Did the NSA Lose a Sept. 11 Hijacker?

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The National Security Agency missed a prime opportunity in early 2000 to crack the Sept. 11 plot, according to a forthcoming congressional investigation of the attacks. The report of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, to be released Thursday, will say that the NSA intercepted and analyzed "several communications" between future 9/11 hijacker Khalid al Midhar and an al-Qaeda safe house in the Middle East. But despite the agency's vaunted signals intelligence (SIGINT) technology, which enables it to intercept telephone, radio, cell phone, e-mail and fax messages worldwide, the NSA didn’t realize that the messages, from someone vaguely identified as "Khalid," originated in the U.S., the report charges. As a result, the FBI wasn’t alerted to what could have been a valuable lead.

According to sources who have read congressional report, the Al Midhar-Al Hazmi story is an example of how tantalizingly close U.S. agencies came to unmasking some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. The report does not charge that U.S. intelligence agencies possessed intelligence that predicted the coming catastrophe. But, sources say, it raises troubling questions about whether the attacks might have been averted if U.S. intelligence and law enforcement personnel had spotted just a few more clues and had initiated round-the-clock physical, telephone and e-mail surveillance of even one or two of the terrorists.

It is now known that at the time the calls came into the safe house, Khalid Al Midhar was living in San Diego, with another prospective hijacker, Nawaf Al Hazmi. According to officials with access to the congressional report, the NSA began closely monitoring calls to the safe house in the fall of 1998. In early 2000, someone calling himself “Khalid” communicated with the safe house, according to the congressional report. NSA analysts apparently did not recognize the caller to be Al Midhar.

NSA director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden testified last fall that the NSA identified Al Hazmi as an al-Qaeda associate in early 1999 and by January 2000 had him and his frequent companion, Al Midhar and Al Hazmi “in our sights." That month, the pair traveled to Kuala Lumpur to attend a meeting with other bin Laden operatives and were watched by U.S. intelligence.

After staying in Kuala Lumpur from Jan. 5 2000 to Jan. 8, 2001, Al Midhar and Al Hazmi traveled to Southeast Asia with Walid Ba'Attash, aka Khallad, a Yemeni ethnic with Saudi citizenship who has been identified as the organizer of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. Then Al Midhar and Al Hazmi flew to Los Angeles, arriving Jan. 15, 2001, and made their way to San Diego, where they settled into an apartment and began studying aviation and English. Al Midhar flew to Saudi Arabia on June 10, 2000, where, according to FBI officials, he organized the "muscle" hijackers for the 9/11 attacks. Al Midhar returned to the U.S. through on July 4, 2001. He was not on any terror watch list, although both the CIA and NSA had sketchy information about his al-Qaeda ties, and so was allowed to vanish into America.

The finger-pointing has already begun in advance the 9/11 report's Thursday release. The document harshly criticizes the FBI for failing to analyze the information scattered through its badly organized files and for not working well with the CIA. The FBI plans to counter with a lengthy rebuttal.

The CIA will also take its lumps. The report faults the agency for failing to cultivate human sources within al-Qaeda’s central command inside Afghanistan. CIA officials concede they did not penetrate leader Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, where knowledge of the 9/11 plot was confined. But they insist that they had many well-placed midlevel sources. That intelligence, they say, enabled their paramilitary units to search out and destroy al-Qaeda camps and safe houses once President Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.

The report suggests that prior to 9/11, both the Clinton and Bush White Houses failed to provide adequate money for counter-terror intelligence. “The Democrats are trying to cover their butts for the Clinton years," says one Administration hand, " and the Republicans are trying to cover their butts for the year after that, and this is all going to be muddled into an ugly partisan mess."