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U.S. Intelligence Intercepts Messages Prior to September 11 Attacks

Aired June 19, 2002 - 15:09   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm being told it's concerning transmissions intercepted by the NSA on September 10th just prior to the September 11th attacks. Our national security correspondent David Ensor joins us now from Washington with more details -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Kyra, it has been previously reported here and elsewhere, that the National Security Agency, which is the big ear of the government, the eavesdropping intelligence agency of the U.S. government overheard intercepted a couple of conversations on September 10th, the day before the September 11th attacks, in which it was said that something big might be about to happen the next day.

We now have the exact language of those two intercepts from two congressional sources to our producer, Dana Bash (ph), and other officials elsewhere in the government say that they would not quarrel with this -- with this language. Let me give you the exact language now of two intercepts, electronic intercepts done by the NSA on September 10th, the day before the attack.

The first intercept said, "the match begins tomorrow." And in a separate intercept, U.S. intelligence officials gathered this information: "Tomorrow is zero day."

Now, officials who I've talked to about this caution that this is not in their view, actionable intelligence. These intercepts were not translated, however, until September 12th. They were not translated until the day after the attacks. So even if they'd known what it was, they were not in time to do something before September 11th with this information.

But having said that, as I say, U.S. officials point out this is not actionable intelligence. You don't know who's going to do it. You don't know where they're going to do it. You don't know where they're going to do and, in fact, officials say they were not entirely clear who was talking in these conversations.

So these were warning signals that were not picked up in time, but they would not, in the view of officials I've spoken to at least, allow the U.S. government to take actions that would have stopped the September 11th attacks.

Now, the National Security Agency out there in Ft. Meade, Maryland outside Washington, is the largest intelligence agency in the United States. It monitors literally thousands, thousands and thousands of communications each day and each week. With the advent of modern technology, the amount of communications that the agency has to monitor has just mushroomed. And in the post Cold War world, there are so many more targets to monitor.

That said, with some legislators saying that they think the NSA needs more translators and more help, other officials are pointing out that there's a limit to how many people they can have listening in, and they are saying what's needed is perhaps a better culling process of the kinds of intelligence that's coming in. They are working very hard on that.

So again, the new news is the exact word of two intercepts that were picked up by the NSA according to two congressional sources telling CNN's Dana Bash (ph), "the match begins tomorrow," and "tomorrow is zero day." Those are phrases out of electronic intercepts brought in by the NSA on September 10th, but not translated until September 12th. Back to you, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: David, just real quickly, why are transmissions -- why aren't they translated the day of? Why does it take two days?

ENSOR: There are just so many thousands of communications, which are intercepted in one way or another by the U.S. government. They simply cannot translate all of them. They have to prioritize them, and get to them as quickly as they can.

Now these were of a high enough priority that they were gotten to, obviously there was additional reason to do so on September 12th, but they were not gotten to on September 10th. They were not being listened to by somebody at the same time as they were coming in. If they had been, though, officials say, what would you have done if you knew that something was going to happen tomorrow, maybe?

Officials point out that they, since September 11th, have gotten multiple intercepts suggesting some action might be taken against the United States or U.S. targets on a date certain. And then, nothing happens.

So, you know, do you close down the economy when you get something like this? If you did, we wouldn't have a functioning country. It's a very, very difficult set -- a balance that the U.S. government has to try and reach and the U.S. intelligence has to reach. In this particular case, it didn't work out right -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: David Ensor, thank you.

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