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June 7, 2002
 
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NSA
President Bush walks out of the National Security Operations Center with NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, during a tour of the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., June 4. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
A Big Warning
Security Agency Intercepted Arabic Conversation that Spoke of the Sept. 11 Attacks, But Failed to Translate It in Time
ABCNEWS.com

June 7 The National Security Agency intercepted and secretly recorded at least one conversation in Arabic before the Sept. 11 attacks in which the participants spoke about something big that was going to happen on that day, ABCNEWS has learned.



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However, the information was not translated until after the attacks because agency officials were too swamped and overwhelmed with data, sources told ABCNEWS. This is the first reported intelligence information that referred specifically to Sept. 11 as a time for the attack.

Part of the problem, sources said, is that the agency, which coordinates, directs, and engages in specialized activities to protect U.S. information systems and produce foreign intelligence information, gets millions of pieces of information, and does not have enough analysts to search through it all and interpret it. Unfortunately, the Sept. 11 attacks illustrated that problem.

Some government officials downplayed the significance of this revelation to ABCNEWS, saying they get specific dates frequently in their intelligence gathering, and that this information was not specific as to place or mode of attack.

However, one source told ABCNEWS the information National Security Agency officials received was the kind of thing that might have prompted an alert, if it had been known to parts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

Latest Pre-Sept. 11 Failure

The revelation is yet another example of how the U.S. intelligence apparatus uncovered hints of the Sept. 11 attacks, but failed to use them.

Sources told ABCNEWS earlier this week that the CIA knew that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers met with al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000 more than 18 months before the attacks but apparently did not convince the FBI to track them until less than three weeks before the attacks.

FBI agents were searching for the two suspected hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in New York on Sept. 10.

And the FBI is still reeling from revelations of missed signals uncovered by field agents but ignored by headquarters.

An agent in Phoenix warned headquarters to investigate flight schools nationwide after he uncovered several students he suspected of links to terrorism. Then agents in Minneapolis tried to get a national security search warrant to examine the possessions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been accused as the "20th hijacker", but were thwarted. Information in his computer and property included airplane plans and apparent links to terrorists, sources have said.

Such failures were the focus of hearings on Capitol Hill Wednesday and Thursday.

Consolidated Agency to Combat Terror

Perhaps in response to the questions surrounding the handling of pre-Sept. 11 warning signs, President Bush proposed creating a new Department of Homeland Security that would consolidate functions of several federal agencies to better combat terror at home. Bush urged Congress to support the creation of the agency, saying his purpose was not to increase the size of government but to increase its focus and effectiveness in the war on terrorism.

Bush's proposal marks a change in approach on combating terrorism at home. Soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he created the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate the government's approach to domestic security and his goal was to avoid turning the office into a Cabinet position despite calls from lawmakers. One reason Bush wanted to keep homeland security out of the Cabinet was to provide some buffer against congressional questioning.

In the end, however, administration sources said, Bush decided a Cabinet position was the best way to change the government's approach to defense at home.

Reported by ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas and Martha Raddatz in Washington, D.C.

 
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