- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The National Security Agency, thrust into the spotlight by revelations that it intercepts foreign-to-U.S. communications, was a reluctant warrior in such domestic cases until al Qaeda struck on September 11.

The agency, its unassuming headquarters hidden by the walls of Fort Meade, Md., shunned seeking a federal court’s permission to conduct eavesdropping inside the United States because it thought that was the FBI’s job.

Its managers did not fully investigate two names that turned up in intercepts in 1999 because no one in the Clinton administration asked it to do so. The NSA, and everyone else, later learned that the men were among the September 11 hijackers.

After the attacks, and President Bush’s pledge to prevent further strikes, the NSA broke out of its shell — at least within the labyrinth of the U.S. intelligence community.

Mr. Bush disclosed to the nation Saturday that in 2002 he authorized the NSA to intercept communications — presumedly telephone and e-mail — between al Qaeda-linked people overseas and those they contacted in the U.S. Such eavesdropping normally requires the permission of a secretive 11-member court set up under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But Bush administration officials say that in a time of war, they do not want to risk missing the telephone call that might reveal evidence of an al Qaeda plot. And, they say, they do not always have sufficient probable cause that the intercept target is acting for a foreign power (in this case, al Qaeda), as FISA requires.

In some cases, the NSA has the telephone number of a person suspected of being linked to al Qaeda, but scant supporting evidence.

“FISA is very important in the war on terror, but it doesn’t provide the speed and the agility that we need in all circumstances to deal with this new kind of threat,” said Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

In 1999, the NSA intercepted communications involving a man named Khalid and a man named Nawaf. Their conversations indicated that “something nefarious might be afoot,” states the report of the September 11 commission.

But the NSA’s investigation went no further.

“The NSA did not think its job was to research these identities,” the report said. “It saw itself as an agency to support intelligence consumers, such as CIA. The NSA tried to respond energetically to any request made. But it waited to be asked.”

The commission concluded that had the NSA been asked, it would have been able to identify the two men and track their movements from Asia to the United States. The men were Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, among the five who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that hit the Pentagon.

Overall, NSA was reluctant even to approach the FISA court, which meets weekly in a soundproof room at the Justice Department to hear the government’s request for warrants for searches or intercepts.

After interviewing NSA officials, the commission concluded that the agency did not request FISA warrants to monitor conversations between targets overseas and those in the United States “because it believed that this was an FBI role. It also did not want to be viewed as targeting persons in the United States and possibly violating laws that governed NSA’s collection of foreign intelligence.”

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