Excessive caution kept NSA passive

Findings: Spy agency overprotected methods, was slow to follow clues or share data, panel says.

9/11 Commission Report

July 23, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The 9/11 Commission Report portrays the National Security Agency before the terrorist attacks as "almost obsessive" in protecting its intelligence-gathering methods, passive in following up on clues and excessively cautious about sharing communications intercepts with other agencies.

While the eavesdropping and code-breaking agency at Fort Meade has avoided much of the harsh criticism directed at the CIA and FBI, references in the 567-page report suggest that the NSA bears some responsibility for the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

"An almost obsessive protection of sources and methods by the NSA, and its focus on foreign intelligence and avoidance of anything domestic would ... be important elements in the story of 9/11," the report states.

The report notes that in 2001, the NSA was still shifting its focus from Cold War eavesdropping targets to more-elusive and mobile terrorist groups. In addition, scandals of the 1970s, when the NSA was severely criticized for targeting Americans, had led to tough legal restrictions and made the agency hesitant about listening in on foreigners on U.S. soil.

Those factors and others contributed to shortcomings in the agency's pre-9/11 performance, the report suggests. Among the specific findings:

The NSA took no action in response to a memo from CIA Director George J. Tenet on Dec. 4, 1998, sounding the alarm about al-Qaida. "We are at war," the memo said. "I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or in the [intelligence] Community."

A copy was faxed to Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan, then the NSA chief, but he "believed the memo applied only to the CIA and not the NSA, because no one had informed him of any NSA shortcomings," the report says.

In late 1999, the NSA "analyzed communications associated with a man named Khalid, a man named Nawaf, and a man named Salem." But the agency did not take the initiative to search its databases to identify the three future hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and the brothers Nawaf and Salem Alhazmi.

"The NSA did not think its job was to research these identities," the report says. "It saw itself as an agency to support intelligence consumers, such as CIA. The NSA tried to respond energetically to any request made. But it waited to be asked."

The information needed to identify the men "was all readily accessible in the database," the report says. If the NSA had found it, "managers could have more effectively tracked the movements of these operatives in Southeast Asia" and tipped off the State Department to find U.S. visas issued to the men.

The NSA placed a written warning, or "caveat," on intercepts related to Osama bin Laden, and later on all terrorism-related intercepts, saying that they should not be shared with criminal investigators unless the Justice Department approved. The 9/11 Commission concludes that the restriction was stricter than the law required and prevented some sharing of valuable intelligence.

The caveats were a result of the so-called "wall" established in the 1980s between information gathered for intelligence purposes and information to be used in a criminal investigation or prosecution.

"These particular caveats were the result of the Justice Department's and NSA's overabundance of caution in December 1999," the report says.

In a statement issued yesterday, the NSA said it had cooperated fully with the commission.

"There is no question that the National Commission's report is an important part of our country's dialogue on how to respond to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001," the statement said. "NSA took its obligation to provide full and timely support to the Commission very seriously and worked diligently to respond accurately and completely to the Commission's queries."

An NSA insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended agency vigilance in protecting its sources but acknowledged that it may have gone too far in hoarding some intercepts.

"Sources and methods have always been the crown jewels for NSA, and we work very hard to minimize any risk" of losing or endangering them, the NSA employee said. "That said, we are in the business of sharing information. ... Our protection of sources and methods does not supersede our obligation to get the information to users."

Ironically, the NSA's major previous appearance in reviews of pre-9/11 intelligence turned out to be the result of a misunderstanding, a commission staff report revealed in April. News stories based on a leak from a 2002 congressional hearing said that two NSA intercepts referring to the planned attacks were intercepted Sept. 10, 2001, but not translated until Sept. 12.

In fact, the staff report says, those intercepts - saying "tomorrow is zero hour" and mentioning the imminent beginning of "the match" - did not refer to the 9/11 attacks at all. Intelligence analysts concluded that the intercepts referred instead to the opening of a military offensive by the Taliban and al-Qaida against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

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