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The NSA knew about Mihdhar’s connection to bin Laden and had earlier linked his name with the operations center.
Had they known he was now reaching out to bin Laden’s switchboard from a U.S. number, on the day an al Qaeda-linked assassination plot was planned, the agency could have legally obtained an order to tap the San Diego phone line.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in fact, approves eavesdropping on suspected terrorists and spies in the United States. By monitoring Mihdhar’s domestic calls, the agency certainly would have discovered links to the 9/11 hijackers living on the East Coast, including Mohamed Atta.
It’s likely, in other words, that 9/11 would have been stopped in its tracks.
During a private lunch in Washington, former NSA Senior Executive Service member William Binney, who was in charge of automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping operations, detailed how interception worked.
“When you have a [cast-iron] number like that, it’s tasked at multiple sites, so any call coming into or out is hit by multiple sites and recorded, first of all, but also transcribed as soon as [NSA analysts] have a transcriber available,” Binney said. The signal “could go by satellite or cable, or a mix,” he said, adding that the cooperating phone companies then “would pop it right into our recorders.”
When Drake heard Hayden’s denial that the NSA had the technical capability to determine that Mihdhar was calling from San Diego, he completely disagreed.
“Not true. That’s an absolute lie,” he said. “Every number that comes into that switchboard, if you’re cast-iron coverage on that switchboard, you know exactly what that number is and where it comes from.… You know exactly—otherwise it can’t get there.”
Confirmation of what Drake uncovered comes from Michael Scheuer, who ran the bin Laden desk at the CIA prior to 9/11.
He knew the NSA had succeeded in developing cast-iron coverage of the al Qaeda operations center in Yemen, but that it refused to share the raw intelligence with his agency.
“Inmarsat calls were very important,” he said, “and we knew that because NSA had told us … not only [in] the run-up to 9/11, but to the attacks in East Africa [in 1998] and other places.”
In an agency filled with secrets, the NSA’s failure to detect the 9/11 plot or help other agencies do so is probably its deepest and darkest. For years, rather than reveal the true nature of the blunder, the agency has instead propagated the fable that it missed that San Diego call in 2000 for technical reasons. Consequently, the Bush and Obama administrations conducted what amounted to ironclad surveillance of Americans’ phone activity for more than a decade.
More to add to the pile. These men in control are sick.