News & Politics

State of the Union: Why Those Terrorists Got Away


In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush defended his NSA domestic spy program, citing the failure to catch two of the 9-11 hijackers who had been placing international calls to al Qaeda leadership in the days before the attacks.

But as James Ridgeway wrote in December, the problem wasn’t that no U.S. intelligence agents knews of the hijackers, but rather that no one did anything with the information the U.S. had.


Wiretaps: Two Who Got Away
President Bush—unawares?—trumpets botched case
by James Ridgeway
December 19th, 2005 2:00 PM

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

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

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