Mixed Reaction to James Bamford’s Spy Factory – Precious Truths Surrounded by a Body of Secrets


Kevin Fenton

I just watched PBS Nova’s Spy Factory with James Bamford and I have a number of comments about it, both good and bad.

Starting off with the good, having been writing about al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen for the last two years, I was thrilled to actually see it on the screen. Bamford actually went to Yemen and filmed it from the outside, shame he didn’t go in.

It was also great to see Mark Rossini on screen and talking about what happened. Rossini was pretty clear on a couple of important points: the passage of the intelligence about Khalid Almihdhar’s visa to the FBI was deliberately blocked; and the NSA’s failure was not some 20/20 hindsight issue, the Yemen hub, where Almihdhar lived, was known to be important at the time. He also said that the CIA officer called “Michelle” in the Justice Department inspector general’s report and “Michael” in the 9/11 Commission report was responsible for the Yemen hub at the agency, which is news to me.

Former Alec Station boss Michael Scheuer also revealed a couple of things. We already knew of the argument between the CIA and NSA about getting access to transcripts of al-Qaeda calls. The NSA refused to give the CIA the transcripts, so it built its own intercept facility and managed to acquire one end of the calls the NSA was already intercepting, but the NSA still wouldn’t give it the other half. In the programme, Scheuer revealed why he needed whole transcripts: al-Qaeda operatives talk in a primitive code (for example, melons = bombs, tourism = jihad) and the NSA operators would listen to the calls, then write summaries and send them to the CIA, taking all the sense out of them because they weren’t translating the rather obvious code properly. (For example, if a guy says, “I gave the melons to Khaled and he has them ready for Tuesday,” and this is summarised as, “Subjects discussed comestibles,” then the summary is useless). Scheuer figured this out, went down to the NSA, but was blown off. The NSA official is not named, but is described in enough detail to figure out it was eminence grise Barbara McNamara.

I also particularly liked Bamford’s closing statement:

The problem with reporting on a story like this is that you’re really searching in the dark. There’s no way to sit on the outside and really know what’s going on on the inside. And without an official inquiry, some questions can’t be answered. Why did the NSA fail to act or pass on information that could have warned of 9/11? Why didn’t it share information with the CIA and FBI that could possibly have stopped the plot?

As to the question of whether we are any safer now than we were before, we should have been safe the way it was. NSA had all the information it needed to stop the hijackers and it already had laws that allowed it to track them.

So now with all NSA’s new rules, with all the money it’s spent, with all the data it collects, is NSA doing a better job, or is this job much harder because it’s just being flooded with data? How much information is enough and will too much information end up making the world more dangerous?
I particular liked “we should have been safe the way it was,” and he came pretty close to calling for a new 9/11 inquiry.

Now for the criticisms.

After thinking about it, I’d say the basic problem was they just tried to pack too much information into too little space. You can’t tackle the CIA’s hiding of the hijackers from the FBI, the NSA’s hiding of the hijackers from the FBI, the hijackers’ movements in the US and the ramp-up of domestic wiretapping in the US after the attacks in 50 minutes. As a result, a bunch of stuff that really needed to be said ended up omitted.

It would take hundreds of thousands of words to describe everything of significance that could go into a programme about these four topics, but I’ll just highlight a couple of things that should have come out.

The first and most glaring omission is Alec Station deputy chief Tom Wilshire, who was not mentioned at all in the programme. It went into some detail about the blocking of the cable written by Doug Miller, an FBI detailee to Alec Station, to FBI headquarters about Almihdhar’s US visa, but this was attributed merely to the CIA officer we refer to as “Michelle.” Wilshire was her boss, she blocked the cable on his orders, and Bamford knows this well—he wrote it in the book this programme was based on.

By omitting Wilshire from this incident, PBS paralleled one of the very worst errors by the 9/11 Commission. The commission knew of the blocking, but failed to subpoena either Miller or Rossini, although they were eager to testify. Not only did it manage to relegate the incident to a small-type endnote (number 44 on page 502), it also managed to omit Wilshire’s role in this entirely.

The issue with Wilshire is not merely that he lied repeatedly under oath to the Congressional Inquiry, but that he was involved in practically all the numerous intelligence failures before 9/11: the blocking of Miller’s cable in January 2000; the failure to tell the FBI Nawaf Alhazmi had arrived in the US with a companion in March 2000; the failure to tell the FBI al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash had been identified as an associate of Almihdhar in 2001; the failure to do anything following a review of the relevant cables in May 2001; the failure to get the relevant information to the FBI before the “shouting match” meeting on 11 June; the failure to get a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings, which contained evidence linking him to eleven of the hijackers, in August 2001; and the final failure to find Almihdhar and Alhazmi despite alleged searches of databases that contained multiple records of them.

“Human failure,” Jack Cloonan called it. When you look at that list, it’s not hard to figure out which human was failing, and, when you finally figure out that Wilshire knew there was going to be an attack, knew Almihdhar would probably be involved in it, and knew he was in the US, but still kept protecting him, you wonder if it was a “failure” at all. That’s why there is no way on this earth that Wilshire should have been left out.

The section on the blocking of the cable ends with no explanation. It’s not hard to figure out why Wilshire and his associates withheld the information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the FBI: it wanted to monitor the hijackers itself inside the US without the FBI getting in the way. The key question here is: if the CIA had the hijackers under secret surveillance in the US, how did they manage to pull it off? But this question isn’t even asked, let alone answered.

A list of stuff that was left out: one of the 1998 East African embassy bombers called the Yemen hub several times just before the bombings, what did the NSA know of that? The program came out like the CIA was cut off by the NSA from the Yemen hub, but that’s not true at all, the CIA was dealing with it from the Yemen end, likely as not they were looking at phone company records in Sana’a and knew exactly where in the US the hub was calling/being called from. Plus, Miller and Rossini lied to the Justice Department’s inspector general, was that not worth a mention?

In his book, Bamford points out that the Cole bombers called the hub, but this is omitted from the programme. Also, what about the NSA’s contradictory explanations for it’s failures? You can park a bus between “Neither the contents of the calls nor the physics of the intercepts allowed us to determine that one end of the calls was in the United States,” and “the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities.”

The programme says that the 9/11 Commission left the Yemen hub out of its report, but why? The commission interviewed Hayden about this and one of the interviewers (Lloyd Salvetti) then searched the NSA files for material related to 9/11. Allegedly, he only found material linking the hijackers to Iran. How did that happen?

Final point: the NSA has not even said whether it held an internal inquiry into its pre-9/11 actions. This is completely unacceptable. The Justice Department published its (rather shoddy) inquiry into the FBI’s pre-9/11 failings in full in 2006 (a redacted version was previously available). After the CIA inspector general’s report had been rewritten to take out the suggested punishment for Wilshire and his associates a redacted version of its executive summary was released in 2007. The NSA has not yet even said whether its inspector general wrote a report about its failures. Can the NSA please say whether its IG wrote a report about it?