The National Security Agency issued a top-secret intelligence report on the day the destroyer USS Cole was bombed, warning that terrorists were planning an attack in the region, The Washington Times has learned.
The warning was not received until after the ship was attacked.
Intelligence officials say this raises questions about whether the military could have taken steps to prevent the attack if the alert had been received earlier.
Despite worldwide instantaneous communications, the agency usually requires 24 to 48 hours to gather, translate and disseminate the highly classified reports. The information contained in the report could have been known before the attack, the officials said.
The final report was not distributed until several hours after the bombing, which took place in the early morning hours of Oct. 12, Washington time. The blast killed 17 sailors and wounded 39, and ripped a 40-foot hole in the hull of the Cole.
The NSA warning stated that terrorists, whom intelligence officials did not identify, were involved in “operational planning” for an attack on U.S. or Israeli personnel or property in the Middle East.
One official said the warning was specific to an attack in Yemen, but other officials said it was more general and referred to the Persian Gulf region.
U.S. intelligence and military officials said the warning was not disseminated soon enough and was not reported on the U.S. intelligence community’s worldwide computer network called Intellink, the most widely used intelligence reporting channel.
“There was nothing in the normal intelligence reporting on this,” said one official.
NSA reports normally are not widely disseminated within government because of their sensitivity. The system for reporting terrorist threat alerts is carried out through separate reporting channels.
NSA reports are sent to the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department intelligence and the intelligence arms of the military services for inclusion in their reporting. Those reports then are made available to the policy-makers and military commanders.
The NSA reported that members of the group were tracked to Dubai and Beirut as part of planning for the terrorist operation, said officials familiar with the report who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, announced yesterday that it had received a “specific threat” of attack in the past 48 hours that prompted commanders to order U.S. forces in Qatar and Bahrain to go to their highest state of alert.
“Given the circumstances, the recent attack on the Cole and the generally higher level of threat throughout that region, we thought it was simply the prudent thing to do, to go to that higher threat condition in those two specific areas,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told reporters.
About 1,100 military personnel are posted in Bahrain where the Fifth Fleet has a headquarters. About 50 troops are in Qatar to manage a stockpile of war material that could be called on for a regional conflict.
The issue of specific warnings and the Pentagon’s handling of the Cole incident will be discussed during a House Armed Services Committee hearing set for today. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson is scheduled to testify.
The terrorist organization identified in the NSA report was described by the officials as “a known group,” but was not identified.
Suspects for the attack have been identified by U.S. officials as terrorists linked to Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden and an associated group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
In examining intelligence reports leading up to the bombing, intelligence officials uncovered several key indicators but no solid information about the specific attack.
The officials said that in addition to the NSA report, two other pieces of intelligence are being investigated:
A Yemeni national was invited on board one of two U.S. Navy destroyers that docked in Aden in August. The Yemeni was invited to a meal in an officers’ stateroom but insisted on eating on the mess deck the same area that was hit on the Cole’s midsection as sailors were eating a meal.
Intelligence officials suspect the Yemeni could have been conducting surveillance of the ship.
On previous Navy ship visits to Aden, no visitors were on the shoreline. However, when the Cole arrived in port, its docks were lined with people, an indicator that local residents may have anticipated some type of attack.
Spokesman for the CIA, NSA and the Pentagon declined to comment on the NSA report, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence.
An intelligence official said that “if such a threat report existed, you can be sure that it was disseminated widely and certainly shared with the military.”
A senior military official said since the bombing that intelligence officials checked the message traffic and found no specific terrorist threat warnings issued on Oct. 12. “We have no traffic that points to a specific threat to Yemen regarding Cole or a ship visit,” the official said.
The Navy on Friday revised its account of the bombing. It initially stated that the suicide bombers had been part of a group of boats about 21 feet to 25 feet long that were helping the Cole tie up to a refueling buoy.
The blast initially was said to have occurred at 12:15 p.m. local time, or 5:15 a.m. EDT, as the ship was being helped by the small boats in tying up to a refueling buoy.
The later account said the blast occurred at 11:18 a.m. (4:18 a.m. EDT) after the ship had moored. The revised account is significant because it indicates the ship was attacked by a lone boat as the ship was in the process of refueling. It also indicates a possible breakdown in security.
Defense officials said the latest warning of an attack was received in the past two days and was specific enough to alert U.S. forces to increase their defensive posture from Threat Condition Charlie to Threat Condition Delta the highest alert status.
Adm. Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, said local military commanders around the world are apprised of terrorist threat information and are in charge of taking precautions against attack.
“The information on the threats that was perceived by the intelligence community against the U.S. forces in those areas is communicated not only to the local commanders but up and down the chain of command,” he said. “So it was not like it was only shared with the local commanders.”
He described the warning system as “a continuous iterative process.”
The threat condition at the time of the Cole bombing was Threat Condition Charlie, the second to highest alert level.
The warning announced yesterday covers the staff of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and support activities related to it in Bahrain and Qatar.
The Threat Condition Delta is based on conditions when a terrorist attack has occurred, “or intelligence indicates likely terrorist action against a specific location,” Adm. Quigley said.