The National Security Agency intercepted two messages on the eve of the
Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon warning that
something was going to happen the next day, but the messages were not
translated until Sept. 12, senior U.S. intelligence officials said
The Arabic-language messages said, "The match is about to begin" and
"Tomorrow is zero hour." They were discussed Tuesday before the
House-Senate intelligence committee during closed-door questioning of Lt.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the NSA, the agency responsible for
intercepting and analyzing electronic messages.
Intelligence officials said the two messages -- even if translated on
Sept. 10 -- would not have provided enough information to prevent the
attacks. But their disclosure put the NSA in the spotlight for the first
time since reports of intelligence failures began to emerge this spring
and seemed likely to sharpen the focus of the congressional investigation
-- which has been dominated by concerns about the performance of the FBI
and the CIA -- on problems at the nation's premier eavesdropping
U.S. intelligence sources said NSA analysts are not certain who was
speaking on the Sept. 10 intercepts. They came from sources -- a location
or phone number -- that were of high-enough priority to translate them
within two days but were not put in the top priority category, which
included communications from Osama bin Laden or his senior al Qaeda
"There had been a lot of chatter up there indicating something was up,"
a senior administration official said. "But it does not say where, what
and how reliable."
The official said the messages appear dramatic in hindsight but added:
"If you had it on September 10th, what does it tell you that is
The NSA declined to comment on the intercepts. "I have no information
to provide," NSA spokeswoman Judy Emmel said.
The agency provided classified information to the joint intelligence
committee more than a month ago about the messages and the failure to get
them translated until after Sept. 11. The messages, and the translating
delay, became the subject of discussions between the congressional staff
and intelligence officials before Tuesday's hearing, which in addition to
Hayden included testimony by CIA Director George J. Tenet and FBI Director
Robert S. Mueller III, according to congressional and administration
sources. The three men appeared before the panel again yesterday.
CNN first reported on the committee's discussion of the messages
The NSA, based at Fort Meade, is one of the government's most secretive
intelligence agencies. It intercepts more than 2 million electronic
communications an hour -- telephone conversations, e-mails, Internet
traffic -- from satellites and listening posts around the world.
Although the NSA consumes an estimated $6 billion of the $30 billion
the government budgets for intelligence each year, and spends most of it
on high-tech interception equipment, the agency does not have adequate
means to filter out the millions of bits of irrelevant information it
scoops up each day. Intelligence budgets are classified.
Without such filters, human translators must sort through mountains of
data, and only a fraction of the foreign-language material is translated
promptly. Much is never analyzed.
Analysts said the fate of the Sept. 10 intercepts points to a broader
aspect of the effort to improve intelligence gathering: technology vs.
humans. More than the CIA, the NSA has been criticized for failing to put
sufficient emphasis on employing enough skilled translators and analysts
to decipher what it collects.
Many observers of the intelligence system credit Hayden, who was
appointed director of the agency in March 1999, with recognizing the
problem and trying to fix it.
Over the past several years, the House and Senate intelligence panels
have criticized the NSA's failure to modernize its operations as
communications technologies have become more sophisticated. Computers that
over the past decade were used to scan messages for certain key words have
proved much less effective as targets have changed from official Russian
military and intelligence transmissions to those of individual terrorists
and terrorist groups around the world.
Congress has added money to the NSA budget in recent years, and Hayden
has assembled a major renovation plan for the agency, but Congress has
questioned whether it is satisfactory.
Since Oct. 4, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in a
speech before the House of Commons that "a range of people were warned to
return back to Afghanistan because of action on or around September 11th,"
stories have appeared in the media that a warning message had not been
taken seriously or translated by the NSA.
A senior intelligence official said yesterday it was still unclear what
information Blair was referring to. There have been references in
published reports to a message to bin Laden's mother shortly before Sept.
11 that she should return to her home in Saudi Arabia, but U.S.
intelligence officials denied having evidence that it existed.
This month, after material was sent to the congressional intelligence
panels, several stories appeared, including one that said the chief
hijacker on Sept. 11, Mohamed Atta, was overheard talking to a senior bin
Laden figure before boarding an airplane. NSA and other intelligence
officials denied that report but never indicated there were less precise
messages that had not been translated.
The House-Senate panel apparently has decided to delay hearing in an
open session testimony by Mueller, Tenet and Hayden, originally set for
next week. "We want to make sure when we go public that the right people
are there and we're prepared so we don't look like we're flying by the
seat of our pants," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.