Terror group's messengers steer clear of NSA ears Al-Qaeda not leaving clues to intercept, officials say
By John Diamond
WASHINGTON - 18 Oct: The National Security Agency, the nation's eavesdropper, is having a hard time hearing al-Qaeda.
''Sadly, NSA had no (indications) that al-Qaeda was specifically targeting New York and Washington, D.C., (on Sept. 11, 2001), or even that it was planning an attack on U.S. soil,'' NSA Director Michael Hayden told a congressional hearing Thursday. Hayden, an Air Force lieutenant general, noted that before Sept. 11, ''NSA had no knowledge . . . that any of the attackers were in the United States.''
An intelligence organization so secretive that Hayden and his predecessors have testified publicly only three times in half a century, the NSA intercepts electronic signals, breaks enemy codes and translates and interprets communications among terror groups and military forces. Little understood by the public, it produces the vast bulk of information used by the U.S. intelligence community.
The NSA faces new obstacles in penetrating al-Qaeda because the terror group has learned how to evade U.S. interception technology ---- chiefly by using disposable cellphones or by avoiding phones altogether and substituting human messengers and face-to-face meetings to convey orders. Al-Qaeda operatives are also suspected of feeding disinformation to the NSA, in part to learn how successful the agency has been in penetrating the terror network. If U.S. forces act on the bad information, al-Qaeda operatives know where the leak is, U.S. intelligence officials say.
Though there have been charges on Capitol Hill that U.S. intelligence had clues to the al-Qaeda plot but failed to put them together and act on them, the conclusion among intelligence professionals is potentially more disturbing: Despite spending billions of dollars to pursue terror groups, U.S. intelligence agencies gathered virtually no clues that attacks were coming. It's a problem that persists to this day, as dramatized by the recent assaults in Kuwait, off the coast of Yemen and in Indonesia.
''The good news is we didn't miss it,'' a senior intelligence official familiar with NSA operations said. ''The bad news is it wasn't there to be missed.''
In describing how NSA tries to penetrate terror cells, intelligence officials tell of a laborious multistep process that all too often yields little more than a cryptic exchange of words shouted over cellphones by Middle Eastern men in colloquial Arabic dialects.
Another intelligence official who has heard selected intercepts of al-Qaeda operatives described them as barely intelligible, even by language specialists with a quarter-century of experience.
''I have been privileged to listen to this stuff,'' the official said, ''and a lot of it is crap.''
The agency operates like a vacuum cleaner. At the front end, it takes in huge volumes of information. Each of its 15 to 20 ground-based listening stations pulls in about 2 million communications per hour, according to James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets, a book about the NSA. Add to that the intercepts from seven satellites and 40 to 50 listening posts atop U.S. embassies around the world. Of that immense intake, only about 1% ever gets decoded, translated and processed into finished intelligence reports.
''The volume is enormous,'' said Jeffrey Richelson, who has written several books on the U.S. intelligence community. ''So much of what they wind up collecting doesn't get processed, especially voice communications.'' Much of it is discarded by computer programs designed to filter out inconsequential conversations. But some useful intelligence is inevitably lost, intelligence officials say.
There are times when the system works well -- and quickly. NSA Director Hayden has, at times, been briefed by analysts about phone calls intercepted within the past hour, intelligence officials say.
But despite the agency's prodigious collection capability, a post-Sept. 11 review found no intercepts of calls involving any of the 19 hijackers. That is, in part, the legacy of reforms dating to the mid-1970s that restrict the agency from targeting people once they are in the USA. Exceptions can be made for known terrorists, but the NSA had been given no information from other agencies that the 19 were in the country.
The agency took a public whipping when congressional investigators found that key NSA intercepts dated Sept. 10, 2001, were not passed on to decision-makers until Sept. 12, the day after the devastating attacks. In the intercepts, translated from Arabic, the suspects say, ''The match begins tomorrow,'' and ''Tomorrow is zero hour.'' NSA officials complained in the days after Sept. 11 when members of Congress talked publicly about how intercepted conversations caught al-Qaeda leaders congratulating their chief, Osama bin Laden, on the attacks. After news reports of those remarks, the senior intelligence official said, bin Laden ''went dark for us.''
The problem with the typical al-Qaeda intercept is that it lacks specific information, and what information is conveyed can be misinterpreted. A translator who picks up a message from a known al-Qaeda phone in Afghanistan that ''the wedding party is tomorrow'' may be onto a major terrorist operation ---- or to an actual marriage. Telling the difference requires an understanding of idiom and inflection.
''You've got to know the culture,'' the senior intelligence official said, ''or else you're putting JDAMs (guided bombs) in a lot of wedding parties.''