September 20, 2011
An abbreviated version of this post appeared last week on Salon. We take this opportunity to fill in extra detail.
Two sentences in a 9/11 Commission document, previously withheld from the public but released in recent weeks, offer a tantalizing glimpse of a nugget of intelligence that has long been concealed from the public. The sentences read:
“OnJuly 20, 2001, there was a call between KSM and Binalshibh.
They used the codewords Teresa and Sally.”
Those nineteen words, seen now for the first time, indicate that – just seven weeks before the attacks – a Western intelligence service intercepted a coded phone call between two key 9/11 conspirators. The words now released appear in a three-page memorandum, in a passage describing an exchange between KSM – self-confessed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – and Ramzi Binalshibh, his go-between to the terrorists preparing the operation in the States. The pair discussed – improbably – sending “skirts” to “Sally.”
“Skirts,” according to the document, was a reference to money. “Sally,” the designated recipient, was their accomplice Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be hijacker pilot apprehended before 9/11 for behaving suspiciously at a flying school – and since convicted and sentenced to life in prison. “Teresa,” investigators thought, referred to Ziad Jarrah, who was to pilot a hijacked airliner on 9/11 but who – the conspirators feared for some time – might drop out of the operation.
It is not the detail of the exchange between the plotters that is striking today, though, so much as the revelation that someone was eavesdropping on it. The two telltale sentences, released to us by the National Archives shortly before publication of our book The Eleventh Day, throw up new questions about the role of Western intelligence agencies in the run-up to the attacks.
Which intelligence service tapped the call? The agencies most likely to have made the intercept are those of theUnited States or Germany. While KSM was almost certainly in Afghanistanon July 20, Binalshibh is believed to have been in Hamburg.
If the conversation was intercepted by the Germans, did they share it in timely fashion with their American counterparts? Whichever country’s service made the intercept, was work done promptly to translate it or figure out what it might mean? Was it apparent that the exchange related to terrorism, and if so what was done about it?
As important, were other contacts between the two men monitored before 9/11?
The search for answers to those questions means going back as far as 1998, when German federal and regional intelligence services were focusing on Islamic extremist activity. They were interested especially in a Syrian-born citizen named Mohammed Zammar, because he appeared to be facilitating jihadi travel to Afghanistan. Zammar was surveilled, his telephone tapped.
At the start of 1999, calls on Zammar’s line in turn drew attention to aHamburgarea address that was to become infamous after 9/11, the first floor apartment at 54, Marienstrasse. Those who lived there or frequented it would include hijack leader Mohamed Atta, his companion and fellow future hijack pilot Marwan al-Shehhi, Mounir Motassadeq, who is today serving fifteen years inGermanyfor allegedly helping in the plot – and Ramzi Binalshibh himself.
The first known call of relevance to the 9/11 plot came when a male caller identified at the time only as “Marwan” phoned Zammar’s number from the United Arab Emirates. Weeks later, a caller looking for Zammar was given the number of the Marienstrasse apartment – and both Atta and Binalshibh were mentioned by their first names. Later in the year, when Zammar phoned Marienstrasse, a transcript shows, he sent his regards to Atta.
When the content of the “Marwan” call was revealed three years after 9/11, a senior German intelligence source described the information on the call as particularly valuable, and said it had been passed – along with the U.A.E. number from which the call had been made – to the CIA. U.A.E. security officials have said the number could have been traced in five minutes, but insisted the CIA never asked them to do so.
Then CIA Director George Tenet, for his part, would tell the Senate Intelligence Committee, however, that “We didn’t sit on our hands” on receiving the information. “I’m not going to go through the rest of it in open session,” but “we did some things to go find out some things…Okay?…That’s all I want to say in open session.” Is it possible that one of the things done by the CIA was an attempt to monitor the number from which Shehhi called Germany?
In Germany, meanwhile, the surveillance had expanded beyond Zammar’s phone. Two of the men who used the Marienstrasse apartment were surveilled and their names were put on a border watch list. If such attention was paid to their activity and movements, was none given to that of the apartment’s other denizens, Atta, Shehhi, and Binalshibh?
An Islamic affairs specialist with German domestic intelligence inStuttgart, Dr. Herbert Müller, told us that Atta was “going through the focus of our colleagues…He came to their notice.”
If Atta at some stage came to the Germans’ notice, was Binalshibh also in their sights? Can it be that he and the phone he used were being monitored when the July 2001 phone intercept was made? If so, then the July call – if recognized as a terrorists’ conspiratorial communication – could conceivably have begun a series of steps leading to the core of the plot.
Whatever suspicions there may have been about Binalshibh, his telephone interlocutor KSM had been a wanted man since as early as 1996, when he had been indicted for his role in a plot to blow up airliners – an early concept of his that foreshadowed 9/11.
In June 2001, the month before the intercepted call with Binalshibh, a CIA cable from the field reported that a “Khaled” was “actively recruiting people to travel…including to theUnited Stateswhere colleagues were reportedly already in the country to meet them, to carry out terrorist-related activities for bin Laden.” Weeks later, just before the intercept that is the focus of this article, “Khaled” was identified as KSM.
The information in that cable from the field was of course almost precisely accurate. Can it be that the July 20 Binalshibh-KSM intercept now in question was made by the Germans, shared with the CIA – and became part of the skein of intelligence that, Director Tenet has said, made summer 2001 a time when “the system was blinking red”?
Approached by us for interview either on possible pre-9/11 monitoring of the terrorists or on the relations withU.S.intelligence agencies, German federal officials were unhelpful. “Sadly,” a Bundesnachrichtendienst official responded, “due to considerations of principle, your request cannot be granted.”
The then and now deputy chief of domestic intelligence inHamburg, Manfred Murck, told in late August that it was not his Hamburg region agency that intercepted the Binalshibh/KSM call. The last contact his service had withU.S.officials relevant to 9/11 individuals and issues, he added, had been two years before the attacks.
“Some countries,” a 9/11 Commission staff statement stated tartly, “did not support U.S.efforts to collect intelligence information on terrorist cells in their countries…This was especially true of some of the European countries.” The report of Congress’ Joint Inquiry, whose mandate it was to investigate the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 performance, stated that pressure had been brought on “foreign authorities” to target “Zammar and other radicals [REDACTION]…” but that “it became apparent only after September 11, 2001 that the foreign authorities had been watching some of those persons before that date.”
The former U.S. deputy head of mission in Berlin Michael Polt, however, told the 9/11 Commission that his impression was always that “our level of interaction with counterterrorism and cooperation with the Germans was extremely high and well coordinated…the reason the Germans would want to share those concerns with us [was] because they were expecting from us some information that they could use to go after these people.”
If the July 2001 intercept of the Binalshibh/KSM call was not made by a German agency, the most likely other service to have either made it or been privy to it isAmerica’s National Security Agency, whose remit includes the collection of telephonic traffic. Whether by eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, while he still risked using one, or by picking up calls between al Qaeda associates, the NSA had been listening in where possible on the terrorists for years.
The NSA willingly offered cooperation with the 9/11 Commission. Yet Philip Shenon, in his study of the investigation, reported that Commission staff conducted no thorough review of al Qaeda-related material supplied by the NSA. Though some were eager to delve more deeply, they ran out of time.
That there were concerns within the NSA about its pre-9/11 performance, however, does surface in the record. Toward the end of her interview with Commission staff, a former NSA chief of counterintelligence said concerned agency staff “thought they might have been guilty of missing ‘warning’ information.” For that reason, she added, the NSA had done “a 9/11 retrospective [REDACTION] to insure they knew everything they had.”
Approached for this article, the NSA did not respond to a request for comment. A Commission staffer present at the interview with the chief of counterintelligence, Lorry Fenner, said she could throw no further light on the nature of the “retrospective.”
Miles Kara, an analyst for Congress’ Joint Inquiry, who spent dozens of hours reviewing the NSA Retrospective, told us in early September about what he saw of the agency’s post-9/11 trawl. Kara, himself a former senior intelligence officer, says the retrospective was created at the direction of then Director General Michael Hayden and signed by him. “It was delivered to us in a binder,” Kara recalls, “It was created to put in one place everything the agency knew about the warnings leading up to the attack…It sought no conclusions or inferences, it was simply a compilation of primary source (intercepted traffic) information.”
Asked specifically whether he remembered reference to a July 20 intercept, Kara could say only that the “the ‘Sally’ and ‘Teresa’ language sounds familiar.” Asked whether the retrospective included intercepts made by agencies other than the NSA, he mentioned that there may have been foreign input. “I was focused on the content more than the originating agency, but I’m fairly confident,” Kara told us, “that I recall GCHQ [British communications intelligence] headers…I don’t specifically recall a German header.”
“Nothing I’ve dredged up from my memory,” he added, “inclines me to support a real-time understanding [by NSA]. “No real-time understanding,” for those unfamiliar with the language of intelligence, suggests the possibility that the NSA – even if it did have the July 20 intercept of the two key 9/11 plotters – did not realize that it had drilled into the mother lode.
Almost two months before 9/11, U.S intelligence may have had in its hands the treasure that the intercept represented – and simply not understood what it was.