These comments are transcribed from “The Boiling Frogs” podcast of July 21, 2009 with Sibel Edmonds, Peter B. Collins and James Bamford.
(beginning at 31:03)
PETER B. COLLINS: You are listening to Boiling Frogs with me, Peter B. Collins, and Sibel Edmonds. Our guest is James Bamford, the author of The Shadow Factory and a number of other books regarding The National Security Agency. And as we mentioned earlier, Jim Bamford also was the producer, writer and lead anchor on the Nova special broadcast on February 3rd of this year (2009) called “The Spy Factory.” And Jim, in the book and in the Nova video piece you went into great detail. And I’d like to focus on two particular aspects. One is, the failure of three key agencies to coordinate information prior to 9/11, that being that Michael Scheuer was on camera with you describing how the CIA could not get critical information from the NSA and they went to some lengths to create their own eavesdropping system but they were only able to get half of the conversation, and they even sent transcripts of their half of the conversation to the NSA saying, “Well look, we’ve got this. Can you help us out and give us the rest?” NSA said no. Likewise, FBI was not permitted – you have an agent who, after the fact, in any case, was fairly courageous about talking about this saying that he was not permitted to pick up the phone and share information. He was an FBI agent who was in a liaison position with I don’t recall, NSA or CIA, but he was not permitted to share that information with his superiors. So I’d like you to comment on agency coordination and to the extent that that may be better or worse with the new super structure that was created with the National Intelligence Director. And secondly I’d like you to describe in a little detail what you were able to trace to a safe house in San`a’, Yemen. But first talk a little bit about agency coordination.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I thought it was extraordinary when I was looking into it: The fact that the NSA which had picked up the first indication of the 9/11 plot when it eavesdropped on a phone call in Yemen from this house that operated as Bin Laden’s operation center in Yemen, in December of 1999. And the CIA was very interested in getting whatever the NSA could get from that house. It did pass on that one message, that December 1999 message. The CIA wanted everything that the NSA was picking up from that house, that house in Yemen that served as Bin Laden’s operations and logistics and communications center. Mike Scheuer was the chief of what was known as the “Alec Station” which was the Bin Laden unit of the CIA and he went up to NSA numerous times, even meet with the head of operations at NSA and basically demanded the NSA pass on that information from that house because I mean this was his bailiwick. It was – he was the guy in charge of trying to find out everything he could on Bin Laden and NSA’d listened to Bin Laden’s operation center. So Scheuer said that he was refused every single time. So the CIA at the request of Scheuer extraordinarily built their own intercept facility. But all they could pick up was the down-link since they didn’t have any satellites that were capable of picking up the up-link they could only get half the conversation. And when they went back to, when Scheuer went back to the NSA and said “Now we can get half. Can you at least give us the other half?” and again they refused. This is all pre 9/11. What happened was after, in December of 1999 when NSA did pick up that communication, that one communication and passed it off to CIA. What the CIA was able to do was to get a copy of one of, or actually, well, one of the key terrorist’s passport, Khalid al-Mihdhar’s passport, and they discovered, by having that passport photographed, that he had a visa, an active visa, to come to the United States. That was passed on immediately to “Alec Station.” This was after Scheuer left. And the FBI agent in there, one of the FBI agents in there, Mark Rossini, in the CIA’s operation [??], he was assigned there temporarily, as a liaison, said, this should be passed on immediately to the FBI. I mean, here you have two terrorists that are on their way to the United States. I mean, they have visas for the United States. They wouldn’t have visas if they weren’t coming to the United States. And numerous times, I think, at least two or three times, the CIA official in that office refused to allow the FBI agent to send that memo to FBI Headquarters. Had they done that, they could have, two things could have happened. One, they could have stopped the initial two terrorists as they were entering the United States in Los Angeles. And, what would have been even better, since they knew they were coming into the United Stated at that point, they could have secretly eavesdropped on their communications. They could have easily gotten a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance warrant on them since they were being sent by Bin Ladin’s operations center. And had they eavesdropped on their communications in San Diego they would have discovered the whole plot because both Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi were communicating back and forth to both the Middle-East and to Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists on the East Coast. So they would have picked up the whole thing.
PETER B. COLLINS: And one of the big…
JAMES BAMFORD: It was an enormous lack of cooperation, the NSA not giving information to the CIA, the CIA not giving information to the FBI and so forth.
PETER B. COLLINS: And one of the most embarrassing things that you disclose in the Nova program, “The Spy Factory,” is that a group of the alleged hijackers spent the last two weeks before 9/11 in a cheesy motel within a couple of miles of the NSA Headquarters at Fort Meade.
JAMES BAMFORD: Well, that’s right. Among the documents I got, were a lot of documents that had been released under the Freedom of Information Act. And one of them was a very thick chronology. It was almost a minute by minute chronology, it was formerly secret, that was prepared by the FBI. So I knew, virtually, every, every move they made through the whole time they were in the United States. And we traced their path across the United States. Every phone booth they went to. And it was really extraordinary. They ended up building their final command center, or their final base of operations, in the same town NSA is located. Basically, just across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway where the NSA is located.
PETER B. COLLINS: Yeah. Just amazing.
JAMES BAMFORD: You have this one situation where you’ve got a major operations meeting of the terrorists just across the street from a major operations meeting at NSA. NSA is trying to find them and the terrorists are, basically, across the street. Mohammed Atta flew in. They had, they actually took over three hotels for that meeting.
(beginning at 40:27)
SIBEL EDMONDS: Jim, you also mentioned the 9/11 Commission and the fact that they did not interview two very important FBI agents who were assigned to the Bin Ladin units. These were agents Rossini and Doug Miller. Did you find out why and how that happened?
JAMES BAMFORD: Well I thought the commission did a horrible job. I spent a lot of time looking into what the commission was doing, and I just was astonished at how poorly a job they were doing. They not only didn’t interview Mark Rossini and his partner at the CIA. I mean, I can’t think of two more people you’d want to interview than the two FBI agents who were in the CIA’s Bin Ladin center at the time everything was happening. Yet they didn’t interview them. And then I also discovered they never investigated NSA’s role in the entire 9/11. My book was reviewed in the Washington Post by Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from Nebraska who was on the 9/11 Commission. And he said my book went well beyond what the Commission investigated and what other investigative reporters have come up with thus far. The fact that an author, just out there on his own, can come up with more than what the entire Commission was able to do, with all the millions of dollars they had and enormous amount of staff. What apparently happened was that the Commission had no interest in NSA whatsoever. The staff tried to get the staff [??] to look at NSA records and they had only an interest in looking at the CIA. The staffers had mentioned that they thought it was – looking at the CIA was a sexy thing to look at and looking at the NSA was a lot of people with computers and they didn’t really understand it. So it was a terrible investigation I thought.
PETER B. COLLINS: Indeed, I was there for a few days observing the work of the 9/11 Commission and I was similarly appalled. And in retrospect I’ve interviewed a number of people, members of the FAA Red Team. They were in charge of security at airports and knew what the status was of those efforts. They never really paid any attention to those who profited by betting against airline stocks – in the week before 9/11 – with stock options that were intended to make a big profit if airlines stocks dropped precipitously. Those are just a couple of examples and I have no confidence really in the ultimate product of the 9/11 Commission.
SIBEL EDMONDS: Neither do I.
JAMES BAMFORD: I actually interviewed Lee Hamilton, the Co-chairman of the Committee. And I asked him, did you ever interview Mike Hayes, head of NSA. And he couldn’t remember whether he interviewed him. This was the head of the largest intelligence agency in the country and the Co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission couldn’t remember whether he interviewed him or not. It was just extraordinary.
(beginning at 56:50)
PETER B. COLLINS: And when we hear the candid comments that Jim Bamford made and I second and I know you agree with, related to the work of the 9/11 Commission. It was a kind of public drama that they put on to pacify the survivors of 9/11 victims and those of us who were seeking the truth. But the most important thing, I think, to take away from that is that however it happened, and I don’t believe the official story that we’ve been told about 9/11, I’ll put that aside for now. The point is that we were skunked on 9/11. Our defense systems, our NSA programs to monitor the behavior of those who threatened us, it was a complete and utter failure. And yet those most responsible got promoted.
SIBEL EDMONDS: Absolutely, and Peter, as he (James Bamford) mentioned in his writing regarding the 9/11 Commission not interviewing these people, another thing he mentioned – that the media has not covered this – this angle – these two FBI agents that were not interviewed. And as you said, here is James Bamford able to go out there and get this information and put it out there – confirm information – so where are the rest of these people (the press)?
PETER B. COLLINS: Yeah, well they’re chasing Michael Jackson stories and they’ll be diverted to that for quite a while I’m afraid and of course Republican sex scandals take precedence over the critical issues of our constitutional rights. It’s really upside-down, Sibel.
SIBEL EDMONDS: It is, and can’t you feel, the water is boiling, Peter.
From Sibel Edmonds website: James Bamford is one of the country’s leading writers on intelligence and national security issues. His books include “The Puzzle Palace,” “Body of Secrets,” “A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies,” and most recently “ The Shadow Factory”. Mr. Bamford co-produced NOVA’s “The Spy Factory”, which was based on his latest book. He has written for many magazines, including investigative cover stories for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone. His 2005 Rolling Stone article “The Man Who Sold the War” won a National Magazine Award for reporting. He also spent a decade as the Washington investigative producer for the ABC News program, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and taught at the University of California, Berkeley, as a distinguished visiting professor.