NSA Eavesdropping on the World

Eavesdropping on the World

James Bamford’s new book comes up short on 9/11

by Mark H. Gaffney - March 11, 2009

In January 2009, during Israel’s ferocious attacks on Gaza, there were
numerous reports on the Internet that Israeli Prime Minister Olmert had
boasted about “wagging the US dog.” Supposedly Olmert bragged that he
had pulled Bush off a stage while the president was making a speech and
demanded that Bush block a UN Security Council cease-fire resolution.
The US had already vetoed an earlier cease-fire resolution in late
December, but by the eighth of January, with the death toll rapidly
mounting in Gaza, Israel’s war against Hamas was wearing thin. For days
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had been working with Arab and
European governments to craft a cease-fire resolution that every member
of the Security Council would support, including the US.

Israel, however, strongly opposed a cease-fire. The IDF had not yet
finished its military operations in Gaza. But there was also another
concern. The US was in danger of deviating from its standard policy of
uncritically supporting whatever Israel does. Therefore, Rice had to be
taught a lesson and the US government brought back into the fold.

At the time, I didn’t take any of this too seriously, attributing it to
the Internet rumor mill. That is, until I read a report about it in The
Forward, a leading Jewish web journal, whereupon, I realized that the
story was true. [1] After the call from PM Olmert, President Bush rang
up his secretary of state and dutifully passed on the instruction to
back off. Bush apparently reached Rice just minutes before the UN vote.
In the end, as we know, Rice only abstained. The UN resolution passed by
a vote of 14-0 and, later, Rice was sharply criticized because she did
not exercise the US veto to kill it outright. Even so, Olmert could not
resist bragging about his great achievement in neutralizing US support
for a cease-fire.

Israel’s punishing assault on the Palestinians continued for another ten
days. Nonetheless, according to the Forward, Jewish leaders were not
amused by Olmert’s little stunt. The fact he had reined in the US was
not the issue. That was perfectly OK. No, they were displeased because
Olmert had blabbed about it in public when he should have kept his mouth

The Shadow Factory

Weeks after all of this went down, a nagging question remained. How did
Olmert know that a Security Council vote on the cease-fire resolution
was imminent? Indeed, how did he know Rice was wavering? Author James
Bamford may have given us the answer in his new book about the National
Security Agency (NSA), The Shadow Factory, released this past January.
Although initially I was wary of Bamford’s research, I was largely won
over and now regard his book as a tour de force of investigative
reporting. The NSA is the single largest US spy agency, much larger than
the better-known CIA. The NSA’s 30,000 employees work in a city-sized
complex of buildings at Fort Meade, Maryland (about half-way between
Washington and Baltimore).

The NSA’s global mission is signals intelligence (SIGINT), which it
pursues in such a secretive manner that only three books about the
agency have ever been published, all of them by James Bamford. This was
the source of my wariness. By contrast, there are hundreds of books in
print about the CIA. Given the author’s unique status as the sole
reporter on the NSA beat, obvious questions arise. How did Bamford come
to have exclusive access? Was he a vehicle chosen by the powers-that-be
for the planned release of information, for purposes we can only guess?
On the one hand, The Shadow Factory is so full of shocking revelations,
some of them deeply embarrassing to the US government, that even if
parts of the story were intentionally leaked (and I have no doubt they
were) one finds it hard to quarrel with the result. The American people
need to hear this story. Even so, it is possible to admire Bamford’s
investigative work about the NSA while taking issue with his endorsement
of the official 9/11 narrative, as I do, for reasons to be discussed
later in this review.

Warrantless Wiretapping

The Shadow Factory tells the fascinating story of warrantless
wiretapping, a story so important that I regard Bamford’s book as a
must-read. However, be forewarned: The account is so detailed and the
story so convoluted that a second reading is almost obligatory. Some
will be surprised to learn that US government surveillance of the
telecommunications industry is nothing new. It long antedated the NSA
(which came into existence in 1952) and, in fact, dates back to the
period following World War I when the forerunners of the NSA struck
secret and highly illegal deals with the telecoms to monitor
communications in and out of the US.

Bamford’s discussion of how the industry evolved is especially helpful.
I was unaware that advances in fiber optics in the 1990s rendered
telecom satellites largely obsolete. Nor was I aware of the legal
ramifications stemming from the language of the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA) passed by Congress in 1978 to prevent government
abuses of privacy. FISA was the reform-minded legislation born of the
Church and Pike committee hearings in the post-Watergate era: hearings
that shocked the nation with revelations that the NSA and other US spy
agencies had for years violated the Constitution by carrying out
indiscriminate surveillance on US citizens. Although the subsequent FISA
law permitted the NSA to intercept satellite communications, it required
a special warrant (hence, probable cause) for each and every case
involving landlines, i.e., wires.

FISA also created a court to review and approve such requests from the
intelligence community. However, according to Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA
chief at the time of 9/11, due to the industry’s increasing reliance on
underground and undersea fiber-optic cables, by the late 1990s the
letter of the FISA law had become a bureaucratic nightmare. Bamford
interviewed Hayden for his book (p. 32) and I was a bit surprised that
he accepts Hayden’s explanation without more skepticism. Although it is
certainly true that when FISA was created no one foresaw the
introduction of fiber-optic cables, nonetheless, as Bamford himself
points out (p. 122), Hayden’s NSA could easily have complied with the
FISA law, despite this, while fulfilling its intelligence mission,
simply by tracing the overseas calls from the known terrorist phone hub
in Yemen, which it had been monitoring for years, back to the al Qaeda
operatives (Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar) who were hiding out in
San Diego, under the very noses of the US authorities. NSA certainly had
the capability, and because neither al-Hazmi nor al-Mihdhar were US
citizens the NSA would have had no trouble obtaining a FISA warrant for
their phone numbers, information the agency could then have legally
passed on to the FBI. In fact, given that bin Laden was public enemy
number one at the time (and by extension, so was al Qaeda) it is hard to
believe this was not done as a matter of course.

According to the author, Hayden’s policy in the period before 9/11 was
“to keep its [the NSA’s] operations as far away from US territory as
possible.” The reason? If we can believe Hayden, because the NSA chief
was sensitive to public perceptions and controversy surrounding the
NSA’s widespread use of Echelon in past years to monitor cell phone
calls. I must say I was surprised that Bamford did not grill Hayden on
this, since as the author himself points out (p. 38), “there is….little
question….that all it would take for life to imitate art [i.e., Orwell’s
1984] was a few secret decisions…”

Whatever his professed scruples before the 9/11 attack, Gen. Hayden
showed none after it. When G.W. Bush declared his “war on terrorism”
Hayden set aside any concerns about the Constitution and dutifully
expanded the NSA’s surveillance mission. Soon the NSA was snooping on
everyone, including officials at the United Nations. As reported by the
author (p. 140), a former member of Tony Blair’s cabinet, Claire Short,
set off a storm in the UK when she later admitted that before the Iraq
war she had read secret transcripts of UN Secretary General Kofi Anon’s
private conversations. Evidently, the NSA provided the transcripts to
British intelligence, which then made them available to Prime Minister
Blair, who in turn shared them with his cabinet.

During the run-up to war the Bush White House was particularly keen, for
obvious reasons, to spy on the undecided members of the Security
Council. With the help of Hayden’s NSA, the neocons were able to learn
which of the member states could be brought around with an appropriately
tailored package of inducements. As Bamford put it, “Having already won
over the US Congress and the American public, the Bush administration
was not about to let a half dozen third world countries get between them
and their war.”

Tapping the Information Superhighway

In 2003 NSA surveillance took a major leap forward when the agency
overcame the challenges posed by fiber-optic cables. The NSA
accomplished this by secretly arranging with AT&T and other telecoms to
set up spy rooms in the companies’ giant switch facilities where they
installed cable-splitters, thus gaining direct access to the information

This brings us back full circle to my initial question about how Israeli
PM Olmert wagged the US dog. Bamford saves the most stunning revelations
for the second half of his book, in which he describes how AT&T,
Verizon, and the NSA outsourced the eavesdropping chores to two Israeli
companies, Verint and Narus, both founded by former members of Israel’s
intelligence community. Shocking, indeed. But there is more. It turns
out that the former CEO and founder of Verint, Jacob “Kobi” Alexander,
is presently a fugitive from justice. As I write Alexander is hiding out
in the African nation of Namibia, where he fled to escape prosecution by
the FBI for thirty-two counts of fraud. The Verint CEO was not satisfied
with the hundreds of millions in profits his company was raking in by
marketing its patented spyware to the repressive governments of Egypt,
China, Viet Nam and many others, governments more interested in crushing
dissent than fighting terrorism. No, the CEO and his Verint accomplices
cooked up a scam to rake in even more loot by backdating stock options,
a sleight of hand worth some $138 million. Bamford is plainly appalled,
and rightly so, that while the US government was supposedly fighting
terrorism the top executives of one of its chief allies in the cause,
Verint, were, in Bamford’s words, “engaging in an orgy of theft,
bribery, money laundering, and other crimes.”

Verint’s Back Door

As if this were not enough, Bamford goes on to explain that in 2004
Verint acknowledged in a closed-door hearing in Australia that its
proprietary eavesdropping system gives it the capability to
“automatically access the mega-terabytes of stored and real-time data
from anywhere, including Israel.” Which, of course, means that Verint’s
bugging technology includes a back door giving the company remote access
24/7 to a large percentage of America’s, and the world’s, voice and data

Talk about super intrusive. What is more, given the revolving door
between Israel’s intelligence community and its high-tech firms, I think
we must assume that Verint’s back door leads ultimately to Unit 8200,
the Israeli equivalent of the NSA. Bamford does not state this but he
did not need to, such a conclusion is inescapable. So, it is not too
surprising that the Israeli government was privy, last January, to
confidential discussions at the UN Security Council about the Gaza
cease-fire resolution. No doubt, the Israelis were (and are) listening
to every word of every private conversation or email within the US that
is of interest to them. One wonders how this shocking state of affairs
has remained under the radar. One would think, at very least, that
Verint’s involvement in warrantless wiretapping would merit prime time
coverage by the major networks, especially after its founder and former
CEO, “Kobi” Alexander, was indicted for criminal activity. But insofar
as I am aware there has been not a peep about it on television, at
least, not yet. The public broadcasting NOVA special about Bamford’s
research that aired on February 3, 2009 failed to mention it, [2] and
the only article about Kobi’s flight from prosecution in the New York
Times (2006) gave no hint. [3] The US corporate media appears curiously
blasé about the strong likelihood that the state of Israel engages in
wholesale spying on its principal ally. As for the exiled “Kobi”
Alexander, despite his legal travails the former spook still has
defenders. One source told The New York Post that "[in Israel] He's seen
as a genius and a wunderkind of Wall Street. Israel is very proud of
him." [4]

Problems with Bamford’s 9/11 Account

Unfortunately, Bamford’s discussion of 9/11 in the early chapters of his
book is less impressive than his research on warrantless wiretapping. I
found some issues. The author’s description of Hani Hanjour, the alleged
hijacker pilot of AA Flight 77, as a capable and determined terrorist is
sharply at odds with a multitude of open-sourced press accounts, which
consistently portray Hanjour as a rather inept and borderline
personality who was anything but ambitious. According to one account, as
a young man Hanjour did not even aspire to fly planes but was satisfied
merely to become a flight attendant; that is, until his older brother
pushed him to aim higher. [5] Even then, Hanjour’s flight training was
spasmodic and ineffectual. His pattern of behavior was on-again
off-again, and this played out everywhere he went. Rather than persist
in one flight-training program through to the end Hanjour would quit
after a few weeks, then move on to a different school. One instructor,
Duncan Hastie, who trained Hanjour at Cockpit Resource Management (CRM)
in Scottsdale, Arizona, refused to readmit him a second time when
Hanjour sought to return. Hastie described him as “a weak student” who
was “wasting our resources.” [6]

Bamford’s willingness to believe that Hanjour was skilled enough to fly
a Boeing 757 was apparently based on a set of documents submitted as
evidence in the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui. [7] The documents include
the written evaluation of Hanjour’s flight skills prepared by the Jet
Tech instructor who tested him. The evaluation does mention that Hanjour
was intelligent, but it also states–––and Bamford ignored this–––that
Hanjour “made numerous errors during his performance and displayed a
lack of understanding of some basic concepts. The same was true during
review of systems knowledge….I doubt his ability to pass an FAA [Boeing
737] oral at this time or in the near future.” Later, the instructor
made a final entry, concluding his evaluation: “He will need much more
experience flying smaller A/C [aircraft] before he is ready to master
large jets.” [8]

Another Jet Tech employee who knew Hanjour later expressed amazement
“that he [Hanjour] could have flown into the Pentagon. [Since] He could
not fly at all.” [9] As reported by FOX News, Hanjour’s atrocious
English and general ineptitude prompted an administrator at Jet Tech,
Peggy Chevrette, to question the authenticity of his pilot’s license.
Chevrette told FOX “I couldn’t believe that he had a license of any
kind, with the skills that he had.” [10] Hanjour’s English was so bad it
took him five hours to complete the exam mentioned above that normally
should have taken only about two. Fluency in English is required by law
to hold a US pilot’s license. We now understand that Hanjour acquired
his license to fly small planes by exploiting a legal loophole. He hired
a private contractor. [11] It is important to realize that even if Hani
Hanjour had some training in a Boeing 737 simulator this would not have
prepared him to accomplish a series of top-gun maneuvers in a Boeing
757, which is a significantly larger and less maneuverable aircraft.

Apparently Bamford is also unaware that Hanjour flunked a flight test
just three weeks before 9/11 while attempting to rent–––not a jet
aircraft–––but a single engine Cessna! This happened at Freeway Airport
near Bowie, Maryland, about twenty miles from Washington. [12] Although
Hanjour presented his FAA license the airport manager insisted for
safety reasons that an instructor first accompany him on a test flight
to confirm his flying skills. When Hanjour had trouble controlling and
landing the aircraft Marcel Bernard, the chief instructor at Freeway,
flatly refused to rent him the plane. Yet, just three weeks later, this
flunky supposedly performed like an ace. After completing a remarkable
330 degree downward spiraling turn and some other daredevil maneuvers
that would have challenged a commercial pilot, Hanjour plowed Flight 77
into the west wing of the Pentagon at more than 500 mph. What is even
more incredible, he accomplished all of this on the first attempt. Sure,
and turtles have wings and elephants can fly.

The Cell Phone Calls

Bamford mentions (p. 90) the two calls that Barbara Olson supposedly
made from AA Flight 77 to her husband Ted, who served as the Bush
administration’s solicitor general. Apparently the author is unaware
that these calls have since been discredited. Initially Ted Olson
described them as cell phone calls. Later, however, he modified his
story and stated that his wife had reached him using a passenger phone
(or an air phone, as they are called). The problem is that American
Airlines did not equip its Boeing 757s with passenger phones at the time
of the 9/11 attack. Nor is it possible that Barbara was able to connect
using a cell phone, since in 2001 cell phone technology was not yet
capable of supporting calls from high-flying commercial jets. The FBI
tacitly conceded these points at the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui, at
which the FBI submitted a report about the calls allegedly made from the
four flights on 9/11. The report mentions only one call from Barbara
Olson and describes it as an “unconnected call,” indicating that there
was no conversation. The FBI admitted, in other words, that the call
never took place! Their disavowal is astonishing, especially given the
media attention that the alleged calls from Barbara Olson to her husband
received in the first days after the September 11 attack. The calls were
extremely important in establishing the official story in the public
mind. Yet, to the best of my knowledge the press has completely ignored
the FBI’s subsequent admission that it was all a hoax. Here, I must
credit David Ray Griffin for his research on this important issue, which
I have just summarized. [13]

Were it possible to speak with James Bamford I would congratulate him
for the excellent work he has done on the NSA. In the next breath I
would encourage him to probe 9/11 more deeply.

Mark H. Gaffney’s book The 9/11 Mystery Plane and the Vanishing of
America was released by Trineday Press in September 2008. For more
information please visit Mark’s blog at
www.the911mysteryplane.com Mark
can be reached for comment at


1 Nathan Guttman, “Olmert’s Boast of ‘Shaming’ Rice Provokes Diplomatic
Furor,” The Forward, January 15, 2009.

2 For those who missed it the NOVA special (“The Spy Factory”) was
archived and can be watched in its entirety at

3 Julie Creswell, “At Comverse: Many Smart Business Moves, and Maybe a
Bad One,” New York Times, August 31, 2006.

4 Janet Whitman and Tom Liddy, “Sly as a Fox: Kobi Giving Feds a Fit,”
New York Post, October 8, 2006.

5 Amy Goldstein, Lena H. Sun and George Lardner, Jr., “Hanjour an
Unlikely Terrorist,” The Cape Cod Times, October 21, 2001.

6 Ibid.

7 James Bamford, The Shadow Factory, New York, Doubleday, 2009. See the
first note under ‘Totowa,” p. 353. The set of documents is posted at:

8 Ibid.

9 “Report: 9/11 Hijacker Bypassed FAA,” AP story, June 13, 2002.

10 “FAA Probed, Cleared Sept. 11 Hijacker in Early 2001,” FOX News, May
10, 2002; also see Jim Yardley, “A Trainee Noted for Incompetence,” New
York Times, May 4, 2002.

11 Kellie Lunney, “FAA contractors approved flight licenses for Sept. 11
suspect,” GovernmentExecutive.com, June 13, 2002.

12 Thomas Frank, “Tracing Trail of Hijackers,” Newsday, September 23, 2001.

13 David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor Revisited, Olive Branch
Press, Northampton, 2008, pp. 60-62.

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