The super-secretive National Security Agency has been quietly monitoring, decrypting, and interpreting foreign communications for decades, starting long before it came under criticism as a result of recent revelations about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Now a forthcoming PBS documentary asks whether the NSA could have prevented 9/11 if it had been more willing to share its data with other agencies.
Author James Bamford looked into the performance of the NSA in his 2008 book, The Shadow Factory, and found that it had been closely monitoring the 9/11 hijackers as they moved freely around the United States and communicated with Osama bin Laden's operations center in Yemen. The NSA had even tapped bin Laden's satellite phone, starting in 1996.
"The NSA never alerted any other agency that the terrorists were in the United States and moving across the country towards Washington," Bamford told PBS.
PBS also found that "the 9/11 Commission never looked closely into NSA's role in the broad intelligence breakdown behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. If they had, they would have understood the full extent to which the agency had major pieces of the puzzle but never put them together or disclosed their entire body of knowledge to the CIA and the FBI."
In a review of Bamford's book, former senator and 9/11 Commission member Bob Kerrey wrote, "As the 9/11 Commission later established, U.S. intelligence officials knew that al-Qaeda had held a planning meeting in Malaysia, found out the names of two recruits who had been present -- Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi -- and suspected that one and maybe both of them had flown to Los Angeles. Bamford reveals that the NSA had been eavesdropping for months on their calls to Yemen, yet the agency 'never made the effort' to trace where the calls originated. 'At any time, had the FBI been notified, they could have found Hazmi in a matter of seconds.'"
Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer told PBS, "None of this information that we're speaking about this evening's in the 9/11 Commission report. They simply ignored all of it."
Not only was then-Director Michael Hayden never held accountable for the NSA's alleged failure, but he went on to oversee the Bush administration's vast expansion of domestic surveillance. In 2006, he was appointed as director of the CIA.
When asked whether the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping violated FISA law, Hayden insisted, "I have an order whose lawfulness has been attested to by the attorney general, an order whose lawfulness has been attested to by NSA lawyers who do this for a living. No, we're not violating the law. ... I'm asserting that NSA is doing its job."
NSA's power to eavesdrop on ordinary Americans has vastly increased since 2001, and the government's secret watch list now includes over a half a million names. PBS raises serious questions about whether important clues are still being missed simply as a result of the sheer volume of data being collected.
The Spy Factory will be shown over most PBS stations on February 3, 2009 at 8 pm.
The following preview was posted by NOVAonline at YouTube.