From Foreign Policy:
March 20, 2000, as part of a trip to South Asia, U.S. President Bill Clinton was scheduled to land his helicopter in the desperately poor village of Joypura, Bangladesh, and speak to locals under a 150-year-old banyan tree. At the last minute, though, the visit was canceled; U.S. intelligence agencies had discovered an assassination plot. In a lengthy email, London-based members of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, a terrorist group established by Osama bin Laden, urged al Qaeda supporters to “Send Clinton Back in a Coffin” by firing a shoulder-launched missile at the president’s chopper.
The same day that Clinton was supposed to visit Joypura, the phone rang at bin Laden’s operations center in Sanaa, Yemen. To counterterrorism specialists at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, the Yemeni number—967-1-200-578—was at the pinnacle of their target list. They monitored the line 24/7. But at the time, the agency now claims, it had no technical way of knowing who was placing the call. The culprit, it would later be revealed, was Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the men bin Laden had picked months earlier to lead the forthcoming 9/11 attacks. He was calling from his apartment in San Diego, California.
The NSA knew about Mihdhar’s connection to bin Laden and had earlier linked his name with the operations center. Had they known he was now reaching out to bin Laden’s switchboard from a U.S. number, on the day an al Qaeda-linked assassination plot was planned, the agency could have legally obtained an order to tap the San Diego phone line. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in fact, approves eavesdropping on suspected terrorists and spies in the United States. By monitoring Mihdhar’s domestic calls, the agency certainly would have discovered links to the 9/11 hijackers living on the East Coast, including Mohamed Atta.
“They’re trying to cover up the failure of the NSA”
It’s likely, in other words, that 9/11 would have been stopped in its tracks.
A decade and a half later, that call and half a dozen others made from the San Diego apartment are at the center of the heated debate over the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities—namely the agency’s collection of the public’s telephone metadata, which George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations have claimed was authorized by the 2001 Patriot Act. (That law expired this June and was replaced with the USA Freedom Act, which states that, without a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA will no longer have access to telephone metadata records.)
According to Michael Hayden, the NSA’s director from 1999 to 2005, the failure to realize that the man phoning Sanaa was located in San Diego was evidence that mass surveillance is vital to U.S. national security. “Nothing in the physics of the intercept, nothing in the content of the call, told us they were in San Diego,” Hayden told Frontline in 2014. “If we’d had the metadata program … those numbers in San Diego would have popped up.”
It’s a sentiment shared by a host of national leaders, including President Obama. “One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe house in Yemen,” he said in a 2014 speech at the Justice Department. “NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] was designed to map the communications of terrorists so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.”
But according to some former senior NSA officials, the agency did have the technical capability in 2000 to determine that the calls to bin Laden’s operations center came from California.
“They’re trying to cover up the failure of the NSA,” said J. Kirk Wiebe, a former senior analyst who worked at the NSA for 32 years, until October 2001. “And I think they’re embarrassed by that.”