History Commons Groups

December 4, 2009

NSA Drafted ‘Retrospective’ on 9/11 Failings after Attacks

The National Security Agency drafted a “9/11 Retrospective” following the 2001 attacks, according to a document recently released by the National Archives.

Although an unclassified version of the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s performance before 9/11 was published in full in 2006 and the executive summary of a parallel report by the CIA inspector general was released in 2007, this is the first known mention of any NSA review about its failings before the attacks.

The document released by the National Archives is an undated memo of an interview conducted by the 9/11 Commission of an unnamed NSA manager. The manager served as a congressional liaison in the late 1990s and then as a counterintelligence chief from 2000 to 2003. The memo was released last week and was also uploaded to the 9/11 Document Archive at Scribd by History Commons contributor Erik Larson.

According to the memo, the retrospective was drafted because, “They thought they may have been guilty of missing ‘warning’ information,” and the agency wanted “to insure they knew everything they had.”

The NSA intercepted several calls between the hijackers and their associates before 9/11. Some of these calls were between the hijackers in the US and al-Qaeda’s global operations centre in Sana’a, Yemen. However, the agency failed to prevent the plot or alert the FBI that US-based persons were communicating with al-Qaeda.

After the memo was published and the HC Groups blog summarised the contents of some 9/11 Commission documents concerning the NSA, a former government official with knowledge of the retrospective contacted the blog.

The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said that the retrospective was about 50 pages long and that the reports it contained included NSA intercepts of communications involving the hijackers. Some of the reports–apparently around 33–had been published at the time, some of them had not. Some of the unpublished reports were contained in the retrospective itself, some in an addendum. In addition, some of the reports were from the NSA’s foreign partners.

According to the former official, the retrospective was drafted in the “immediate aftermath” of 9/11 and then formalised and submitted by NSA Director Michael Hayden to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry. The official did not know whether the 9/11 Commission received the retrospective, but said it would have had access to it. The commission also had access to the Congressional Inquiry’s classified and unclassified reports, which incorporated information from the retrospective. However, although the commission knew the NSA intercepted the US-Yemen calls and mentioned the communications in its report, it did not remind readers the NSA intercepted them.

The official added that when drafting the retrospective he thought the NSA had gone back and listened to the recordings of the calls, although he was not certain.

Media reports have given the number of calls the NSA intercepted between the hijackers in the US and the Yemen centre as half a dozen between the USS Cole bombing in October 2000 and 9/11  (Josh Meyer/Los Angeles Times), a dozen (Lisa Myers/MSNBC), and eight during the time Khalid Almihdhar was in San Diego, which was January/February-June 2000 (Lawrence Wright/New Yorker). However, the official said he thought there were less, possibly only two or three.

The official did not know whether the NSA’s inspector general had also drafted a report into the agency’s performance before the attacks. In a question and answer session in February, author and NSA expert James Bamford said he had never heard of such a report by the NSA’s inspector general.

A Freedom of Information Act request that should have covered the retrospective was filed with the NSA in 2006 (see item 3). However, the NSA declined to provide any information.


  1. Fascinating stuff- informative summary of related facts.

    What might be the relation between the reports covered in the retrospective and the info about 30+ NSA intercepted Al Qaeda communications, leaked during the JI?
    September 10, 2001: NSA Intercepts: ‘The Match Begins Tomorrow’ and ‘Tomorrow Is Zero Hour’

    Also, what is meant by “published” and “unpublished”? Reports published in NSA internal publications, as opposed to simply being created and filed, or something else?

    Comment by Erik Larson — December 4, 2009 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  2. Published means disseminated to the intelligence community, unpublished means they wrote a report and sat on it.

    I guess the 33 published reports in the retrospective are the 33 warnings that have been mentioned.

    The way I’m looking at it now, the retrospective can’t have included everything. I wonder what they left out.

    Comment by kevinfenton — December 4, 2009 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  3. […] NSA Drafted ‘Retrospective’ on 9/11 Failings After Attacks […]

    Pingback by 9/11 Commission Documents Masterlist « History Commons Groups — February 28, 2010 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

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