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Declassify the NSA’s files on Iran and al Qaeda

Nine years after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government still hasn’t combed through its own files on al Qaeda’s rise.

4:39 PM, Sep 10, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The must-read piece on terrorism this week comes from Philip Shenon, writing at The Daily Beast. Shenon writes about a cache of intelligence documents stored at the National Security Agency (NSA) that received a cursory review by the 9/11 Commission because they were only discovered shortly before the Commission’s final report went to the presses. It is a story that Shenon tells in his 2008 book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.

Declassify the NSA’s files on Iran and al Qaeda

It is a story that I tell in my 2007 monograph, Iran’s Proxy War Against America, and in a number of articles.

And it is a story that Ken Timmerman told before both of us in his 2005 book, Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.

Since I published Iran’s Proxy War Against America, I’ve talked to various current and former government officials who have confirmed the story either in part or in its entirety. And Shenon confirms it once again.

Boiling the story down to its basic elements goes something like this. The 9/11 Commission never got a chance to properly review the NSA’s archives, which contained some of the best (if not THE best) intelligence on al Qaeda prior to September 11. The Commission only got to review some of the documents. And when it did, well, here is how Shenon accurately describes it:

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.

Shenon cites a former Commission staffer as saying, “It's always been frightening to me to consider what is still at the NSA, whatever we never had time to see.”

The staffer added, “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.”

The former staffers Shenon talked to rightly dismiss conspiracy theories suggesting that the Bush administration was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks. But, Shenon reports (emphasis added), “they say there may well be evidence at the agency to suggest closer ties than have been previously disclosed between al Qaeda and foreign governments, and that the government had far more explicit warnings of an imminent terrorist attack in 2001.”

Nine years after the September 11 attacks, it is long past the day when the NSA’s files should have been fully analyzed. No one in government is apparently willing to do it. And even if there are willing parties, there are deep institutional biases when it comes to analyzing al Qaeda’s ties to foreign governments. That is, many “analysts” are so invested in the notion that al Qaeda never, ever receives any significant state sponsorship (even though al Qaeda got its start with the help of states) that they invent reasons to dismiss evidence that contradicts their paradigm.

Here is one quick example. As I’ve written previously, both the 9/11 Commission and Clinton-era prosecutors found that al Qaeda’s August 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were directly modeled after Hezbollah’s attacks in Lebanon in the early 1980’s. The 9/11 Commission reported that Osama bin Laden himself went to Iran and Hezbollah for help in executing such attacks because he was so impressed with their efficacy. Iran and Hezbollah agreed to show al Qaeda to pull off such bombings and, as a result, al Qaeda operatives traveled to Hezbollah’s camps in Lebanon to receive training.

The 9/11 Commission explained that al Qaeda “had begun developing the tactical expertise for such attacks [the embassy bombings]…when some of its operatives – top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell among them – were sent to Hizbullah training camps in Lebanon.”

To this day, Iran still harbors one of the chief perpetrators of the embassy bombings, Saif al Adel, who is one of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. Al Adel also received training from Hezbollah in the early 1990s.

None of this is difficult to piece together. It can all be found in publicly-available documents. (You can check the footnotes in Iran’s Proxy War Against America if you are interested.) The testimony of al Qaeda operatives given during the course of the embassy bombings trial in early 2001 also confirmed it.

But the lesson never sunk in. The 1998 embassy bombings were al Qaeda’s most lethal and most ambitious operation prior to the 9/11 attacks. And bin Laden’s minions pulled it off with help from Iran and Hezbollah. Yet, you will still find a good number of analysts who simply assume that the Sunnis of al Qaeda could never work with the Shiites from Iran. That is foolish, and contradicted by volumes of evidence.

There is much, much more to all of this. But the U.S. government’s bureaucracies haven’t shown much interest in it. So, why not declassify the documents reviewed by the 9/11 Commission, as well as documents the Commission didn’t get a chance to review? We don’t need “experts” inside the government to read them for us. They have had plenty of time to do that but, as Shenon reports, they chose not to.

Sources and methods can be obscured if necessary. Although, I think that is doubtful given that the intelligence is by now old and the government hasn’t made good use of it any way.

Declassify and release the NSA’s files. 9/11 Commission staffers say they didn’t get a chance to review them fully. It is about time someone did.  

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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