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NSA Insiders Reveal What Went Wrong

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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"It masks the reality that, as indicated above, NSA had already collected highly significant intelligence on the hijackers themselves but did not disseminate it outside of NSA before the attacks. At best, the claim about bulk collection is one part wishful thinking and nine parts red herring.

"Not only does it exaggerate the efficacy of a collection method with zero demonstrated successes to date, but it also blows smoke in the eyes of those genuinely interested in knowing what role NSA played, or failed to play, in the months and weeks before 9/11. Worse still, this specious claim amounts to a cruel hoax on the thousands who died on 9/11, and the hundreds of thousands who died when Bush/Cheney used the attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is widely reported to have been principally responsible for suborning then-NSA Director Michael Hayden into violating what had formerly been the "First Commandment" at NSA -- "Thou Shalt Not Eavesdrop on Americans Without a Court Warrant." So it is no surprise to see Cheney come out of the woodwork and renew his contribution toward giving dishonesty a bad name.

On December 29, Cheney picked up where Senator Feinstein and former FBI Director Robert Mueller left off in promoting the disingenuous claim that had NSA's bulk collection been in place before 9/11, the attacks that day would probably have been prevented. Adding to his unenviable record for credibility on Sunday talk shows, Cheney told Fox News Sunday:

"As everybody who's been associated with the program has said, if we had this before 9/11, when there were two terrorists in San Diego -- two hijackers -- had been able to use that program, that capability, against that target, we might well have been able to prevent 9/11."

Cheney was basking in the glow of Judge William Pauley's ruling two days earlier that NSA's bulk collection is legal, in contrast to Judge Richard Leon's ruling on December 16 that it was "almost certainly" unconstitutional. Pauley simply bought into the NSA/Feinstein/Mueller mantra, hook, line and sinker. The mantra cannot bear close scrutiny, however, no matter how many leading lights of Establishment Washington sing it.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller had prepared the ground for Cheney, when Mueller gave factually incorrect testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 13, 2013. Mueller said that we "could not know who was calling into that particular safe house [in Yemen]. We came to find out afterwards that the person who had called into that safe house was al-Mihdhar, who was in the United States in San Diego."

Mueller was stretching the truth well beyond the breaking point in saying "we could not know." His intent became abundantly clear as he proceeded to put his mouth around the Big Whopper: "If we had had this program [bulk collection of telephone records] in place at that time, we would have been able to identify that particular telephone number in San Diego." Here was the FBI director kicking dust into the eyes of gullible Senators, in order to defend an NSA program of dubious effectiveness and even more dubious constitutionality.

More recently, the "outside" insider reportedly leading your Review Group, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, recited the mantra in a December 19 op-ed in the Washington Post.  Morell claimed that "had the program been in place more than a decade ago, it would likely have prevented 9/11."

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Khalid al-Mihdhar

The poster boy for this PR ploy is Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the hijackers of AA-77, who had been communicating from San Diego with people in a known al-Qaeda terrorist safe house in Yemen. Al-Mihdhar had been on the radar of U.S. intelligence at least since 1999, when NSA picked up communications from a "terrorist facility" implicating him. In early 2000 he lived in San Diego, California, with fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi.

NSA knew the telephone number of the safe house in Yemen at least by 1996 and was, of course, keeping track of calls to it from the U.S. Would Mueller, Morell and Cheney have us believe NSA doesn't know about caller ID? As William Binney has explained, automated systems take over when such calls are made and as long as you have one valid number you can obtain the other. Was it a case of gross ineptitude on NSA's part; or was NSA deliberately withholding information linking al-Mihdhar to the known al-Qaeda base in Yemen?

Richard Clarke, who was White House counterterrorism czar from 1998 through 2001, has told ProPublica that NSA had both the ability and the legal authority to trace calls from Mihdhar to Yemen. Clarke is correct. The targeting had been done; the numbers were known. The necessary authorities already existed.

No warrant would have been required, had Director Hayden simply made use of the authorities available to him via Executive Order 12333, Part II, Section 2.C, by which he could have obtained approval from the Attorney General to target all communications with the safe house in Yemen regardless of origination or destination. It remains unclear as to why this was not done, especially in light of the recent revelation that Hayden did exercise that authority AFTER 9/11 in approving STELLARWIND.

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Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, later acknowledged publicly that while monitoring the al-Qaeda switchboard safe house in Yemen (run by al-Mihdhar's in-laws), NSA intercepted and transcribed seven calls from al-Mihdhar to the al-Qaeda switchboard. Leiter claimed that NSA didn't figure out that the calls were coming from the U.S. Was Leiter never told that NSA knew about the switchboard and the calls from the U.S., but failed to share the intelligence with others?

We have been focusing on NSA but would be remiss were we not to add that there were plenty of opportunities to alert the intelligence community to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi and their whereabouts before 9/11.

For its part, the CIA had plenty of intelligence about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi but withheld critical pieces of it from dissemination outside CIA. This was firmly established in a Justice Department Inspector General report. The DOJ IG report added that, despite an attempt by a FBI detailee working at the CIA to share critical intelligence on the two hijackers, "that information was not released by the CIA to the FBI. We were unable to determine why this did not occur."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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