Early 1996-October 1998: US Tracks bin Laden’s Satellite Phone Calls

Complete 911 Timeline

During this period, bin Laden and Mohammed Atef, his military commander, use a satellite phone provided by a friend to direct al-Qaeda’s operations. Its use is discontinued two months after a US missile strike against bin Laden’s camps on August 20, 1998, when an unnamed senior official boasts that the US can track his movements through the use of the phone. [Sunday Times, 3/24/02]

Records show “Britain was at the heart of the terrorist’s planning for his worldwide campaign of murder and destruction.” 260 calls were made to 27 phone numbers in Britain. The other countries called were Yemen (over 200 calls), Sudan (131), Iran (106), Azerbaijan (67), Pakistan (59), Saudi Arabia (57), a ship in the Indian Ocean (13), the US (6), Italy (6), Malaysia (4), and Senegal (2). “The most surprising omission is Iraq, with not a single call recorded.” [Sunday Times, 3/24/02]

People and organizations involved: al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atef

Pay special attention to those 200 calls to Yemen, because some of those calls were vital to tracing Bin-Laden to the African Embassy bombings, the Cole bombings, and to 9/11.

It involves a ‘safe house’ that the NSA was monitoring, and calls made from this safe house are now being used as a justification for jettisoning our Fourth Amendment rights.

Late August 1998: Captured Al-Qaeda Operatives Leads US to Safe House Phone Number

Complete 911 Timeline

An al-Qaeda operative involved in the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi is captured and interrogated by the FBI. The FBI learns the telephone number of a safe house in Yemen, owned by bin Laden associate Ahmed al-Hada, hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s father-in-law [Die Zeit, 10/1/02; Newsweek, 6/2/02]

US intelligence also learns that the safe house is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. [Newsweek, 6/2/02]

It is later revealed that bin Laden called the safe house dozens of times from 1996 to 1998 (the two years he had a traced satellite phone). [Sunday Times, 3/24/02; Los Angeles Times, 9/1/02]

The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. [Mirror, 6/9/02]

The NSA later records Khalid Almihdhar and other hijackers calling this house, including calls from the US. In late 1999, the phone line will lead the CIA to an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. [Newsweek, 6/2/02] It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until the safe house is raided by the Yemeni government in February 2002. [CBS News, 2/13/02]

Who is Khalid Almidhar?

He was, allegedly, one of the hijackers aboard Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. He was the son-in-law of the owner of the Yemen safe house. And he rented a room from an FBI informant.

A former landlord of two of the September 11 hijackers was an FBI informant at the time, knowledgeable sources confirm to CNN.

The two hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, lived in San Diego in the fall of 2000 and were taken in by a Muslim man after he met them at a local Islamic center. The landlord had been an informant for the FBI, supplying information about the Islamic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

The revelation, first reported by Newsweek, focuses renewed attention on possible mistakes made by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence prior to September 11. Newsweek reported that the FBI informant lived in close quarters with the two future hijackers.

“The FBI concedes that a San Diego case agent appears to have been at least aware that Saudi visitors were renting rooms in the informant’s house,” Newsweek reported.

You can learn more about Almidhar and the Yemen connection, here.

So, let’s recap before we move forward. The FBI captured a man involved in the 1998 African Embassy bombings. He told them about a safe house in Yemen owned by Khalid Almidhar’s father-in-law. The intelligence community placed bugs in the house (CIA), used satellites to monitor visitors (National Reconnaissance Office), and they traced their phone calls (NSA).

Khalid Almidhar moved to San Diego, (after being monitored at a terrorist meeting in Malaysia and tailed by the CIA), where he moved into an apartment of an FBI informant. The FBI case officer admits to knowing about the Saudi tenants living in his informant’s house.

This informant was not allowed to testify before Congress or the 9/11 Commission.

Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham accused the White House on Tuesday of covering up evidence that might have linked Saudi Arabia to the Sept. 11 hijackers…

…The cover-up charge stems from the FBI’s refusal to allow inquiry staff to interview an informant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had been the landlord in San Diego of Sept. 11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

In his book “Intelligence Matters,” Graham said an FBI official wrote to Goss and Graham in November 2002 and said “the administration would not sanction a staff interview with the source. Nor did the administration agree to allow the FBI to serve subpoena or a notice of deposition on the source.”

In his telephone news conference, Graham called the letter “a smoking gun” and said, “The reason for this cover-up goes right to the White House.”

Now, there is more smoke involving these San Diego hijackers. They received money, indirectly, from the wife of Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Findings from an inquiry by the House-Senate Joint Intelligence Committee suggest evidence indicates money from the Saudi Arabian government could have made its way to the two hijackers through two Saudi students when they were in California.

There is some evidence that the students received a payment through the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, according to the inquiry.

Now, Dick Cheney made the following argument at the Heritage Foundation today:

“There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al Qaeda that have one end in the United States,” Cheney said. “If we’d been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon.”

“They were in the United States, communicating with al Qaeda associates overseas, but we didn’t know they were here plotting until it was too late,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin dismissed Cheney’s argument as “the kind people like to make sometimes when they’re trying to cover their tracks.”

Russ is probably more correct than he realizes. Setting all conspiracy theories aside, we already know that the NSA monitored Almidhar’s phone calls to the Yemen safe house. Whether they had a warrant to do that is irrelevent. They did it. It’s on the public record that they did it.

Ergo, Dick Cheney’s entire argument is flawed and misleading.

Our failure to apprehend Almidhar prior to 9/11 may have many causes, including the lack of communication between the NSA, NRO, CIA, and the FBI. But, it has nothing to do with a need for speed in getting a warrant to wiretap his communications with Yemen.

And, given the above set of facts, no FISA judge would have denied a warrant.

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