Friday, February 18, 2011

It Should Never Have Happened

By Chester Campbell

I'm reading a book that is chilling to contemplate. It's The Shadow Factory by James Bamford, who wrote the original first inside look at the National Security Agency (NSA) titled The Puzzle Palace. The main portion of the book details how the NSA has become the most gigantic and intrusive spy organization ever known as a result of the 9/11 attack. But the first section, which I just finished, gives a close-up look at Osama bin Laden's fateful operation and the people who carried it out.

What chills your blood is seeing all the missteps by our intelligence agencies that could have prevented the attack. I had read bits and pieces of the story over the years, but this is the first time I had seen it all laid out in such stark fashion. He gives dates and times and even telephone numbers that give the feeling you're watching it all happen.

In his NOTES at the end of the book, Bamford says most of the hijackers' day-to-day activities were taken from The Chronology of Events for Hijackers (November 14, 2003), "a formerly secret three-hundred-page chronology released by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act."

By 1999, the NSA had been aware of bin Laden's Middle East operations center in Yemen for several years. In late December that year, it intercepted a call from the terrorist leader to Khalid al-Mihdhar, who would become a leader of the 9/ll plot. Earlier that year, NSA had picked up the name Nawaf al-Hazmi through an ops center intercept. The December message instructed "Khalid" and "Nawaf" to travel to Southeast Asia.

NSA passed on the information to the CIA and FBI with first names only. A computer check would have identified Nawaf by his full name, and the information would have been passed on to the State Department. This would have revealed that Nawaf al-Hazmi, a suspected terrorist, had recently received a visa to enter the United States. Another visa issued at almost the same time and in the same Saudi Arabian city went to Khalid al-Mihdhar.

Bamford says partly because of hostility between the agencies, NSA analysts didn't feel it was their job to further research Nawaf's name unless specifically asked to do so. The message to the CIA, however, said Khalid and Nawaf would be traveling to Kuala Lumpur and that a planning meeting of terrorist operatives was planned for Malaysia.

Concerned, the CIA alerted its stations in the area and discovered that Mihdhar's Saudi passport contained a multi-entry visa for the U.S. with the destination listed as New York. When this information reached the CIA's so-called Alec Station, dedicated to the elimination of Osama bin Laden, an FBI liaison read it and became instantly alarmed. A possible terrorist dispatched by al-Qaeda's Yemeni ops center would soon he headed for New York.

The agent immediately typed out a message to alert his superiors at FBI Headquarters. But all such messages had to go through the CIA's deputy chief of Alec Station, and he spiked it. One of his subordinates told the FBI agent the next attack would be in Southeast Asia and it wasn't the FBI's jurisdiction. Then the CIA lost track of Khalid and Nawaf when they detoured to Bangkok on the way to the U.S.

Since the State Department had not been told to put the men on its terrorist watch list, passport control knew nothing about them. On January 15, 2000, the concerned FBI agent sent an email to the Alec Station deputy chief again asking if he shouldn't inform his headquarters about the travelers' plans. He received no answer. That same day, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were waived through immigration at Los Angeles Interntional Airport with hardly a glance.

For the next year and a half, they would travel freely about the country, taking lessons on flying large commercial airliners, and coordinating with the other seventeen hijackers on plans for 9/11. Al-Mihdhar even made trips back to Saudi Arabia and to a rendezvous in Europe with no problem. There were other opportunities to disrupt the operation that failed to materialize because of someone's failure to follow up on suspected activity.

Reading the book, you realize anew that 9/11 should never have happened. That it did is a monument to human failure. Incidentally, the book is filled with good background information for thriller writers.

Chester Campbell


Camille Minichino said...

Chilling, indeed, Chester. I liked Bamford's first book and will get this one. Thanks.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Chilling doeswn't begin to describe the true story.

Morgan Mandel said...

It's terrible that people can be so selfish and not look out for the good of their country, especially when it's their job to do so!

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading and writing a review for Nancy Williams book The Treasures of Carmelidrium, and somehow found my way here. I may have become a follower once; I'm not sure. So I've signed up (maybe again). I'll be dropping in again. You have posted a lot of interesting titles, and besides being a writer, I also love to read. Sometimes when you're deep into writing, it's hard to read. But I am getting back in that swing and loving the ride.
Ann Best, Author @ Long Journey Home

Chester Campbell said...

Welcome, Ann. Glad you've rejoined us. As you say, there's lots of interesting stuff here.