Media repeated Hayden's unsubstantiated claim that warrantless spy program would have alerted U.S. to 9-11 threat

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

Many news outlets have uncritically repeated Gen. Michael Hayden's claim that the administration's warrantless spying program would have detected some of the 9-11 attackers.

Numerous media outlets -- including the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, and CNN -- uncritically reported Gen. Michael V. Hayden's January 23 claim that, if the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program had been in place before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it "would have detected some of the 9-11 operatives in the U.S., and we would have identified them as such." The remark by Hayden, a deputy director for national intelligence and former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) who is closely associated with the spying program, was also touted as "a clincher" for the administration by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. By contrast, The Washington Post, which noted that Hayden's claim echoed one made on January 4 by Vice President Dick Cheney, challenged Hayden's claim by noting that the Bush administration had information on two of the 9-11 hijackers well over a year before the attacks occurred and that, according to the September 11 Commission and congressional investigators, it was primarily bureaucratic problems -- rather than a lack of information -- that were responsible for the security breakdown.

From the January 24 Washington Post article by staff writers Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus:

Hayden echoed a claim earlier this month by Vice President Cheney that, if the NSA program had been in place prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States."

Like Cheney, however, Hayden did not mention that the NSA, CIA and FBI had significant information about two of the leading hijackers as early as January 2000 but failed to keep track of them or capitalize on the information, according to the Sept. 11 commission and others. He also did not mention NSA intercepts warning of the attacks the day before, but not translated until Sept. 12, 2001.

In a January 5 article that documented Cheney's original claim, the Post also cited the September 11 Commission to report that "bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown," and that the "bigger problem" was that FBI investigators "had missed numerous opportunities to track" down Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who went on to participate in the hijackings. That article also cited Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman's assessment that, in the Post's words, Cheney's comments "ignore[d] the breadth of the government failures before the attacks."

From the January 5 Post article:

Cheney said if the administration had the power "before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon."

Even without the warrantless domestic spying program, however, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had important clues about the Sept. 11 plot and the hijackers before the attacks, according to media reports and findings by Congress and the commission.

For example, the NSA intercepted two electronic messages on Sept. 10, 2001, that warned of the attacks -- but the agency failed to translate them until Sept. 12. The Arabic-language messages said "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour," intelligence officials said.

U.S. intelligence sources have said that NSA analysts were unsure who was speaking on the intercepts but that they were considered a high enough priority for translation within two days.

Cheney's apparent reference to Alhazmi and Almihdhar is also incomplete, leaving out the fact that several government agencies had compiled significant information about the duo but had bungled efforts to track them.

According to the Sept. 11 commission's report, released in 2004, the NSA first identified Alhazmi and Almihdhar in December 1999, passing the information to the CIA but conducting no further research.

In 2000, the CIA failed to place Alhazmi and Almihdhar on a watch list despite their ties to a terrorist summit in Malaysia. The CIA also mishandled efforts to follow them after the summit and failed to share information about them with the FBI, including the crucial fact that both men had U.S. visas, the commission found.

By late August 2001, the FBI finally had information that Almihdhar had recently entered the United States. But the search for the suspected al Qaeda operative was treated as routine and assigned to a rookie agent, according to the commission report.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads Rand Corp.'s Washington office, said it is unclear what communications could have been intercepted if the FBI and other agencies did not know where Alhazmi and Almihdhar were.

Hoffman also said Cheney's comments ignore the breadth of the government failures before the attacks, which were due to structural problems rather than a single missed lead.

"It's not that legislation was lacking; it was a systemic failure," he said.

Yet many media outlets simply reported without challenge Hayden's suggestion that the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program could have identified the hijackers and their terrorist plot, while conservative media figures quickly adopted it, as the examples below illustrate.

From a January 24 article in The Wall Street Journal titled "Wiretap Program Could Have Foiled 9/11, Hayden Says":

The country's No. 2 spymaster said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. could have been prevented if the Bush administration had in place a domestic surveillance system that has been criticized by civil libertarians and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

[...]

In his speech to the National Press Club, Gen. Hayden, deputy director for national intelligence, outlined many themes that the White House is expected to use to defend the surveillance program. Chief among them is the argument that al Qaeda succeeded in striking the World Trade Center and Pentagon particularly because Washington didn't have the authority to quickly track telephone calls coming into the U.S. from suspected al Qaeda operatives in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 operatives in the U.S., and we would have identified them as such," said Gen. Hayden, who last spring concluded six years as NSA director. He seized on recent threats by Osama bin Laden to attack the U.S. as proof that Washington needs extraordinary powers to respond.

From a report by CBS White House correspondent John Roberts on the January 23 broadcast of the Evening News:

ROBERTS: With congressional hearings set to start February 6, the White House has launched an aggressive campaign to rally support. Wednesday, President Bush goes to the NSA. Tomorrow the attorney general makes a public pitch. And today it was the former NSA chief, now deputy intelligence director, saying, "If only they'd had this before 9-11."

HAYDEN [video clip]: Had this program been in effect prior to 9-11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9-11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

ROBERTS: The White House is keenly aware of the political stakes over privacy issues, taking every opportunity to say it's mindful of civil liberties and that the program is not some massive drift net soaking up everyone's communications.

From a January 23 Associated Press report:

Bush and Hayden sought to paint the program as vital to national security. "Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the al-Qaida operatives in the United States," Hayden said.

From a report by ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz on the January 23 edition of World News Tonight:

RADDATZ: The White House is approaching this with all the vigor of a campaign. The president led the defense today, insisting that spying on Americans without a warrant is necessary and legal.

BUSH [video clip]: You know, it's amazing that people say to me, well, he's just breaking the law. If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?

RADDATZ: And rather than refer to the spying as "domestic surveillance," the president today called it a "terrorist surveillance program." A program that several senior officials have been sent out to defend.

HAYDEN [video clip]: Had this program been in effect prior to 9-11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9-11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

From a report by CNN national security correspondent David Ensor on the January 23 edition of The Situation Room:

ENSOR: The Bush administration went on the offensive for its warrantless domestic surveillance program by the National Security Agency, the nation's eavesdroppers. Officials from the president on down arguing that the program is aimed only at monitoring Al Qaeda's communications in and out of the U.S.

BUSH [video clip]: And if they're making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why.

ENSOR: As part of three days of national security events to make its case, the administration also put out a respected four-star general.

HAYDEN [video clip]: Had this program been in effect prior to 9-11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9-11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States and we would have identified them as such.

ENSOR: General Michael Hayden, now the nation's number two intelligence officer, was head of the NSA in late 2001 when President Bush authorized it to listen in on certain international calls by Americans without a court warrant.

HAYDEN [video clip]: This isn't a drift net where we're soaking up everyone's communications. We're going after very specific communications that our professional judgment tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who want to kill Americans. That's what we're doing.

From the January 23 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

KRAUTHAMMER: Democrats are going to lose on this issue, because in the end, it's a president who implemented a program that has worked. The most important statement of all was Michael Hayden who said today, if we'd had this on 9-11 -- before 9-11, we would have located and intercepted a couple of the terrorists. And that's a clincher.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.