Wiretaps on Sept. 11 led to arrests

Suspects celebrating after attacks in custody, but none cooperating

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Within hours of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, FBI agents intercepted telephone calls in which suspected associates of al-Qaida in the United States were overheard celebrating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the next days, agents swept in and arrested them and have been holding them since, some as material witnesses, based on the information picked up in the phone calls. They are among hundreds of people detained after the attacks.

Agents requested the intercepts minutes after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, knowing from previous terrorist acts that Osama bin Laden's followers often phone to congratulate one another after a successful operation.

The agents' requests paid off. Although the precise contents of the intercepted phone calls have not been disclosed, officials have said some were congratulatory, even gloating.

But it remains unclear whether the people involved in the conversations participated in the plot, or merely exulted in the audacity and destructiveness of the attacks on the American "enemy." None of the people arrested on the basis of the intercepts are cooperating with the authorities, and none have been charged with crimes related to events of Sept. 11.

Law enforcement officials have said that, before Sept. 11, they did not believe they had sufficient evidence to ask a court to authorize wiretaps of people suspected of being al-Qaida sympathizers. But after the attacks, they abandoned their reluctance and the requests were approved.

Among the people arrested as a result of these intercepts and other information are several material witnesses in the case, the officials said, though they would not identify them or discuss the contents of the intercepted communications. They said the tone of the conversations was happy - good cheer at the success of the attacks, a pattern of behavior that paralleled what occurred after the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.

The officials would not say how many people were detained through the telephone intercepts, or discuss evidence that any of them were al-Qaida members or other militants planning specific terrorist actions.

The intelligence officials said, however, that the intercepts and the resulting arrests helped form the basis of assertions by senior government officials that they thwarted separate terrorist plots in the days after Sept. 11. The most that law enforcement officials said about the fruits of the detentions arising from the telephone intercepts was that they believed they had netted al-Qaida sympathizers who might have been in the very early stages of terrorist plots.

The government's eavesdropping on bin Laden's followers in the United States remains a classified operation, one of the least-known areas of the FBI's counterterrorism program. The reliance on wiretaps is supposed to compensate in part for the shortage of people who could be recruited to help penetrate the group's operations in the United States.

Intelligence officials said they had aimed their efforts at bin Laden associates because they believe it is impossible to catch bin Laden through the use of electronic intercepts. Officials said they have learned that he has made it a practice since August not to use or even go near electronic communications devices.

One official said intelligence reports showed that bin Laden began that practice because he believed Israel was able to assassinate a Palestine Liberation Organization leader in Ramallah on Aug. 27 after tracing electronic emanations from his cell phone.

One official said bin Laden uses associates as messengers, who make cell or satellite phone calls after they have left him.

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