By Jim VandeHei and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have been prevented if the Bush administration had had the power to secretly monitor conversations involving two of the hijackers without court orders.
As part of an effort to sell Americans on the administration's recently disclosed program to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communications between the United States and people overseas without a warrant, Cheney told a small group of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation that instead of being able to "pick up" on the terrorist plot "we didn't know they were here plotting until it was too late."
But Cheney did not mention that the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown, according to congressional investigators and the Sept. 11 commission. Moreover, the administration had the power to eavesdrop on their calls and e-mails, as long as it sought permission from a secret court that oversees clandestine surveillance in the United States.
The bigger problem was that the FBI and other agencies did not know where the two suspects -- Cheney's office confirmed that he was referring to Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- were living in the United States and had missed numerous opportunities to track them down in the 20 months before the attacks, according to the Sept. 11 commission and other sources.
In his speech, scheduled as part of a White House offensive to defend the recently disclosed surveillance program, Cheney painted an ominous portrait of U.S. security without the controversial practice. Critics said the surveillance has been unconstitutional, carried out without explicit congressional approval or court oversight. The administration said it gained broad powers from a congressional resolution after Sept. 11.
Cheney said the National Security Agency program, combined with the expanded surveillance powers authorized by the USA Patriot Act, has saved lives -- and thwarted terrorist attacks.
"No one can guarantee that we won't be hit again, but neither should anyone say that the relative safety of the last four years came as an accident," Cheney said. "America has been protected not by luck but by sensible policy decisions."
Under a secret order signed by President Bush after Sept. 11, the NSA was freed from its normal restraints and allowed to eavesdrop on the international communications of U.S. citizens and residents. Bush and other administration officials have said the spying has been limited to cases involving suspected al Qaeda associates here or overseas. "This wartime measure is limited in scope to surveillance associated with terrorists," Cheney said.
A few hours earlier, Bush met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials at the Pentagon and offered an optimistic appraisal of progress in Iraq and the broader terrorism fight. Bush highlighted the recent decision to slightly reduce troop levels in Iraq and suggested that additional withdrawals could come this year.
"Later this year, if Iraqis continue to make progress on the security and political sides that we expect, we can discuss further possible adjustments with the leaders of a new government in Iraq," Bush said. The White House is planning speeches in the next few weeks to highlight progress in Iraq and defend the spying program, which has come under heavy criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. The program is expected to be scrutinized in hearings later this month.
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.