The NSA and 9/11
Interesting story in ProPublica by Justin Elliott:
In defending the NSA’s sweeping collection of Americans’ phone call records, Obama administration officials have repeatedlypointed out how it could have helped thwart the 9/11 attacks: If only the surveillance program been in place before Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. authorities would have been able to identify one of the future hijackers who was living in San Diego.
Last weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney invoked the same argument.
It is impossible to know for certain whether screening phone records would have stopped the attacks — the program didn’t exist at the time. It’s also not clear whether the program would have given the NSA abilities it didn’t already possess with respect to the case. Details of the current program and as well as NSA’s role in intelligence gathering around the 9/11 plots remain secret.
But one thing we do know: Those making the argument have ignored a key aspect of historical record.
U.S. intelligence agencies knew the identity of the hijacker in question, Saudi national Khalid al Mihdhar, long before 9/11 and had the ability find him, but they failed to do so.
“There were plenty of opportunities without having to rely on this metadata system for the FBI and intelligence agencies to have located Mihdhar,” says former Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who extensively investigated 9/11 as chairman of the Senate’s intelligence committee.
Mihdhar is at the center of the well-known story of the failure of information sharing between the CIA and FBI and other agencies.
Indeed, the Obama administration’s invocation of the Mihdhar case echoes a nearly identical argument made by the Bush administration eight years ago when it defended the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Mihdhar and the other hijacker with whom he lived in California, Nawaf al Hazmi, were “experienced mujahideen” who had traveled to fight in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and spent time in Afghanistan.
Mihdhar was on the intelligence community’s radar at least as early as 1999. That’s when the NSA had picked up communications from a “terrorist facility” in the Mideast suggesting that members of an “operational cadre” were planning to travel to Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, according to the commission report. The NSA picked up the first names of the members, including a “Khalid.” The CIA identified him as Khalid al Mihdhar.
The U.S. got photos of those attending the January 2000 meeting in Malaysia, including of Mihdhar, and the CIA also learned that his passport had a visa for travel to the U.S. But that fact was not shared with FBI headquarters until much later, in August 2001, which proved too late.
“Critical parts of the information concerning al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi lay dormant
within the Intelligence Community for as long as eighteen months,” the congressional 9/11 report concludes, “at the very time when plans for the September 11 attacks were proceeding.
The CIA missed repeated opportunities to . . .