Oh George! You got some ‘splainin‘ to do!

Who at Alex Station knew what in August-September 2001?

By Kevin Fenton

tenetRecent allegations made by former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke against former CIA Director George Tenet and two other former CIA managers, Cofer Black and Richard Blee, have thrown one of the key unanswered questions of 9/11 into sharp relief. What happened at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, after an officer there discovered that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, had entered the US?

The officer, Margaret Gillespie, says she made the discovery on August 21 and the record indicates she began to notify the FBI and other government agencies on this day. However, while a substantial amount of information has been made public about how the news circulated around the FBI, almost nothing is known of how Alec Station dealt with it.

In an interview recently broadcast as a trailer for the forthcoming audio documentary “Who Is Rich Blee?” Clarke alleged that the CIA had deliberately withheld from him information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi—in particular the news that Almihdhar had a US visa—for over twenty months before 9/11. Clarke also highlighted the importance of the information, saying it was more important than, for example, any of the key pieces of intelligence discussed at a controversial meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on July 10, 2001.

According to a statement recently released by Tenet, Black and Blee, neither Tenet nor any other senior CIA official was told of the visa or of travel to the US by Alhazmi and Almihdhar before 9/11. This was also the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion, although this conclusion was hedged. If this is true, then one appropriate question would be: why not? [Read more...]

Zacarias Moussaoui: What We Don’t Know Might Hurt Us

A Significant Stimulus for the Reform that Never Came

By Kevin Fenton

trial

 Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the numerous “20th hijackers,” was arrested ten years ago next Tuesday, outside the Residence Inn in Eagan, Minnesota. The arrest was one of the first events in a case that gave the FBI a chance to blow open the 9/11 plot, but resulted in abject humiliation for the bureau when its headquarters’ string of errors was exposed in the press.

The Moussaoui case is a poster boy for the state of our knowledge about the attacks: we have some of the details, but know some are missing. Also, two key questions remain unanswered. This despite the wealth of information that came out at the trial and the fact that Moussaoui, although largely ignored by the 9/11 Commission’s final report—partly due to the forthcoming trial—was a major topic of the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s pre-attack failings.

mouThese are the bare bones of the case: Moussaoui had been a known extremist for years prior to his arrest. Before the bureau first heard his name on August 15, he had been under surveillance by French and British intelligence and the CIA, although the agency would claim it only knew him under an alias. He was sent to the US for flight training by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, possibly to participate in 9/11, possibly to participate in a follow-up operation. However, he was a poor student and dropped out of basic flight school before obtaining a licence and went to learn about flying a Boeing 747, which aroused suspicion.

When the FBI was brought in, the Minneapolis agents realized he was dangerous and arrested him on an immigration violation—despite being told not to do so by headquarters. This was the first of many times the Minneapolis field office and FBI headquarters clashed over the case. Essentially, even though they did not know he was linked to al-Qaeda, the local agents understood the risk Moussaoui posed—one even speculated he would fly a large airliner into the World Trade Center—and they wanted a warrant to search his belongings to get information that would lead to his accomplices. On the other hand, headquarters seemed to think they were alarmist and there was nothing to the case. They kept throwing up roadblocks. [Read more...]

The NSA & 9/11: Failure to Exploit the US-Yemen Hub & Beyond

Just one of the Legacies of 9/11

By Kevin Fenton

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

nsaIn 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.

hijack 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. [Read more...]