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December 15, 2009

NSA Deputy Director: What Al-Qaeda Meeting?

The most senior NSA official interviewed by the 9/11 Commission with a memo of interview in the recently released batch is undoubtedly Barbara McNamara. She joined the agency in 1963 and held a series of senior management positions, culminating in being deputy director from 1997 to 2000, before being put out to pasture as the NSA’s representative to London.

This is quite the most remarkable passage of the memo:

She does not recall being personally [asked] to provide about transcripts or raw data for [counterterrorism]. NSA has analysts posted across the community. But sharing of raw data is not done routinely by NSA unless they get a specific request for a specific item. She said that she does not remember people asking for raw data, but if they wanted it NSA would have provided it, particularly if they were called by the [CIA Director] or [Deputy CIA Director] or [Assistant CIA Director for Collection].

This was flatly contradicted by Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Alec Station.

The January 2009 PBS documentary The Spy Factory focused on al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen, which the NSA started to monitor around mid-1996. Scheuer and the CIA found out about it later that year and then fought a bitter turf war with the NSA for years over access to the NSA’s take. The turf war got so bad that the CIA even built its own intercept facility to duplicate some of what the NSA was already getting.

On the programme Scheuer, who first mentioned the issue in a 2004 Atlantic piece, outlined why Alec Station needed the verbatim transcripts, rather than the summaries of conversations the NSA sent it:

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.

He added:

We went to Fort Meade to ask then the NSA’s deputy director for operations [who was McNamara at this time] for the transcripts, and she said, “We are not going to share that with you.” And that was the end.

In a 2008 radio interview with Scott Horton, author James Bamford commented:

… before 9/11 Scheuer knew how important the house [the communications hub] was, he knew NSA was eavesdropping on the house. He went to NSA, went to the head of operations for NSA, and … 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.

To the credit of the 9/11 Commission staffers who conducted the interview, Lorry Fenner and Gordon Lederman, the memo indicates they challenged McNamara on this point. Later on, it says:

As to accessing the operational traffic, there were NSA embeds in CIA who could see the operational traffic. However, she doesn’t know who made sure that the embeds had the authority to share the information and whether they knew it was their responsibility to ensure that they had to pass information to NSA that would allow NSA to maximize its capabilities. In response to a specific question, she responded that she has no memory of [Deputy CIA Director] General [John] Gordon having to come to NSA to complain about CTC not having received transcripts/raw data.

McNamara then went on to complain about the CIA not sending detailees to the NSA.

Multiple accounts show that the NSA withheld relevant information before 9/11. For example, the FBI was not even informed of the Yemen hub, but had to discover it itself during the embassy bombings investigation. In addition, the hijackers called the hub from the US, and the NSA intercepted the calls, but did not trace them. Neither did it inform the bureau people linked to the hub were in the US, even though the bureau had specifically requested this.

There is no apparent reason for Scheuer to lie and his account of at least one meeting is supported by the commission staffers’ question about Gordon. That leaves us with the question: is McNamara’s memory really that bad, or is she lying to hide something? If so, what?


  1. There are inconsistencies across the board. Why did the NSA alert the CIA about the Malaysia meeting in 1/00? If the goal was to withhold information it seems that would have been a good time to do so. Scheuer loves to blame everyone but Alec Station, i.e. FBI computer problems, Freeh, O’Neill, risk aversion from Tenet, Clarke, Berger and Clinton and NSA turf protection. He has never explained why Alec Station withheld (for 20 months) from the FBI the fact that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the US.

    It is incredible that we can’t get any honest answers all this time later. Bamford made a solid case which demonstrated that Hayden’s excuse for not tracking the hijackers was implausible. Despite the lack of a credible explanation Hayden is considered a reliable source when he defends the torture and warrantless surveillance programs.

    Comment by Mike — December 16, 2009 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  2. About the NSA notification in late December ’99, the explanation that makes sense to me is that the NSA had a process set that meant nobody was getting much from the Yemen hub–it was just sending out useless summaries. However, this information was so clearly operational that it leaked through, maybe it was handled by an NSA employee who wasn’t “in on it.”

    Hayden presumably underwent SERE training in the air force, so he should know it was for getting false information, yet still he approved it for the CIA. That’s totally bizarre.

    Comment by kevinfenton — December 16, 2009 @ 9:30 am | Reply

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