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US Heard 'Tomorrow Is Zero Hour' on Eve of Attacks US Heard 'Tomorrow Is Zero Hour' on Eve of Attacks
Wed Jun 19, 8:50 PM ET

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence intercepted two messages the day before the Sept. 11 attacks that indicated an event was planned the following day, but the communications were not translated until Sept. 12, government sources said on Wednesday.

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The National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications worldwide, intercepted messages that said "tomorrow is zero hour" and "the match begins tomorrow," sources said on condition of anonymity.

The agency did not translate the messages, which were in Arabic, until Sept. 12 -- the day after hijacked airliners smashed into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon ( news - web sites) killing about 3,000 people. The United States has blamed Osama bin Laden ( news - web sites)'s al Qaeda network for the attack.

The intercepted messages gave no details of the time, location or nature of the event that was to take place.

The NSA handles a huge volume of intercepted communications traffic from around the world in many different languages.

One U.S. intelligence source said no action could have been taken on the basis of such vague messages.

"Sometimes we get the ambient noise and background chatter. You don't know who is talking," the source said.

"Is there actionable intelligence in this? Absolutely not. This is not a smoking gun."

A U.S. official said the two messages were so non-specific that even had they been translated the same day they were intercepted, they would not have rung any alarm bells.

"You know how many times we hear things much more serious than that? Lots of times," the official said on condition of anonymity. The messages only took on potential significance in hindsight, the official said.

NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden was among the intelligence officials who testified this week at closed-door hearings of the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees conducting a joint investigation of intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11.

The FBI ( news - web sites) and the CIA ( news - web sites) have been strongly criticized by Congress for failing to pick up on a number of clues before the attacks and for poorly sharing information with each other.

Some lawmakers made the point at the hearings that NSA was only translating, analyzing and disseminating a portion of the huge volume of communications it collected, and that it needed to improve.

The FBI is undergoing fundamental reforms, and President Bush ( news - web sites) has proposed creating a new Homeland Security Department to better coordinate intelligence and formulate responses to any future terrorist attack.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, on Wednesday introduced legislation that would create the post of Director of National Intelligence to oversee all the intelligence agencies and have a separate CIA director.

Currently the CIA director wears two hats -- in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency ( news - web sites) as well as overseeing the whole intelligence community which has segments in the Defense Department and the State Department.

The House and Senate intelligence committees had planned to hold public hearings about Sept. 11 next week, but some lawmakers said those were likely to be delayed.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, said the final decision on when the open hearings would be held was to be made on Thursday.

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