her own ministers (see 1983).
Americans Monitored - Former NSA contractor Margaret Newsham recalls hearing a monitored conversation featuring then-Senator Strom Thurmond (see April, 1988). Frost is not surprised. “Oh, of course it goes on,” he says. “Been going on for years. Of course it goes on.” Kroft asks, “You mean the National Security Agency spying on politicians in… in the United States?” Frost replies, “Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Sounds like the world of fiction. It’s not; not the world of fiction. That’s the way it works. I’ve been there. I was trained by you guys” (see 1980s). Goss seems less concerned. He says that it is “[c]ertainly possible that something like that could happen. The question is: What happened next?… It is certainly possible that somebody overheard me in a conversation. I have just been in Europe. I have been talking to people on a telephone and elsewhere. So it’s very possible somebody could have heard me. But the question is: What do they do about it? I mean, I cannot stop the dust in the ether; it’s there. But what I can make sure is that it’s not abused—the capability’s not abused, and that’s what we do.”
Used for Corporate Advantage - In 2001, the European Parliament released a report listing many of Echelon’s surveillance stations around the world and detailing their capabilities (see July 11, 2001). Kroft notes, “The report says Echelon is not just being used to track spies and terrorists. It claims the United States is using it for corporate and industrial espionage as well, gathering sensitive information on European corporations, then turning it over to American competitors so they can gain an economic advantage.”
Encryption Effective? - European governments and corporations are encrypting more and more of their phone, fax, and e-mail transmissions to keep Echelon from listening in. In response, the US government is pressuring the Europeans to give US law enforcement and intelligence agencies software keys so that they can unlock the code in matters of national security. Parliament member Glyn Ford is not opposed to the idea in principle: “[I]f we are not assured that that is n—not going to be abused, then I’m afraid we may well take the view, ‘Sorry, no.’ In [Britain], it’s traditional for people to leave a key under the doormat if they want the neighbors to come in and—and do something in their house. Well, we’re neighbors, and we’re not going to leave the electronic key under the doormat if you’re going to come in and steal the family silver.” The NSA, CSE, and even Echelon are necessary evils, Ford acknowledges, but, “My concern is no accountability and nothing—no safety net in place for the innocent people that fall through the cracks. That’s my concern.” [CBS News, 2/27/2000]
Entity Tags: Greenpeace, Wayne Madsen, Glyn Ford, Echelon, Communications Security Establishment, Central Intelligence Agency, Amnesty International, Strom Thurmond, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Steve Kroft, Princess Diana, Mike Frost, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Newsham, National Security Agency, Robert “Bob” Barr, House Intelligence Committee, Porter J. Goss, Ilich RamÃrez Sanchez
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Around eight calls made by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar from San Diego to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by his father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada are intercepted by the NSA. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16-17, 157 ; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] At least one of the calls is made from a phone registered to hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in their San Diego apartment. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 251 ] Other calls are made from a mobile phone registered to Alhazmi. [McDermott, 2005, pp. 296] Calls may also be made from the communications hub to the US. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004]
Dates of Calls - One of the calls takes place days after they move into their San Diego apartment in February (see January 15-February 2000). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004] Another is on March 20, 2000 and lasts 16 minutes. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 10/2001, pp. 57 ; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 251 ]
Intercepted by NSA - Although NSA analysts pick up Almihdhar’s first name, “Khalid,” they do not connect it to his second name, even though the NSA has been intercepting communications to and from the hub involving him throughout 1999 (see Early 1999 and December 29, 1999) and he is on the NSA watch list at this point (see Mid-January 2000). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. xii, 16, 157 ; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004] Some, or perhaps all, of these calls are between Almihdhar and his wife, who lives at the communications hub and reportedly gives birth to a daughter in early 2000 while Almihdhar is in the US. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] However, the NSA analysts suspect that Khalid is part of an “operational cadre.” [US News and World Report, 3/15/2004]
Dissemination and Content - According to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the NSA disseminates some of this information to the FBI, CIA, and other agencies, but not all of it, as it apparently does not meet reporting thresholds. It is unclear why it does not meet such thresholds, although some sources will suggest Almihdhar was just talking to his wife. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 ; US News and World Report, 3/15/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94] Another source suggests operational information was passed on during the calls (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). However, two FBI agents who worked on al-Qaeda cases relating to Yemen, Dan Coleman and Ali Soufan, will later claim that they and other senior counterterrorism officials only learn about these calls after 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ]
Significance - Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “You know, this is the key. The NSA is all over this phone. And everybody, you know, that has any connection with it is drawing links from that phone. Now imagine eight lines from Yemen to San Diego. How obvious would it be that al-Qaeda is in America[?]” [Federal News Service, 10/5/2006]
Other Calls - The NSA also intercepts various other communications between the hijackers and the communications hub (see Early 2000-Summer 2001).
The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts calls between 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen, but does not notify the FBI that Almihdhar is in the US. However, the NSA disseminates reports about some of the calls, which are made from phones registered to Nawaf Alhazmi (see Spring-Summer 2000). The NSA will later say that it does not usually intercept calls between the US and other countries at this time, as it believes that this should be done by the FBI. Despite this, the NSA acquires information about such calls and provides the information to the FBI in regular reporting and in response to specific requests. The FBI, which has a standing request for such information about any calls between the communications hub in Yemen and the US (see Late 1998), then uses this information in its investigations based on warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The NSA will later tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry the reason the FBI is not notified about Almihdhar is because it does not realize that Almihdhar is in the US. However, no explanation is offered for why the NSA fails to realize this. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 36, 73-4 ] This explanation will be contradicted by one offered in a 2004 article about the issue that reports the intercepts are not exploited precisely because the NSA knows one of the parties is in the US and therefore does not want to deal with his calls (see Summer 2002-Summer 2004 and March 15, 2004 and After). In addition, the FBI used information gained from intercepted calls to and from the hub in Yemen to make a world map of al-Qaeda’s organization, indicating that the locations talking to the hub could be determined by US intelligence (see Late 1998-Early 2002). [MSNBC, 7/21/2004]
When 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar leaves the US in June (see June 10, 2000), he flies to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Oman in the Middle East. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ] From there he returns to his family’s home in Sana’a, Yemen. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 237] His wife and children live at an al-Qaeda communications hub that is run by his father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. The hub is being monitored by the NSA and CIA. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should have been aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar was, but what exactly was known and who may have known it has not been made public. He will return to the hub in February 2001 and stay an unknown length of time (see February 2001).
After 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar returns to the Middle East (see June 10, 2000 and (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)), the NSA continues to intercept his telephone calls to and from an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, where his wife and children live. US intelligence understands that this is one of the most important al-Qaeda hot spots, and has been closely monitoring it since at least late 1998 (see August 4-25, 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). It also intercepts calls between hijacker Salem Alhazmi and the hub, as well as conversations between his brother, hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, in the US and the hub (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001). [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 222; Wright, 2006, pp. 343] The NSA had previously intercepted calls made by the hijackers to and from the communications hub, both when they were in the US and outside it (see Early 2000-Summer 2001).
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court implements new rules requiring any FBI employee who sees FISA-obtained materials or other FISA-derived intelligence to sign a certification acknowledging that the court’s approval is needed before the information is disseminated to criminal investigators. This comes after the FISA Court was informed that approximately 100 FISA applications submitted by the FBI had misrepresented how criminal and intelligence agents were working together in the Catcher’s Mitt program (see Summer 2000-September 11, 2001 and Summer-October 2000). The new rules also require that the CIA and NSA place a caveat on all FISA-derived intelligence sent to the bureau. In an effort to speed up inter-agency reporting, the NSA will reportedly go a step further, placing caveats on all information it sends to the FBI. The caveats warn that the information being sent might be FISA-derived and that an intelligence agent wishing to pass it to a criminal agent must first obtain assurance from the NSA that the intelligence is not FISA-derived. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 37-38 ]
In October 2000, Congress authorizes a new unit within the Treasury Department called the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center. Its task is to blend the expertise of the Treasury Department, CIA, FBI, and NSA in tracking and disrupting the finances of US-designated terrorist groups. Similar efforts had been tried twice before and fizzled out (see October 21, 1995; Late 1998). However, the unit is still getting organized at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Spurred by the attacks, the unit gets up and running on September 14, 2001. A Treasury spokesperson cites the logistical difficulties of bringing together representatives from different agencies in explaining the delay. [Los Angeles Times, 10/15/2001]
The NSA issues a top-secret intelligence report warning that terrorists are planning an attack in the Middle East, but the warning is not distributed until several hours after the USS Cole is bombed in Yemen (see October 12, 2000). The warning says that terrorists are involved in the “operational planning” for an attack on US or Israeli targets in the Middle East. It says that members of a group have been tracked to planning activities in Dubai and Beirut, but the names of the operatives and the group remain classified. According to one official, the warning specifies an attack in Yemen, but other officials say it covers the Middle East in general. Typically, the NSA requires one to two days to gather and distribute such highly classified reports. The warning is not reported on the US intelligence community’s worldwide computer network called Intellink. NSA reports often are sent out to a smaller network due to their high classification. [Washington Times, 10/25/2000]
In the months after the USS Cole is bombed in autumn 2000 (see October 12, 2000), the NSA intercepts about half a dozen communications between hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi in the US and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, run by hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. [MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; US President, 12/26/2005 ] The hub and people associated with it are thought to have played a support role in the Cole bombing (see also October 14-Late November, 2000 and October 4, 2001). [CNN, 2/14/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004] It was also involved in the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (see August 4-25, 1998). The NSA has been monitoring the number for at least two years (see Late August 1998) and the FBI has used it to map al-Qaeda’s global organisation (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA had previously intercepted calls between hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in the US and the hub (see Spring-Summer 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001) and also intercepts a call between Alhazmi and the hub a few weeks before 9/11 (see (August 2001)).
The NSA completes a report for the incoming Bush administration entitled “Transition 2000” that tells how the NSA is planning to improve its intelligence gathering. More importantly, it tells incoming White House officials that in the process of improving its intelligence gathering, some US citizens will inevitably be targeted for surveillance, though, according to a former NSA official, analysts were supposed to “delete the name of the” citizen being surveilled. Such inadvertent surveillance of US citizens took place even during the Clinton administration, says that former official, but the citizens’ names were always deleted from the transcripts of the communications intercepts. The law expressly prohibits the NSA from spying on US citizens, US corporations, or even permanent US residents. (With the permission of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the NSA can spy on diplomats and foreigners inside US borders.) An NSA official will tell the Boston Globe in October 2001, “If, in the course of surveillance, NSA analysts learn that it involves a US citizen or company, they are dumping that information right then and there.” However, once President Bush takes office in January 2001, that practice will undergo a radical change (see Spring 2001). [Truthout (.org), 1/17/2006] In the same transition report, agency officials say that the NSA must become a “powerful, permanent presence” on the commercial communications networks, a goal they admit will raise legal and privacy issues. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
A. Q. Khan receiving a medal. [Source: Associated Press]The BBC later reports, “After the elections, [US intelligence] agencies [are] told to ‘back off’ investigating the bin Ladens and Saudi royals, and that anger[s] agents.” This follows previous orders to abandon an investigation of bin Laden relatives in 1996 (see February-September 11, 1996), and difficulties in investigating Saudi royalty. [BBC, 11/6/2001] An unnamed “top-level CIA operative” says there is a “major policy shift” at the National Security Agency at this time. Bin Laden could still be investigated, but agents could not look too closely at how he got his money. One specific CIA investigation hampered by this new policy is an investigation in Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan and his Khan Laboratories. Khan is considered the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability. But since the funding for this nuclear program gets traced back to Saudi Arabia, restrictions are placed on the inquiry. [Palast, 2002, pp. 99-100] Also in early 2001, FBI agent Robert Wright, attempting to pursue an investigation into Saudi multimillionaire Yassin al-Qadi, is told by FBI superiors, “it’s just better to let sleeping dogs lie”(see January-March 2001). Reporter Greg Palast notes that President Clinton was already hindering investigations by protecting Saudi interests. However, as he puts it, “Where Clinton said, ‘Go slow,’ Bush policymakers said, ‘No go.’ The difference is between closing one eye and closing them both.” [Palast, 2002, pp. 102]
The NSA asks Qwest, a major US telecommunications firm and a cutting-edge provider of high-tech wireless and Internet connectivity, to reveal information about its customers and their phone calls. Qwest’s CEO, Joe Nacchio, refuses after meeting with NSA officials and deciding that the program is illegal without court orders (see February 27, 2001). The NSA refuses to seek court authorization for its wiretaps and electronic surveillance. The NSA will renew its request from Qwest after the 9/11 attacks, and will also ask the firm to help it track suspected terrorists. Other telecommunications firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and BellSouth, will comply with the NSA’s requests (see February 2001 and Beyond).
Fears of a 'Digital Pearl Harbor' - According to a former White House official, the NSA’s primary purpose before 9/11 is to watch for computer hackers and foreign-government agents trying to hack into the government’s computer information systems, particularly those within the Defense Department. Government officials fear a “digital Pearl Harbor” if hackers were ever to seize control of those systems or other key US infrastructures. The former official will say in 2007 that the NSA’s proposal to Qwest is, “Can you build a private version of Echelon and tell us what you see?” Echelon is the NSA’s enormous signals intelligence (SIGINT) network used by the agency and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain. Qwest is constructing a high-speed network for phone and Internet traffic, and the NSA wants Qwest to keep records of its customers’ transactions for it. The NSA, another source will say, wants to analyze call, e-mail, and other transmissions’ traffic patters for signs of suspicious activity. The White House official will say that telecom firms such as Qwest “have an enormous amount of intelligence-gathering” capability. They don’t have to target individual customers to “look for wacky behavior,” or “groups communicating with each other in strange patterns.” Such information could augment intelligence that the NSA and other agencies were gathering from other sources, and enable the NSA to collect the information it wants without violating laws prohibiting it and other intelligence agencies from directly gathering data on US citizens.
Ill Will from NSA - Nacchio’s refusal to go along with the NSA’s request garners it some ill will among the US intelligence community, the former White House official will say. Nacchio will contend that because of his refusal, the NSA denied Qwest a lucrative government contract. A former high-level intelligence official will add that other telecom companies had little problem agreeing to the NSA’s requests. Nacchio believes that the NSA’s request is illegal under the Telecommunications Act without court orders; the former White House official will acknowledge that it might violate the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. After 9/11, that law will be amended by the USA Patriot Act to give the government more room to monitor US citizens.
Qwest, Other Telecom Firms Cooperative with Other Agencies - Qwest is apparently less reluctant to share other information with the Pentagon. Qwest began sharing its technology and information as far back as 1997 (see 1997). In May 2001, Commerce Secretary Don Evans will tell the Senate Appropriations Committee that his department helped persuade Qwest to “share proprietory information with the Defense Department to evaluate the vulnerability of its network.” Qwest, which serves the Rocky Mountain and West Coast regions of the country, covers the areas that house some of the military’s most important command-and-control facilities, including the US Strategic Command. In the 1990s, Qwest began actively pursuing contracts with the Defense Department to build more modern, private, secure networks for defense and intelligence agencies. [National Journal, 11/2/2007]
Meetings with Bush Officials - In court documents filed in 2006 to challenge his prosecution for insider trading and, in heavily redacted form, released to the public in 2007, Nacchio will indicate that telecom executives met frequently with Bush administration officials before 9/11, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. Many telecom firms are working closely with the government to develop highly classified operations, including joint networks to which the government will have unfettered access. The future director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, works with telecom firms to expand the cooperation between the telecom industry and the federal government. [Salon, 10/15/2007]
Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, US Department of Defense, Bush administration (43), Verizon Communications, AT&T, US Department of Commerce, Senate Appropriations Committee, US Strategic Command, BellSouth, Donald L. Evans, Echelon, Richard A. Clarke, Qwest, Mike McConnell, National Security Agency, Joe Nacchio, Paul Wolfowitz
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
According to a 2006 lawsuit against three major US telecommunications firms that alleges the companies illegally cooperated with the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program (see May 12, 2006), NSA officials meet with AT&T officials to discuss that firm’s participation. (Days later, NSA officials will also meet with officials from Qwest, who refuse to cooperate—see February 27, 2001). The officials discuss replicating an AT&T network center in Bedminster, New Jersey, to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that runs through it. According to an AT&T engineer’s court statements, the NSA officials want to “listen in” with unfettered access to communications that they believe may have intelligence value, as well as the ability to store those communications for later review. There is no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications, the engineer says: “At some point, I started feeling something isn’t right.” Two other AT&T employees will contradict the engineer’s claims, saying that the NSA merely wanted to upgrade its own internal communications. The lawsuit’s legal counsel, Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, will say that internal AT&T documents can verify the engineer’s account. Mayer will say that the engineer sees “decisive evidence that within two weeks of taking office, the Bush administration was planning a comprehensive effort of spying on Americans’ phone usage.” [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities. [Source: ReallyNews.com]AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all cooperate with the NSA in monitoring US citizens’ phone and Internet communications (see October 2001). Qwest, however, refuses to cooperate (see February 27, 2001). Qwest officials are unsure that it is legal to hand over customer information to the government without court warrants. The firm’s refusal to participate in the program leaves a gaping hole in the NSA’s database, with the NSA only getting partial coverage of US citizens in the West and Northwest. Until recently, AT&T and other phone companies have routinely insisted on court warrants before turning over call data to government agencies, protocols growing out of the historical concerns of the Bell Telephone system for customer service and privacy. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union will say in 2006 that such insistence on court warrants was a bedrock principle of the Bell systems. “No court order, no customer information—period.” he says. “That’s how it was for decades.” The Bell system was also concerned with following the law, specifically the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits telephone companies from giving out such information without court orders. President Bush and other government officials will later say that his 2002 executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap American phones without warrants (see Early 2002) gives the telephone companies legal cover, but many legal experts and civil liberties groups disagree. After 9/11, the NSA approaches the four companies with offers to pay for US citizens’ call histories and for updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ phone habits. Three of the four agree to the NSA proposal, but again Qwest does not. An AT&T spokesman will say in May 2006, “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” BellSouth will say that the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon will add that the company acts “in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Neither AT&T nor Qwest will comment at all. [USA Today, 5/11/2006] The NSA asks Qwest to install monitoring equipment on its “Class 5” switching facilities, which monitor the most localized calls as well as some international traffic. The NSA claims it will only single out foreigners on Qwest’s network. In 2006, a government official will say that the CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, misunderstood what the agency was asking. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
Qwest Refuses to Cooperate - In 2006, sources will recall that at the time of the NSA requests, Nacchio is so disturbed by the idea of the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants, and is so unsure of what information would be collected and how it might be used, that he decides the company will not cooperate. The NSA tells Qwest and the other companies that not only would it compile and maintain data on US citizens’ phone habits, but it may well share that information with other US government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. Indeed, the NSA shares what it calls “product” with other intelligence agencies, and perhaps with other governmental agencies. After Nacchio decides not to comply with the NSA’s request, the agency begins pressuring the firm, accusing it of threatening national security and implying that Qwest might not be eligible for future governmental contracts. When Qwest asks the NSA to take its proposal to the FISA Court (FISC), the agency refuses, making Qwest that much more dubious about the NSA operation, especially when NSA lawyers say they won’t take the proposal to FISC because that court “might not agree with them.” The NSA also refuses to ask for authorization from the attorney general’s office. Nacchio will leave Qwest under fire for allegedly misleading shareholders about the company’s financial prospects, but his successor, Richard Notebaert, continues to refuse to cooperate with the NSA. [USA Today, 5/11/2006; USA Today, 5/11/2006] Interestingly, by 2004 the Federal Communications Commission will list Qwest and Verizon as essentially the same company. [Federal Communications Commission, 12/10/2004]
Other Firms Deny Participation - In May 2006, after USA Today reports on the telecom firms’ participation in the surveillance (see May 11, 2006), both Verizon and BellSouth will deny providing the NSA with data on their customers, though they have previously acknowledged their cooperation (see February 5, 2006). A BellSouth spokesman will say, somewhat ingenuously, “We’re not aware of any database that NSA has, so we’re not aware of our customer information being there at all.” And Verizon conspicuously fails to mention possible data from MCI, the long-distance provider it has recently bought. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will say of the various companies’ participations, “The thing that concerns me is some [companies] said yes and some said no” when asked to participate. “If the government really thought this was legal and necessary, why let some say yes and some say no? It’s either legal and necessary, or it’s not.” [USA Today, 5/16/2006]
Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Qwest, Richard Notebaert, Verizon Communications, National Security Agency, USA Today, George W. Bush, Joe Nacchio, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, AT&T, Consumers Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Gene Kimmelman, Federal Communications Commission
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
According to the 9/11 Commission, Khalid Almihdhar may take a flight from Syria to Iran and continue from there to a point near the Afghan border. The 9/11 Commission will mention this flight in a section dealing with possible co-operation between Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda on travel issues—Iran was allegedly allowing al-Qaeda operatives to pass through it on their way to and from Afghanistan without stamping their passports (see October 8-13, 2000, After October 12, 2000, and Mid-November, 2000)—but there are no direct links between this flight and Iranian operatives. The 9/11 Commission’s statement that Almihdhar entered Iran at this time will be based on intelligence reports from the NSA, mostly drafted shortly after 9/11. The NSA has been intercepting Almihdhar’s calls for some time, so it may have obtained this information from these intercepts (see and Late August 1998 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 241, 529; Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3] Almihdhar was at the Yemen hub earlier in February, which is closely monitored by US intelligence at the time, so the NSA would have had a good opportunity to track his movements from there (see February 2001).
Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar stays at al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen again. His father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada runs the hub in Sana’a, Yemen, where Almihdhar’s wife and other family live. Almihdhar stayed at the hub for around a month in June 2000 (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)) and then traveled around Asia until returning to it now. It is unclear how long he stays, except he goes to Afghanistan for an unknown amount of time and then is in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in June 2001. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 237] He may travel to Afghanistan via Iran later in February (see February 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 241, 529; Shenon, 2008, pp. 370-3] He will fly from Sana’a to Saudi Arabia on May 26, 2001, and probably stays at the hub again while in Sana’a (see (May 26, 2001)). The CIA and NSA have been closely monitoring the hub for years. Phone calls to and from it, including ones made by Almihdhar and other 9/11 hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other 9/11 hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should be aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar is, but what exactly is known and who may know it will not be made public.
The National Security Agency seeks the assistance of global telecommunications corporation AT&T to help it set up a domestic call monitoring site to eavesdrop on US citizens’ phone communications, according to court papers filed in June 2006 as part of a lawsuit against AT&T (see October 2001). The NSA is expressly forbidden from spying on US citizens within US borders unless authorized by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court (FISC) (see 1978). When the NSA program, which wiretaps phone and email communications often without court warrants, becomes public knowledge well over four years later (see December 15, 2005), President Bush, NSA Director Michael Hayden, and other White House and government officials will assert that the program was set up in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the claims made in the lawsuit are accurate, these assertions are provably false. “The Bush administration asserted this became necessary after 9/11,” lawyer Carl Mayer will claim in 2006. “This undermines that assertion.” Unbeknownst to most Americans, the NSA is operating a secret “data mining” operation that, by 2006, will have compiled phone records and contact information on millions of domestic phone and email communications. The NSA project is code-named “Project Groundbreaker,” and is ostensibly an above-board attempt announced in June 2000 to have AT&T and other firms help modernize its technological capabilities. The project originally seeks to have AT&T build a network operations center that duplicates AT&T’s facility in Bedminster, New Jersey; this plan will be altered when the NSA decides it will be better served by acquiring the monitoring technology itself. The agency is seeking bids for a project to “modernize and improve its information technology infrastructure,” including the privatization of its “non-mission related” systems support. [TechWeb, 6/13/2000; Bloomberg, 6/30/2006] Groundbreaker’s privatization project is expected to provide up to $5 billion in government contracts to various private firms such as AT&T, Computer Sciences Corporation, and OAO Corporation, [Computerworld, 12/4/2000; Government Executive, 9/1/2001] and up to 750 NSA employees will become private contractors. Hayden, who has aggressively instituted a corporate management protocol to enhance productivity and has brought in numerous senior managers and agency executives from private defense firms, is a strong proponent of privatizing and outsourcing much of the NSA’s technological operations, and in 2001 will say that he wants the agency to focus on its primary task of breaking codes and conducting surveillance. Hayden does not admit that Groundbreaker is part of a larger NSA domestic surveillance program, [Government Executive, 9/1/2001] and publicly, NSA officials say that the project is limited to administrative and logistics functions. [Computerworld, 12/4/2000] The covert data mining portion of the project is code-named “Pioneer.” A former, unnamed employee of the NSA, [Bloomberg, 6/30/2006] and a former AT&T technician, Mark Klein, will provide the key information about Groundbreaker (see Late 2002, July 7, 2009 and December 15-31, 2005). Klein will say in 2006 that he saw the NSA construct a clandestine area within its switching center in San Francisco, and saw NSA technicians shunt fiber optic cable carrying Internet traffic into that area, which contains a large data bank and secret data mining hardware (see April 6, 2006). Klein will say he knew that the NSA built other such facilities in other switching locations. He will go on to say that the NSA did not work with just AT&T traffic; when AT&T’s network connected with other networks, the agency acquired access to that traffic as well. [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006] The information about AT&T and the NSA will become public knowledge after the 2006 filing of a lawsuit against AT&T and other telecommunications firms (see May 12, 2006 and June 26, 2006).
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).
During the trial of men accused of the 1998 East African embassy bombings, an FBI witness mentions that one of the defendants, Mohamed al-Owhali, told investigators that he had stayed in a Yemen-based al-Qaeda communications hub run by Ahmed al-Hada. He also revealed that he had called the hub before and after the Nairobi bombing. (Note: al-Hada’s surname is transliterated as “al-Hazza” during the trial.) The existence of the communications hub in Yemen is then reported by the US State Department, CNN, the Guardian, and UPI over the next few months. [United Press International, 2/13/2001; US Department of State, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; CNN, 5/2/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The hub was also previously mentioned at a big trial of Islamic Jihad operatives in Cairo (see 1999). The 9/11 hijackers have been calling the communications hub by phone since early 1999, at least (see, e.g., Early 1999). The calls are being intercepted by the NSA and some of them have originated from within the US (see Early 2000-Summer 2001). Perhaps unaware that the hub’s existence has been disclosed, they will make at least one more call to the hub (see (August 2001)).
In a series of articles for UPI, journalist Richard Sale reveals many details about the NSA’s electronic surveillance of al-Qaeda. “The United States has scored notable successes in an information war against the organization of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. US hackers have gone into foreign bank accounts and deleted or transferred money and jammed or blocked the group’s cell or satellite phones.” It is also mentioned that “Bin Laden is surrounded by US listening posts.” The articles discuss the extent to which the NSA’s Echelon satellite network is monitoring al-Qaeda, and even seems to make an oblique reference to monitoring the al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen that enabled the NSA to discover valuable information on hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see December 29, 1999). The articles also reveal that since 1995, bin Laden tried to protect his communications with a “full suite of tools,” but “codes were broken.” An expert adds that “you don’t use your highest level of secure communications all the time. It’s too burdensome, and it exposes it to other types of exploitation.” The articles also imply that Echelon is used in illegal ways. An anonymous former senior US intelligence official says, “This isn’t about legality. This is about trying to protect American lives.” [United Press International, 2/9/2001; United Press International, 2/13/2001; United Press International, 2/21/2001] While bin Laden’s communications were certainly thoroughly monitored before 9/11 (see November 1996-Late August 1998), no evidence has come to light since 9/11 that the US was hacking into bank accounts or jamming signals.
Joseph Nacchio. [Source: publicity photo via Business Week]Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio meets with NSA officials in Fort Meade, Maryland, to discuss two topics of mutual interest: a $100 million infrastructure upgrade that Qwest, one of the US’s largest telecommunications firms, can perform for the agency, and another topic that remains classified. (The meeting will be revealed in heavily redacted court documents released six years later—see October 12, 2007). Observers believe the discussion is about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program of US citizens, which the government will conceal for years (see December 15, 2005), and which the Bush administration will insist did not come about until after the 9/11 attacks (see December 17, 2005). Nacchio meets with NSA officials to discuss the agency’s “Groundbreaker” project (see February 2001), which the NSA will later claim is merely a modernization and upgrade of its technological infrastructure. A June 2006 lawsuit against AT&T over that firm’s cooperation with the NSA alleges that “Groundbreaker” is part of a secret domestic surveillance operation. According to the court documents, Nacchio and the NSA are unable to agree on an unrevealed topic of discussion; after that disagreement, the NSA will withdraw its “Groundbreaker” contract from consideration for Qwest. Nacchio, according to the documents, believes that the unrevealed topic of discussion involves illegal and inappropriate actions. He asks the agency officials whether “a warrant or other legal process had been secured.” The NSA officials, according to the documents, have a “disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process,” leading Nacchio to conclude that “the requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act.” When Nacchio refuses to cooperate with the NSA, the agency withdraws its offer of the “Groundbreaker” contract. [Raw Story, 10/12/2007; Marketwatch, 10/13/2007] James F.X. Payne, the former chief of Qwest’s government business unit, will later tell investigators, “There was a feeling also that the NSA acted as agents for other government agencies.” [National Journal, 11/2/2007] In 2007, the New York Times will reveal that Qwest refuses to give the NSA access to its most localized communications switches, carrying largely domestic phone calls. The arrangement would have permitted neighborhood-by-neighborhood surveillance of phone traffic without a court order. [New York Times, 12/16/2007] The NSA has more success with other companies—and has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Qwest as well (see February 2001).
The National Security Agency (NSA) engages in apparently illegal surveillance of US citizens beginning shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president. This will not be revealed to the public until media reports in January 2006, a month after the press revealed that the NSA had engaged in similar illegal wiretaps and surveillance of American citizens after the 9/11 attacks, using those attacks as justification for the surveillance (see December 15, 2005). The former NSA and counterterrorism officials who reveal the pre-9/11 spying will claim that the wiretaps, e-mail monitoring, and Internet surveillance were all “inadvertent,” as NSA computers “unintentionally” intercepted US citizens’ international phone calls and e-mails when the computers flagged keywords. NSA protocol demands that such “inadvertent” surveillance end as soon as NSA analysts realize they are spying on those citizens, and the names of the monitored citizens are supposed to be deleted from the NSA databases. Instead, the NSA is instructed to continue monitoring some citizens that are characterized as “of interest” to White House officials. Those officials include President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say the former NSA and counterterrorism officials. In December 2000, the NSA told the incoming Bush administration that some US citizens are being inadvertently targeted for surveillance, but the names of the citizens are deleted because the law expressly prohibits the NSA from spying on US citizens, US corporations, or even permanent US residents (see December 2000). However, once Bush takes office in January 2001, that practice undergoes a radical change. In the first few months of the administration, President Bush assigns Vice President Cheney to make himself more of a presence at the various US intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, NSA, and DIA. Cheney, along with other officials at the State and Defense Departments, begins making repeated requests to the NSA to reveal the identities of those Americans which had previously been deleted, so that administration officials can more fully understand the context and scope of the intelligence. Such requests are technically legal. But Cheney goes well beyond the law when he requests, as he frequently does, that the NSA continue monitoring specific Americans already caught up in the NSA’s wiretaps and electronic surveillance. A former White House counterterrorism official will later claim that Cheney advised Bush of what he was learning from the NSA. “What’s really disturbing is that some of those people the vice president was curious about were people who worked at the White House or the State Department,” says another former counterterrorism official. “There was a real feeling of paranoia that permeated from the vice president’s office and I don’t think it had anything to do with the threat of terrorism. I can’t say what was contained in those taps that piqued his interest. I just don’t know.” [Truthout (.org), 1/17/2006]
Der Spiegel will later report that in a “very brief conversation Osama [tells] his mother that he [will] not be able to call again for a long time, a remark that seem[s] cryptic to the agents listening in at the time, especially when Osama add[s] that ‘great events are about to take place.’” The NSA had been tracking Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone number since 1996, and also tracking the number of his mother, Hamida al-Attas, living in Saudi Arabia, on the off chance he would call her and tell her something important. Bin Laden apparently had called her more than anyone else, but this is his last call to her. Around this time, President Bush is so convinced that the best way to catch bin Laden is through his mother that he is reputed to tell the Emir of Qatar, “We know that he’ll call his mother one day - and then we’ll get him.” Hamida has remained loyal to her son in the wake of 9/11, saying in 2003, “I disapprove of the ambitions the press ascribe to him, but I am satisfied with Osama, and I pray to God that He will guide him along the right path.”
[CNN, 3/12/2002; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 6/6/2005] Note that this warning is similar to, but apparently different from, another warning phone call bin Laden makes in early September 2001. That call is to Al-Khalifa bin Laden, his stepmother and not his mother, who lives in Syria and not Saudi Arabia (see September 9, 2001).
Nicky Hager. [Source: Rotorua District Council]New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager appears before a European Parliament investigative committee to testify about the US’s satellite surveillance program, Echelon (see July 11, 2001). Hager has discovered information about Echelon’s use by the New Zealand equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB). In researching Echelon’s use by the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, Hager learned of the extent of the system’s “capability to monitor the whole of governments, regional and international organizations, non-government organizations, companies and individuals throughout Europe.” Although Hager warns the committee not to focus exclusively on Echelon’s use for corporate benefits, he gives several examples of such uses in the South Pacific, including monitoring “deals to do with Japan… collecting intelligence on meat sales, which is very important for New Zealand… intelligence to do with oil prices… [and] a particularly large Japanese development project in the South Pacific where there was potential for New Zealand companies to win contracts. In other words, there were both macro-level and micro-level economic intelligence being collected.” Corporate executives routinely received such information, Hager testifies, and tells about “the fantastic amount of intelligence that was arriving, for example, monitoring international trade meetings.… From my sources, they said that whenever there was a GATT meeting or another major international meeting, there were hundreds of reports of the monitoring of the different delegations which were arriving in New Zealand and being shared between [British]/USA partners, and I have absolutely no doubt about that, because I have talked to people who saw it coming from the NSA.” [European Parliament, 4/24/2001]
A National Security (NSA) linguist who only allows himself to be identified to the media as “J” warns his superiors at the agency that terrorists may be planning to hijack passenger planes to ram into buildings, and that security measures need to be implemented to prevent this. Instead, J is ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation. (J was given similar treatment in another instance eight years before; see September 11, 1993). J will later claim that NSA officials dismissed his warnings, and instead labeled him as “obsessed” with the idea of a “kamikaze” threat because of time he had spent in Japan. In 2006, J will say that any time his analysis countered conventional wisdom, he was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluations. He will eventually develop an irregular heartbeat due to the stress of anticipating further retaliatory, potentially career-damaging psychological evaluations. “I believe it was retaliation, but how do you prove that?” he will ask. J will spend his last decade at NSA with no promotion or raise, and will say that another linguist left the agency during that time out of disgust with what was happening. “Who was going to listen to us? Who could do anything anyway?” he asks in 2006. In 2006, other current and former NSA officials will claim that the NSA routinely uses unfavorable psychological evaluations to retaliate against whistleblowers and those employees who come into conflict with superiors (see January 25-26, 2006). [Cybercast News Service, 1/26/2006] It is not clear whether J’s warnings are related to the 33 other warnings picked up by NSA analysts during this same time period (see May-July 2001.)
Over a two-month period, the NSA reports “at least 33 communications indicating a possible, imminent terrorist attack.” None of these reports provide any specific information on where, when, or how an attack might occur. The reports are widely disseminated to other intelligence agencies. [US Congress, 9/18/2002; MSNBC, 9/18/2002; Senate, 9/26/2002, pp. p. 9365] National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will later read what she calls “chatter that was picked up in [2001’s] spring and summer. ‘Unbelievable news coming in weeks,’ said one. ‘A big event… there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar.’ There will be attacks in the near future.’” [Washington Post, 4/8/2004] The NSA director will claim in 2002 that all of the warnings were red herrings unrelated to the 9/11 attacks. [US Congress, 10/17/2002] However, in 2004 it will be revealed that the 9/11 attacks were originally planned to take place between May and July 2001, but were delayed until September (see May-July 2001).
Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar probably visits the closely monitored al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen again. While it will not be reported that he is at the hub at this time, it is known that he flies from Sana’a, Yemen, to Saudi Arabia on May 26, 2001 (see May 26, 2001), and the Yemen hub is in Sana’a. [Bamford, 2008, pp. 64] Furthermore, Almihdhar’s wife, his recently born baby, and other family members live in the hub (which is run by his father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada). It would seem highly likely he would not pass through Sana’a without visiting his family. Almihdhar stayed at the hub for around a month in June 2000 (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)) and then visited it again in February 2001 (see February 2001). Details of Almihdhar’s travels are unclear, but he may have traveled to Afghanistan via Iran later in February (see February 2001). He is in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in June 2001. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 237] Each time Almihdhar visits the hub presents a great opportunity for the CIA and NSA, because they have been closely monitoring the hub for years. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other 9/11 hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other 9/11 hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should be aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar is, but what exactly is known and who may know it will not be made public.
Around this time, the NSA intercepts telephone conversations between 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, but apparently it does not share the information with any other agencies. The FBI has had a $2 million reward for KSM since 1998 (see January 8, 1998), while Atta is in charge of hijacker operations inside the US. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002; Independent, 6/6/2002] The monitored calls between the two of them continue until September 10, one day before the 9/11 attacks (see September 10, 2001). The NSA either fails to translate these messages in a timely fashion or fails to understand the significance of what was translated. [Knight Ridder, 6/6/2002] However, it will later be revealed that an FBI squad built an antenna in the Indian Ocean some time before 9/11 with the specific purpose of listening in on KSM’s phone calls, so they may have learned about these calls to Atta on their own (see Before September 11, 2001).
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