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NSA joins offices blamed in Sept. 11
Agency didn't share data from pre-attack calls it intercepted, officials say

Knight Ridder/tribune, 7 June 2002


WASHINGTON -- A secretive U.S. eavesdropping agency monitored telephone conversations before Sept. 11 between the suspected commander of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the alleged chief hijacker, but it did not share the information with other intelligence agencies, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The officials said the conversations between Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atta were intercepted by the National Security Agency, an intelligence agency that monitors and decodes foreign communications.

The NSA failed to share the intercepts with the CIA or other U.S. intelligence agencies, the officials told Knight Ridder. It also failed to promptly translate some intercepted Arabic language conversations, a senior intelligence official said.

The officials declined to disclose the nature of the discussions between Mohammed, a known leader of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network who is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, and Atta, who piloted one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

But another intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was "simply not true" that the NSA monitored the conversations and failed to share the information with other intelligence agencies.

An NSA spokesperson said that as a rule "we neither confirm or deny actual or alleged intelligence operations."

The disclosure of the intercepts marks the first time the NSA has been dragged into the controversy over whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies may have had information before Sept. 11 that could have helped avert history's most deadly terrorist attacks. The CIA and FBI are under fire for mishandling information that could have provided clues to the attack or to the presence in the United States of some of the hijackers.

A U.S. official familiar with the NSA intercepts said they might have contributed to the building of a "threat matrix" -- or overall picture -- if added to the CIA and FBI information.

The House and Senate intelligence committees are scrutinizing the NSA, CIA and FBI as they examine what the government knew or should have known about the terrorist threat prior to the attacks.

Committee investigators are aware of the intercepts of the conversations between Mohammed and Atta and the NSA's failure to share them with other intelligence agencies, said the senior U.S. intelligence official.

The official said investigators had determined that some intercepts were not translated in a timely fashion. In other cases, he said, NSA analysts apparently did not recognize the significance of what they had.

The congressional investigators' initial conclusion is that the NSA's human and technical systems are not up to the job of translating, sorting, analyzing and disseminating the increasing avalanche of data the agency collects, the official said.

"The basic task of an intelligence analyst is to take a pile of stuff from different sources and look for a pattern," said the official. "In order for that to work, the analysts need to see everything that's available. But with the system we have, they almost never do, because the system doesn't work right."

© 2002 The Baltimore Sun
© 2002 Knight Ridder/tribune
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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