News & Politics

Wiretaps: Two Who Got Away


WASHINGTON, D.C. — When President Bush acknowledged ordering the National Security Agency to intercept domestic phone communications between terrorists here and terrorists abroad, he gave as an example the activities of two hijackers who lived in the U.S. prior to the attacks.

“As the 9-11 Commission pointed out, it was clear that terrorists inside the United States were communicating with terrorists abroad before the Sept. 11 attacks,’’ Bush said in his radio broadcast on Saturday. “Two of the terrorist hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon, Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khalid al-Mihdar, communicated while they were in the United States, to other members of al Qaeda who were overseas. But we didn’t know they were here until it was too late.”

The president left out an essential part of the story. Al-Hamzi and al-Mihdar were known to the CIA, and al-Mihdar, a veteran who had fought for al Qaeda in Bosnia and Chechnya, was living in an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen in 1999-2000. The NSA, through an intercept on this house, learned that al Qaeda would have an important secret meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, and that al-Mihdar was going to it.

The CIA promptly put al-Mihdar under surveillance, but lost him on the way to Malaysia. There he met up with al-Hamzi. The CIA knew this meeting was important, but didn’t bug it. Agents did spot al-Hamzi and al-Mihdar and another man getting on a plane for Bangkok, but lost them.

The two hijackers easily entered the U.S. and settled in San Diego. By this time, the CIA and NSA had gathered sufficient information on the two to connect them to the African embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and to Bin Laden himself, according to the Congressional Joint investigation. The Joint Inquiry Report of the Congress found there were at least three occasions when these two should have been put on the State Department’s watch list along with those for INS and Customs.

In San Diego, the two men lived openly, obtained Social Security cards,drivers’s licenses and credit cards. They had contact with a leader of the Saudi community who would be exposed as a possible conduit for money for the hijackings. They moved into an apartment rented to them by Abdussattar Shaikh, an Indian-born Muslim and paid FBI informant charged with monitoring that city’s Saudi population. All of this either never got to the FBI or got buried in its files. (For a detailed chronology of the Shaikh matter, see Paul Thompson’s 9-11 Timeline.

Al-Hamzi and al-Mihdar eventually left to take up attack positions in the East.

That saga is bad enough. But when the Congressional Joint Inquiry sought to question the FBI informant in San Diego, the Bureau refused to make him available. FBI officials would not accept a subpoena for the informant’s testimony, and they moved him to a undisclosed location. Meetings between top FBI and Justice officials with leaders of the Congressional inquiry came to naught.

So in defending his program of wiretapping phones without a court warrant, President Bush may have unwittingly used an example that shows not the lack of American spy information — but rather illustrates the incompetence of top officials in his own administration to act on it.

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