WASHINGTON — A secretive U.S.
eavesdropping agency monitored telephone conversations before Sept.
11 between the suspected commander of the World Trade Center and
Pentagon attacks and the alleged chief hijacker, but did not share
the information with other intelligence agencies, U.S. officials
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
conversations between Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atta were
intercepted by the National Security Agency, or NSA, an intelligence
agency that monitors and decodes foreign communications.
The NSA failed to share the intercepts with the CIA or other U.S.
intelligence agencies, the officials told Knight Ridder. It also
failed to promptly translate some intercepted Arabic language
conversations, a senior intelligence official said.
The officials declined to disclose the nature of the discussions
between Mohammed, a known leader of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida
network who is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, and Atta,
who piloted one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
Another intelligence official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said it was "simply not true" that the NSA monitored the
conversations and failed to share the information with other
An NSA spokesperson said that as a rule "we neither confirm or
deny actual or alleged intelligence operations." She declined to say
The disclosure of the intercepts marks the first time the NSA has
been dragged into the controversy over whether U.S. intelligence and
law enforcement agencies may have had information prior to Sept. 11
that could have helped avert history's most deadly terrorist
The CIA and FBI are already under fire for mishandling
information that could have provided clues to the attack or to the
presence in the United States of some of the hijackers.
A U.S. official familiar with the NSA intercepts said they might
have contributed to the building of a "threat matrix" — or overall
picture — if added to the CIA and FBI information.
The House and Senate intelligence committees are scrutinizing the
NSA, CIA and FBI as they examine what the government knew or should
have known about the terrorist threat prior to the attacks.
Committee investigators are aware of the intercepts of the
conversations between Mohammed and Atta and the NSA's failure to
share them with other intelligence agencies, said the senior U.S.
The official said investigators had determined that some
intercepts were not translated in a timely fashion. In other cases,
he said, NSA analysts apparently did not recognize the significance
of what they had.
The congressional investigators' initial conclusion is that the
NSA's human and technical systems are not up to the job of
translating, sorting, analyzing and disseminating the
ever-increasing avalanche of data the agency collects, the official
"The basic task of an intelligence analyst is to take a pile of
stuff from different sources and look for a pattern," said the
senior intelligence official. "In order for that to work, the
analysts need to see everything that's available. But with the
system we have, they almost never do, because the system doesn't
The NSA is the U.S. intelligence community's premier code-breaker
and foreign communications eavesdropper. It also protects American
Run by the Department of Defense, the NSA is the largest of the
13 agencies that make up the U.S. "intelligence community." It was
created in 1952 and was once so secret that it was jokingly referred
to as "No Such Agency." Although its budget and staff size are
secrets, it is believed to have more than 30,000 employees and an
annual budget of more than $5 billion.
From its headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., outside Washington, the
agency operates a globe-spanning network of satellites and ground
stations that monitor millions of telephone and fax calls, radio
signals and e-mails. It also processes signals collected by ships,
submarines and aircraft.
Acres of underground super computers that recognize keywords such
as names search through the data to find communications such as
conversations between terrorists.
The NSA is prohibited by law from monitoring calls to and from
the United States without special court orders.
The high-tech spy agency is credited with coups that helped win
the Cold War, such as listening to Soviet leaders' talking on the
telephone in their limousines. Another NSA victory was catching
Libya red-handed in the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque.
More recently, the NSA alerted the CIA, FBI and other agencies to
a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000 between a bin
Laden lieutenant and two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
But in recent years, the agency has struggled under post-Cold War
budget and staff cuts. Meanwhile, a global explosion in
telecommunications technologies, from digital telephones to fiber
optic networks, has made the NSA's task more difficult.
Other NSA problems include aging equipment and a lack of
"They're still going through these . . . changes, the extremely
difficult changes, converting from the Cold War to the war on
terrorism," said James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA.
In fighting terrorism, the agency focused on watching for large
transfers of cash and explosives, Bamford said. But the Sept. 11
plot involved neither. It revolved around small terrorist cells
whose members rarely talked and whose methods were no more
sophisticated than "getting together to knock over a gas station,"
The senior intelligence official said that when the NSA monitored
their conversations, Mohammed was overseas and Atta was in the
Mohammed was included on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorist List
when it was published in October because he had been indicted on
charges of being involved in a failed 1995 plot to bomb 11 U.S.
airliners flying over the Pacific Ocean on a single day. The U.S.
Justice Department has offered a $25 million reward for him.
Based on information developed since Sept. 11, including recent
interrogations of a senior al-Qaida member captured in Pakistan,
U.S. officials have concluded that Mohammed had overall command of
the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks.
The FBI says Mohammed is from Kuwait, but the Kuwaiti government
denies he is a citizen.
According to U.S. officials, Atta, an Egyptian, was the leader of
the 19 hijackers who crashed two airliners into the World Trade
Center, another into the Pentagon and a fourth into a field in
U.S. investigators believe Mohammed might have met several times
in Germany in 1999 with Atta or members of Atta's al-Qaida