Why didn’t the commission investigating the devastating 2001 al Qaeda attacks thoroughly scrub the NSA’s files? Philip Shenon on the crucial records the government has never explored.
By Philip Shenon |thedailybeast.com
Are many of the secrets of 9/11 still hidden in top-secret government files?
Almost certainly, say former staff members of the 9/11 Commission. With the nation scheduled to mark the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks this weekend, former staffers tell The Daily Beast it is clear that the 9/11 Commission, which went out of business in 2004, failed to conduct a thorough inspection of the government’s most important library of raw intelligence on al Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. And nobody appears to have inspected that intelligence since.
The archives, maintained by the National Security Agency at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, were reviewed—in a cursory fashion—only in the final days of the commission’s investigation, and then only because of last-minute staff complaints that the NSA’s vast database was being ignored.
Throughout its investigation, staffers complained, the commission’s leaders were fixated on what could be found in the terrorism files of the CIA and the FBI, the two big targets for criticism in the panel’s final report, and largely ignored the NSA, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency.
When the commission did get into the NSA archives during a frantic, down-to-the-wire weekend search in June 2004, it found explosive material suggesting links between the 9/11 plotters and the government of Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants of Lebanon. The Iran material was forced into the commission’s final report with limited context and without any chance for followup by the commission; the panel was about to shut down. (I revealed much of this in my 2008 book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.)
“It’s always been frightening to me to consider what is still at the NSA, whatever we never had time to see,” said a former commission staff member, who now works elsewhere in the federal government and is barred from speaking to the press for attribution. “It’s kind of shocking to me that no one has tried to get back in there since. We certainly didn’t see everything at NSA.”