Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, communicated while they were in the United States to other members of al Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn't know they were here, until it was too late.
The authorization I gave the National Security Agency after September the 11th helped address that problem in a way that is fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities. The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time.
-President Bush, December 17, 2005
In the aftermath of 9/11, reams of newsprint were given over to discussing the CIA and FBI failures before the attacks; the agency had some of the hijackers under surveillance and allegedly lost them, the bureau was unable even to inform its own acting director of the Zacarias Moussaoui case. However, the USA’s largest and most powerful intelligence agency, the National Security Agency, got a free ride. There was no outcry over its failings, no embarrassing Congressional hearings for its director. Yet, as we will see, the NSA’s performance before 9/11 was shocking.
It is unclear when the NSA first intercepted a call by one of the nineteen hijackers. Reporting indicates it began listening in on telephone calls to the home of Pentagon hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s wife some time around late 1996. However, although Almihdhar certainly did stay there later, it is unclear whether he lived there at that time. The house, in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, was a key target for the US intelligence community as it was Osama bin Laden’s communication hub, run by Almihdhar’s father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada.
The NSA kept the Yemen communications hub secret from the rest of the US intelligence community. However, Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, found out about it through an agency officer loaned to the NSA. Even after the discovery, the NSA refused to provide transcripts of the calls, meaning Alec Station could not crack the simple code the al-Qaeda operatives used. This was one reason the 1998 East African embassy bombings—assisted by al-Hada—were successful despite the bombers being known to numerous intelligence agencies.
The first time the NSA is known for certain to have intercepted a call involving the hijackers was in early 1999, when the call involved Almihdhar and his fellow Flight 77 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi. The NSA did not disseminate a report on this call, although the heavily redacted text of the Congressional Inquiry’s 9/11 report indicates it should have. The NSA continued to intercept Almihdhar’s calls throughout 1999, when he apparently spoke to al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash, now languishing in Guantanamo Bay.
In late December 1999, the NSA picked up a call that tipped it off about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit meeting—a unique meeting of al-Qaeda leaders in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The NSA alerted both the FBI and CIA, the latter of which monitored Almihdhar, Alhazmi and their various associates at the meeting in cooperation with Malaysian colleagues. However, the CIA claims, it did not learn much about what the participants were planning.
Almihdhar and Alhazmi then travelled via Bangkok and Hong Kong to Los Angeles, but, the CIA says, it lost them on the way.
Nevertheless, beginning a few months before the two men moved in with an FBI informer in San Diego, they began making calls back to the Yemen hub. At this time Almihdhar was on the NSA’s watchlist and the agency intercepted the calls, but generally did not disseminate reports on them.
Almihdhar left the US in the summer, returning to the Yemen hub a few months before the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen’s second city of Aden. Reports indicate that Almihdhar was involved in the bombing and that the bombers used the Yemen hub phone to “put everything together,” but the NSA apparently did nothing. There are no mentions in the media of the NSA’s inspector general investigating the agency’s performance before the Cole—or before the embassy bombings or 9/11 for that matter.
The NSA continued to intercept calls between the hijackers in the US and the Yemen hub, but sat on information that could obviously have been used to roll up the plot. The FBI, which learned of the number itself during the embassy bombing investigation, had mapped al-Qaeda’s global network based on calls from the hub and had specifically asked the NSA to be notified about all calls between it and the US. However, no notification of the calls ever arrived at the bureau.
The NSA also intercepted calls between alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on the one hand and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and attack coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh on the other. Again, it appears not much was done with these calls.
When the Congressional Inquiry first published its report, the controversy over the massive redactions was centered on the deletion of 28 pages alleging certain elements of the Saudi government had supported the hijackers. The passages on the NSA also suffered badly from redactions, making them hard to comprehend, and some events did not appear at all in the published version of the report.
This pattern was followed by the 9/11 Commission, which practically ignored the NSA in its public activities. Only one former NSA official testified publicly; he had left the agency in the early 1990s and his input focused on the FBI and CIA. Likewise, mentions of the agency are scarce in the commission’s final report, which entirely omits to remind readers the NSA intercepted calls between the hijackers in the US and al-Qaeda’s operations center in Yemen.
Two aspects of this are most disturbing. Firstly, it is clear that a group of CIA officials at Alec Station deliberately withheld information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the FBI. At the same time, the NSA was failing to pass on related information about the two men to the bureau. Should we write this off as a mere coincidence, or should we consider the possibility that somebody at the NSA engaged in deliberate wrongdoing?
Second, the NSA’s failure to exploit the US-Yemen hub calls before the attack was the reason for the agency’s expanded powers, in particularly its warrantless domestic wiretapping, after 9/11. This was stated most clearly by President Bush in a radio address after the New York Times broke the story in late 2005. The very first justification Bush reached for is contained in the quote at the top of this article.
So, the NSA failed to pass on information about the hijackers, perhaps deliberately to aid CIA machinations, and has not even stated publicly whether and how it investigated this failure, let alone what the conclusions of such inquiry might be. Nevertheless, with remarkable speed it used its failure as a justification for massive new powers. This is just one of the legacies of 9/11.
Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.