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February 25, 2009

9/11 Commission Staffers Involved in Search of NSA Records Knew of Hijackers’ Monitored Calls from US

Filed under: Complete 911 Timeline — kevinfenton @ 3:52 pm

Did Not Find Recordings, Transcripts, Reports

One of the most serious omissions in the 9/11 Commission report was its failure to discuss NSA intercepts of calls between two of the alleged hijackers in the US, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and al-Qaeda’s central communications hub in Yemen. Why the commission failed to deal with the intercepts properly is still unknown, but information newly released by the National Archives shows that two of the staffers involved in searches of NSA records for 9/11-related information must have known of the calls, as they attended a meeting with then-NSA Director Michael Hayden at which Hayden offered an explanation for why the NSA did not exploit the calls.

The intercepted calls were mentioned in the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report, which all ten 9/11 commissioners and at least some of the staff read at the start of the commission’s investigation.

The calls began soon after Almihdhar and Alhazmi arrived in the US in January 2000 and ended shortly before 9/11. They were all intercepted by the NSA, which had been monitoring the communications hub in Yemen since 1996, and was aware of its importance to al-Qaeda. Author James Bamford, who recently appeared in a PBS NOVA documentary about the hub, even found that it was the organization’s “operations centre.”

The NSA disseminated some of the information it gleaned from the calls to other intelligence agencies. However, although it should have traced the calls and alerted the FBI to the hijackers’ presence in the US, it did not do so. Conflicting explanations have been offered for this failure. The hub was also involved in the 1998 African embassy bombings and, according to some reports, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. No explanation for why the NSA failed to prevent these attacks has been offered either.

Interview

The 9/11 Commission interviewed Hayden on December 12, 2003. Although the memorandum for the record of this interview was not among those recently published by the National Archives, the archives were willing to say who conducted it. According to Kristen Wilhelm of the Center for Legislative Archives, the interview was headed by the commission’s Deputy Executive Director Chris Kojm. Three members of the commission’s team 2, which investigated intelligence community issues, were also present: Kevin Scheid, the team leader and later a CIA employee, Gordon Lederman and Lloyd Salvetti, a former CIA employee.

The commission used the Hayden interview as a source for a passage in its final report that tries to explain why the intercepts were not exploited to stop the plot:

… the NSA was supposed to let the FBI know of any indication of a crime, espionage, or ‘terrorist enterprise’ so that the FBI could obtain the appropriate warrant. Later in this story, we will learn that while the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA Court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role.

This is similar to the explanation offered in the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report, which also referred to the communications hub simply as a “suspected terrorist facility.” However, the congressional inquiry included heavily redacted passages about the NSA’s intercepts, which at least made it clear that the explanation referred to the non-exploitation of the calls between the hijackers in the US and the communications hub in Yemen. In the commission’s report, the explanation appears in a section unrelated to the calls, meaning the reader has difficulty understanding exactly what the explanation is supposed to be explaining.

NSA Archives

According to Philip Shenon, author of The Commission, an in-depth review of the investigation, in late 2003 one of Scheid’s subordinates, Lorry Fenner, arranged for the transfer of a section of the NSA’s archives to a reading room in Washington, so that the commission could have easier access to it. Shenon does not mention the Hayden interview in his book, but the fact that Scheid’s subordinate arranged the transfer around the time Scheid interviewed Hayden suggests the interview and the transfer might be linked.

Whether they were linked or not, Shenon indicates Fenner mentioned moving the files to Scheid and told him that she was going to the reading room to read some of the files. Scheid could have–should have–told Fenner about the NSA’s intercepts of the hijackers’ calls, which would have been prime historical source material for the plot. Far better to listen to recordings of the hijackers talking to al-Qaeda’s operations centre than to rely on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s tortured confessions.

According to the 9/11 Commission and Shenon, what Fenner found in the NSA archives was links between Iran and al-Qaeda on travel issues. Alarmed that nobody else on the commission knew of this and thinking it important, Fenner approached one of her friends on the commission, Salvetti, and asked him to read what she had read about Iran. Salvetti, who had been present at the commission’s interview of Hayden, went over to the reading room to take a look at it. This was a perfect opportunity for him to also read the files on the intercepts of the hijackers’ calls, which would have been of infinitely greater importance to the commission than co-operation between al-Qaeda and Iran on travel issues. However, there is no indication he did so.

Salvetti then got another staffer, former CIA officer Doug MacEachin, to go to the reading room and look at the files related to Iran. MacEachin thought they were so important that, shortly before the commission was due to report, he persuaded Philip Zelikow, the commission’s executive director, to send Salvetti, him and a group of other staffers to the NSA for a day to read material there. Again, there is no mention of the group of staffers finding–or even looking for–records of the hijackers’ calls at the NSA, although this was a perfect opportunity to do so.

What makes the commission’s apparent failure to find or mention the NSA records about the intercepts even stranger is that the commission claimed to know what Almihdhar talked about in some of the calls: “Almihdhar’s mind seems to have been with his family back in Yemen, as evidenced by calls he made from the apartment telephone. When news of the birth of his first child arrived, he could stand life in California no longer.” This is the only explicit reference to the intercepted calls in the whole report, but does not actually mention that the NSA was intercepting them. It is unclear how the commission could have known this. If it didn’t find the NSA files, how could it have known? If it did find them, then why not mention them, at least in the endnotes?

We are left with two major mysteries: Why didn’t the 9/11 Commission properly discuss and explain the NSA’s failure to stop the plot? And, more importantly, why didn’t the NSA stop the plot?

2 Comments »

  1. The IG report on the warrantless surveillance program(s) is supposed to be released in July. AFAIK, the IG’s of each agency (16 total) are participating. Will they delve into the pre-9/11 surveillance program(s)? There are indications that post 9/11 surveillance was used against political enemies of the Bush administration. Will the IG’s go there? It’s rather difficult to expect anything substantive.

    It’s quite hard to avoid concluding that al Qaeda operatives were protected from arrest by US intel agencies. One can easily accept that some people were fooled (for example told there was a top secret surveillance operation) and some people didn’t get more upset with their superiors’ strange conduct due to “need to know” compartmentalization and deference to the chain of command. Why would such people remain silent after 9/11? Maybe guilt, maybe fear. Only the people in the closed door meetings know for sure. All we’ve gotten thus far are a few comments from some peripheral agents who don’t seem have any definitive answers. For example, Rossini being given an absurd excuse for withholding the al-Hazmi/al-Mihdhar information because “the next attack will take place in Southeast Asia.” I find it extremely difficult to believe that Rossini wasn’t curious after 9/11 to find out what was really going on (if he truly didn’t know before 9/11).

    Comment by Mike — February 26, 2009 @ 2:44 am | Reply

  2. Hmmm, nice idea about Rossini not asking what had happened immediately after 9/11. There’s probably an untold story there. The same question applies to Miller. Doubly so, I think.

    Comment by kevinfenton — March 2, 2009 @ 11:50 am | Reply


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