Thursday, June 20, 2013

Terrorism and the NSA: What We Really Have Here Is Failure to Communicate

Terrorists attack on September 11, 2001
Conspicuously missing from the current debate over the National Security Agency's role in protecting us from terrorist attacks is the fact that, if federal law enforcement officials would do their job, we wouldn't need so much NSA surveillance. That point was inadvertently made on Sunday when former Vice President Dick Cheney said on Fox News Sunday that if the NSA's surveillance of phone records and emails had been in place before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the terrorists' plot might have been foiled.

"If we had 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 said. 

FBI Director Robert Mueller recently made the same claim, telling a Senate committee that had the NSA program existed a decade ago they might have been able to track a call made by one of the eventual  9/11 hijackers in San Diego, Khalid al-Mihdhar, to an identified Al Qaeda safe house in Yemen.

“If we had the telephone number from Yemen, we would have matched it up to that telephone number in San Diego, got further legal process, and identified al-Mihdhar,” Mueller said. 

Really? Apparently Cheney and Mueller have both forgotten that the CIA actually identified al-Mihdhar and his terrorist cohort Nawaf al-Hazmi before 9/11 and knew they had connections to Al Qaeda and had passports to travel here. As I reported nearly a decade ago, before arriving in San Diego, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were known by intelligence officials as Al Qaeda operatives who had attended a terror summit in Malaysia just before coming to the United States. 

But the CIA inexplicably didn't share this information with the FBI or any other federal agencies. It was a breakdown by the intelligence community. Had they shared this information, the terrorists would have been found and 9/11 could indeed have been prevented. 

This wasn't the only intelligence blunder related to 9/11. The FBI also didn't do nearly enough after the fact to get to the bottom of the San Diego terror cell. We still do not know the whole story of 9/11. We still do not have a clear understanding of how deep the ties were between the Saudi government and the hijackers, or just who were the mysterious, moneyed Saudis who set up the terrorists in San Diego. Perhaps we never will.

Picked by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed to be among the first of the 19 hijackers to enter the U.S., al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, whose name, address and home phone number appeared in the 2000-01 San Diego phone book, entered the country in early 2000 through Los Angeles International Airport and were brought to San Diego by an enigmatic Saudi national named Omar al-Bayoumi, who'd worked for the Saudi government in civil aviation (a part of the Saudi defense department).

Al-Bayoumi set the two terrorists up in an apartment near the San Diego Islamic Center and paid $1,500 to cover their first two months of rent. When asked after the attack in 2001 about al-Bayoumi's possible role in 9/11, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, who was then the local head of the FBI, told me that the local investigation had found no evidence that al-Bayoumi was involved in the attack.

However, a former top FBI official later told Newsweek, "We firmly believed that (al-Bayoumi) had knowledge (of the 9/11 plot)."

After 9/11, al-Bayoumi was detained by New Scotland Yard while living in the U.K., but was released a week later and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. Gore said the FBI sent agents to London to interview him.

Al-Midhar and al-Hazmi also met regularly at another San Diego area mosque with Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam at the time who would later become one of the world's most notorious anti-American jihadists. Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The two eventual terrorists even lived in the house of a known San Diego FBI informant, Abdousattar Shaikh. Finding these two would not have required any sort of secret NSA surveillance program. The Feds simply didn't do their job. 

I interviewed at least a half dozen people in San Diego a decade ago who had direct links with the terrorists and with al-Bayoumi and other mysterious Saudis who were linked to the hijackers. Not one of them had ever been contacted by the FBI.

And things have evidently not gotten any better. Federal law enforcement was unable to thwart the Boston Marathon bombers - and NSA surveillance again would not have been required to find and follow them. These two alleged terrorists were all over YouTube and various radical websites, and the Russians had warned our intelligence about them. Some things sadly never change.

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