NEW YORK, Dec. 4 — Newly disclosed documents in the East Africa embassy bombings case show that U.S. intelligence was aware of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist cell in Kenya two years before the August 1998 bombings that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
AS EARLY AS August 1996, the intelligence community bugged the Nairobi phones of bin Laden’s personal secretary, Wadih el-Hage, and others in the Kenyan capital, according to court records.
Moreover, FBI agents were on hand in August 1997 for a Kenyan police search of el-Hage’s home, which served as the cell’s headquarters. However, the cell, part of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, was not shut down and one senior intelligence official said the phone bugging ended a year before the bombing.
According to the government’s filing in the court case, the purpose of the effort was “to gather intelligence about al-Qaeda, the points of contact for other al-Qaeda cells around the world, as well as any indications of the future terrorist plans of al-Qaeda.”
Both the electronic eavesdropping and the residence search are likely to become evidence in the trial of four bin Laden associates in New York beginning this week. El-Hage, a naturalized American citizen, is one of the four men on trial.
In addition, they are also likely to find their way into civil cases filed by relatives of Americans and Kenyans killed and wounded in the Nairobi bombing. They claim the United States knew about the threat to the embassy but did not do enough to stop it.
The revelations are likely to raise new questions about how much U.S. intelligence knew about the cell’s operation and whether anything could have been done about the planned bombing, which was part of a campaign to destroy U.S. embassies in several countries. A bomb went off the same day in the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam and U.S. officials have said other bombings were planned for Tirana, Albania, and Kampala, Uganda.
One senior intelligence official dismissed the suggestion this was an intelligence failure, saying the bombers spoke in code and that the bugging of el-Hage ended a year before the bombing.
EL-HAGE TRYING TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCEDetails of the bugging and search have come to light as el-Hage has sought to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of them. El-Hage lost the first round of that battle last month when federal judge Leonard Sand ruled the bugging and search were legal.
In that decision, filed under seal on Dec. 5 and released 13 days later, Sand wrote of the U.S. effort: “By late spring of 1996, the United States intelligence community became aware that persons associated with bin Laden’s organization had established an al-Qaeda presence in Kenya. ... In addition, the intelligence community had isolated and identified five telephone numbers which were being used by persons associated with al-Qaeda.
“All five of these phone lines were monitored by the intelligence community from August 1996 through August 1997.” At that time, el-Hage returned to the United States where he lived with his wife and six children in Arlington, Tex.
Although neither Sand’s decision nor the record in the trial reveal which government agency bugged phones, intelligence historian Jeffrey T. Richelson says a little-known U.S. intelligence agency, the Special Collection Service, has long had a monitoring station at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The SCS, located in suburban Washington, D.C., is a joint operation of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
El-Hage argued that as an American citizen, wiretaps of his conversations, whether overseas or in the United States, should have required a court order, which was not obtained until April 1997. The judge ruled that while there remains some murkiness in the law, the United States was justified in tapping the phone lines since bin Laden’s operation and not el-Hage himself was targeted and that it was done initially as part of a foreign intelligence operation and not a law enforcement investigation.
Moreover, the court was not persuaded by the argument that the bugging was illegal under Kenyan law. “Despite the fact that this electronic surveillance was unlawful, the court finds that the exclusion of this evidence would be inappropriate,” Judge Sand wrote.
Specifically, the government claimed the bugging revealed that al-Qaeda associates “were heavily involved in: providing passports and other false documentation to various al-Qaeda associates, passing messages to al-Qaeda members and associates, passing coded telephone numbers to and from al-Qaeda headquarters, and passing warnings when al-Qaeda members and associates were compromised by authorities.”
Similarly, the government stated the search of el-Hage’s house, which the group used as a headquarters, on Aug. 21, 1997, “recovered documents of great intelligence value from el-Hage’s computer, including a report in which el-Hage’s close associate Harun made an explicit admission that the Kenyan cell of al-Qaeda were responsible for the American military personnel killed in Somalia in 1993.” Specifically, the United States gained access to a computer that other court records reveal contained a “professionally counterfeited Kenyan travel stamp” as well as other materials showing that he and “Harun” provided false passports to fellow “mujahideen”, or Islamic guerrilla fighters, in the Caucasus and Somalia.
Harun, the nom de guerre for fugitive bomber Harun Fazhl, is believed to have served as the mastermind of the embassy bombings. Fazhl, a citizen of Comoros, lived with el-Hage. He and other al-Qaeda cell members were allegedly involved in training the Somalians who killed 18 Americans in April 1993.
CELL KNEW OF BUGGING
Other court documents detail the search of el-Hage’s house in August 1997 and that the bin Laden operatives believed their phone was tapped. Daniel Coleman, the lead FBI agent investigating the embassy bombings, said in a November 1998 affidavit that, “I personally witnessed an authorized search of the Nairobi, Kenya, residence of Wadih el-Hage” and that the search had revealed a report by Fazhl on the need for greater security in Nairobi. The report, included in the court record, noted that the cell was “one hundred percent sure that the telephone is tapped.”
The report, written in the days before the raid, also indicated critical papers had been moved recently. (Their whereabouts did not become known until after the bombing, say U.S. officials.) Moreover, the report discusses fears by el-Hage’s wife that an American woman who had visited her residence and asked to use the phone had bugged it and that she had had also heard “strange voices” on the television saying, “this is it, this is the line.”
As a result, the cell used various code names, the government has stated, including “Food and Beverage Industry” for FBI and “the director” for bin Laden.
But U.S. officials both in the public record and in response to questions decline to say why other actions weren’t taken to shut down the cell, although documents do show that el-Hage, the focus of the CIA’s and FBI’s interest, moved from Nairobi to Arlington in September 1997 while Fazhl moved his operation to another house in Nairobi, where the bomb was ultimately constructed, beginning in May of 1998.
Beyond the criminal case, the documents are likely to become critical to the civil case brought by Oakland, Calif., attorney John Burris on behalf 2,700 Kenyans who were wounded in the bombing or lost loved ones. Burris claims the United States knew about the threat posted by the cell, but did not do enough to stop it. “There are materials that we have gathered,” said Burris. “In the course of our work gathering data, information was indicated to us that there was terrorist activities a year before where the U.S. government had obtained and were well aware of the dangers.
“There was some foreseeable dangers. There were things that could have been done.”
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer with NBC News.
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