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PBS peeks inside NSA

Satellite dishes at the NSA's UK listening post at Menwith Hill, used to eavesdrop on international communications.
Satellite dishes at the NSA's UK listening post at Menwith Hill, used to eavesdrop on international communications.
Neil Barrett

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — The National Security Agency is the largest intelligence-gathering organization in the world, three times the size of the CIA. And, as it turns out, the NSA eavesdropped on the terrorists who plotted the 9/11 attacks — and never turned that information over to the FBI, the CIA or anyone else.

That's the conclusion of "NOVA: The Spy Factory" (7 p.m., PBS/Ch. 7, which seeks to understand how that could possibly have happened.

"That's the question we pose in the program, because NSA has not answered that question, and the 9/11 Commission never bothered to look into it," said James Bamford, author of "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America."

As it turns out, the NSA was eavesdropping on terrorists Kahlid al-Midar and Nawaf Al Hamzi for years in both Yemen and the United States.

"The question was — why didn't NSA pass that information on?" Bamford said. "And one possible reason is that the head of NSA at the time, Gen. Michael Hayden, had to worry about being called before the Senate and asked to explain why he's eavesdropping on Americans. The problem is, he could have eavesdropped on these terrorists in the United States without ever coming into any type of trouble, because he could have gotten a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance court to do it. That's why it was set up that way.

"So again, that's the question we pose. And I, as well as a lot of people in Washington and around the country, would like to get that answered."

"The Spy Factory" offers theories but no concrete answers. However, it offers a look inside the super-secret NSA unlike anything we've seen on television before.

Not all the information is new. Adrienne Kinne, a former voice interceptor and Arab linguist for the NSA, has been on "60 Minutes" charging that the agency overstepped its bounds — charges she repeats on "NOVA."

Kinne said that, after she left the NSA, she saw reports in the media about domestic wiretapping indicating that "if you're a law-abiding American, you don't have to worry about being spied upon. And … I knew that not to be true."

"I mean, I joined the military to uphold the Constitution and our rights as Americans. And that I did not uphold that oath over the course of my enlistment is something that I have to pause and think about, and it's something that I wish I hadn't done. … It just makes me very concerned that Americans might say that it doesn't matter if the government is listening to us as long as they can catch the bad guys in the process. Because so long as we're so willing to give up our freedoms, then maybe one day we'll wake up and America will not be the home of the free. And that is not why I joined the military."

But the "NOVA" report is not simply populated by disaffected ex-NSA employees. Michael Scheurer, who was the head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, said he "had no ax to grind against the agency and still don't."

"I left because the 9/11 Commission had really been a whitewash of the information that had been presented to them," Scheurer said. "I think Mr. Bamford and NOVA are doing a great service for Americans to help them to understand that what the 9/11 Commission did was to whitewash those people who allowed 9/11 to happen, the very senior people at NSA, CIA, at the White House. And I've had very little traction in saying that kind of thing since I resigned in 2004.

But after people see this documentary, I think they're going to see that the 9/11 Commission really was just an exercise in political expediency. They found no one responsible for anything, and, indeed, some of those people who are responsible for 9/11 are now being rehired and put into security positions by the new administration.