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.

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.

coleAlmihdhar 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.

congWhen 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.

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Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.

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  1. Great report Kevin.

  2. Well-researched, factual, and rationally stated. Good job, Kevin, and thank you!

  3. Almihdhar and Nawaf were both housed by a Saudi GID agent working with the FBI, and so the NSA wasn’t just protecting their calls from the FBI the FBI had no interest in it anyway. All the hijackers on the inner ring were protected from any elements in the lower FBI or police. FBI agent Bowman of the FBI blocked access into Moussaoui computer. KSM admitted to bombing plots on a hotel that had not even been built yet. The FBI destroyed the Ames strain samples of anthrax in the middle of an anthrax investigation. The DHS and DOJ had the Israelis arrested with a arrow truck full of explosives simply deported, they had 5 others who lied about their where abouts, filmed the first plane hitting and celebrated the attack and who all failed their lie detector tests simply deported back to Israel as well. Most of all the lobbies of the WTC were blown out and this is no film, 96 stories below the impact of the plane and yet the basement is on fire and glass and panels blown off the walls in the lobby. There were truck bombs. It just didn’t trace back to evil ooga booga Muslims. I went over all this and more in the film war by deception

  4. robertsgt40 says:

    Has anyone noticed the hole in the side on the pentagon on 911. I’m curious how a jetliner fit into a 16ft oriface and left no landing gear, bodies, jet engines or tail section.

  5. 344thBrother says:

    Have you done any reportage on Jamie Gorelich ? I understand that she’s “Ex” CIA and turns up in most “Investigations” into “Terrorism” including of course the 911 OMISSION Commission.

    I’ve heard that she “Built” the so called wall between the FBI and other “Intelligence” agencies.

    To me, it’s time to start naming names who were obviously in the direct chain of command, purposeful interference with “Intel” pre 911 and the coverup afterward.

    Maybe if enough pressure got placed on single players, they’d either crack and spill their guts, or we could watch them be assassinated by their peers to keep them quiet. At least we could get some entertainment value.


  6. @robertsgt40: I think this might answer some of your questions about the Pentagon.

  7. Howard T. Lewis III says:

    I believe the correct term is ‘aiding and abetting’.

  8. 344thBrother says:

    Conspiracy to murder after the fact. Obstruction of Justice. Misprision of Treason. Conspiracy.


  9. While it is clear the NSA missed opportunities to pass information to the CIA and FBI early on about Mihdhar and Hazmi, later actions by the CIA and FBI HQ make this a mute point.

    The CIA by itself and later with the help of FBI HQ agents and managers, deliberately withheld critical information on Mihdhar and Hazmi from the FBI criminal investigators on the Cole bombing. But then they shut down FBI Agent Steve Bongardt’s investigation of al Qaeda terrorists Mihdhar and Hazmi, when they these two agencies clearly knew a huge al Qaeda attack was just about to take place and even knew Mihdhar and Hazmi were going to take part in this attack. Many people at the CIA including the very highest CIA managers even knew that by continuing to allow the FBI HQ agents and managers they had enlisted to shut down Bongardt’s investigation, of Mihdhar and Hazmi, that this would block perhaps the one FBI criminal investigation that could have prevented this attack.

    When Tenet flew out to Crawford, Texas on August 24, 2001, he had just found out that Mihdhar and Hazmi were inside of the US only in order to take part in this huge al Qaeda attack. The big question that has never been answered is exactly what did he tell the President at that meeting, a meeting he lied about at the April 14, 2004 9/11 Commission public hearings, when he said he had not even talked to the President in all of August 2001.

    This is the big issue and still is, and why did the 9/11 Commission not get to the bottom of the question of why the CIA and the FBI HQ shut first criminally withheld critical information from the FBI Cole bombing investigators, and then why did they shut down Bongardt’s criminal investigation of Mihdhar and Hazmi when the clearly knew this would allow the al Qaeda terrorists to carry out an a horrific al Qaeda attack they had been warned about since April 2001, an attack they were told would kill thousands of Americans.

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