James Bamford: “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America”


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AMY GOODMAN: Jim Bamford, can you talk about how the NSA picked up the very first clues about the 9/11 attacks well before the 9/11 attacks?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the very first clue to the 9/11 attack occurred in late December 1999, when the NSA picked up a message from a house in Yemen. The house was being used by bin Laden as his operations center. He didn’t have much capability to operate out of Afghanistan, so all the phone calls, all the messages, email and all that would go to this house in the city of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. NSA had been eavesdropping on that house for a number of years, and in late December 1999, it picked up a particular intercept, picked up a particular phone conversation.

And the phone conversation said that—send Khalid and Nawaf to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting. So, NSA picked that up, and they—first of all, they figured that Nawaf and Khalid had to be very important potential terrorists, because they were being assigned by bin Laden out in Afghanistan to go to a meeting in Kuala Lumpur. That seemed like a terrorist summit meeting. NSA gave that information to the other intelligence agencies, and the CIA set up a surveillance in Kuala Lumpur, and then they lost them in Kuala Lumpur.

After they lost them, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi went to California. They got in without any problem. NSA, even though they had the last name of Nawaf al-Hazmi in their computers, they never bothered to check, so they both got in without any problem into the United States. They went down, and they lived in San Diego. And they began calling back and forth to that house in Yemen, the house that NSA was eavesdropping on. So NSA is picking up their conversations to the house in Yemen, translating them and then sending out the conversations to—or summaries of the conversations to the CIA without ever telling anybody that they were in the United States. And they were in the United States for almost two years. Al-Hazmi was there from January 2000 to September 2001. And again, they’re communicating back and forth; NSA is picking up but not telling anybody that they’re in the US.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, Jim Bamford—

JAMES BAMFORD: And it got so bad—

AMY GOODMAN: You say that they set up their final base of operations almost next door to the NSA headquarters in Laurel, Maryland?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, that’s the ultimate irony, was they eventually travel across country from San Diego, and they set up their final base of operations—these are the—this is the crew that was about to attack the Pentagon—about a month before, they set up their base of operations in Laurel, Maryland, of all places, that happens to be the same city that NSA is headquartered. So they set up their base of operations in this Valencia Motel, and almost across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is NSA headquarters. The director’s office is on the eighth floor, and, except for some trees, he could almost see the motel where they’re staying. So, NSA is over there trying to find terrorists, and here is the 9/11 terrorists sitting right opposite the NSA on the other side of the parkway making their final plans.

Mohamed Atta flew there for summit meetings. And they had to take three hotels at one point to put all the people there. So, as NSA is looking for them, they’re having their final summit meetings there, and they’re walking around the Safeway, they’re exercising in Gold’s Gym, they’re eating in the restaurants there, they’re mingling with NSA employees. That’s NSA’s company town. It’s just the ultimate irony that here you have the terrorists and the eavesdroppers living side by side in the month before the final attack.

AMY GOODMAN: You then say, after the attacks, the White House expanded massively surveillance, turning it inward on Americans right here. Can you talk about how they did it?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, first of all, looking back on the pre-attack, it was clear right after the attack that General Hayden, the Director of NSA, realized the big mistake he had made, that these guys not only were in the US, and he never told anybody they were communicating from the other side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and he never let anybody know. So, obviously, he was very chagrined at the fact that, you know, his actions were contributing factors to the whole 9/11 attack by not being more aggressive in going after their communications and telling people where they were.

So, after 9/11, to some degree to make up for it, he decided to not protest when the Bush administration, particularly Dick Cheney, began putting pressure on him to begin doing warrantless domestic eavesdropping or warrantless eavesdropping of Americans. And that was a big mistake. It would have been much better if he stood up like Jim Comey at the Justice Department did. He stood up, as well as the director of the FBI. And even Attorney General John Ashcroft stood up and threatened to resign over parts of this warrantless eavesdropping. But General Hayden decided to go along with it, and as a result, the NSA began this very intrusive program of warrantless eavesdropping on US citizens, both intrusive and largely useless.