Is Obama Telling the Truth about the NSA’s Favorite Terrorist, Khalid al-Mihdhar?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Khalid al-Mihdhar

President Barack Obama’s speech last week explaining his limited reforms on National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance referenced an old September 11 bogeyman to justify Obama’s continued support for controversial spying programs.


The man Obama discussed was Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the 9/11 hijackers. The president claimed that prior to the attacks, Mihdhar made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaeda safe-house in Yemen.


But back then, the president insisted, the NSA couldn’t identify the origin of the call. Had the agency been able to do just that, it could have helped stop the attacks.


That’s why the spy agency started collecting records of nearly every phone call made in the U.S., Obama argues, so as to avoid any more Mihdhar mistakes.


“NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] was designed to map the communications of terrorists so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible,” Obama declared in his speech.


But other accounts dispute Obama’s claim that the NSA didn’t know Mihdhar was in San Diego.


Citing James Bamford’s best-seller, The Shadow Factory (pdf), Steve Weissman at Reader Supported News wrote that both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency knew Mihdhar was part of al-Qaeda, that he was in San Diego, and that the agencies failed to share this intelligence with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


“In the NSA’s Ops 2B building counterterrorism specialists continued reading the cryptic conversations between Mihdhar and the Yemen ops center that had been picked up while targeting the center,” Bamford wrote, according to Weissman. “But inexplicably, the fact that the calls from Mihdhar had a U.S. country code and a San Diego area code – something that should have been instantly obvious to the NSA’s signals intelligence experts – was never passed on to the FBI, CIA, or anyone else.”


This means the NSA didn’t need the Patriot Act’s Section 215 to launch its massive metadata program that vacuums up millions of Americans’ phone call records to locate a key suspected terrorist in the U.S.


“Did Obama know he was telling a lie? What he said and did not say about Mihdhar suggests he knew. Without question, some of his senior national security advisors would have read Bamford, checked out any details they did not already know, and told Obama what they found,” Weissman wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Two Obama Lies Leave Little Room for Privacy Rights (by Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News)

No NSA Poster Child: The Real Story of 9/11 Hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar (by Michael German, Defense One)

Judge on NSA Case Cites 9/11 Report, But It Doesn’t Actually Support His Ruling (by Justin Elliott, ProPublica)

Judges Clash over Whether NSA Phone Data Collection is Lawful (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (by James Bamford, Google Books)


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