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[infowar.de] CBS 15.09.02: U.S. Tracking Phone Call Trail
U.S. Tracking Phone Call Trail
September 15, 2002
Government agents have recently uncovered numerous calls from
difficult-to-track prepaid cell phones, Internet-based phone service,
prepaid phone cards and public pay phones in the United States to known al
Qaeda locations overseas, federal officials said.
The calls are one piece of a growing body of evidence pointing to the
presence of suspected members of terrorist sleeper cells operating on U.S.
soil, and a growing sophistication on their part to keep their
communications secret, the officials said.
The officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the effort to
follow the phone call trail has involved numerous federal agencies and is
the result of improved post-Sept. 11 coordination between the traditional
law enforcement of the FBI and the intelligence gathering of the National
Security Agency, America's premier overseas electronic intercept agency.
"Things have really improved, and that gives us the ability to better track
terrorists both in the United States and abroad, and prevent things before
they happen," one senior law enforcement official told The Associated Press.
The officials said the process works like this: U.S. intelligence learns of
a communication to known al Qaeda locations overseas and then alerts the
FBI and other law enforcement agencies, who try to track down the source
and origin of the U.S. callers.
Authorities said the calls point to the clear presence of one or more
sleeper cells in the United States and attempts by al Qaeda sympathizers in
America to make their calls difficult to trace, using tactics invented by
U.S. criminals in the 1990s.
With Friday's arrest of five American men of Yemeni descent in a Buffalo,
N.Y. suburb, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said that U.S. law
enforcement "has identified, investigated and disrupted an al Qaeda trained
terrorist cell on American soil."
In other recent steps to disrupt suspected domestic terrorist activities,
the indictment of several men in Detroit cited the possible presence in the
Midwest of a "combat squad" of terrorists. Also, the government in the past
few weeks charged a man with trying to help al Qaeda set up a terrorist
training camp in Oregon.
Investigators have found several instances in which suspected al Qaeda
calls from the United States to overseas numbers were made on prepaid cell
phones, prepaid telephone credit cards or public phone booths. One official
said there also has been some instances of suspect calls made through
Internet-based phone services.
"All this shows is that they are about as sophisticated as mafia guys from
the 1990s," said Stewart Baker, a Washington lawyer who formerly served as
the NSA's general counsel.
Baker said more significantly, the operation of al Qaeda on U.S. soil,
including the Sept. 11 hijackers, suggests a change in terrorists' method
of operation. Instead of entering the country just before they perpetrate
attacks, they now stay on U.S. soil for months and even talk on U.S.
communications system as they wait to carry out orders.
"It is clear that they feel comfortable operating here, and that is a new
problem for us," Baker said, adding that the solution is to rapidly improve
the domestic intelligence gathering capabilities of U.S. law enforcement.
"Now we have to begin looking very closely at people who haven't committed
any crimes yet because of the concern that the first one they'll commit is
going to be a doozy," he said.
The feared use of prepaid cell phones and cards by criminals and terrorists
is not new. Attorney General John Ashcroft cited it as one reason why
Congress needed to pass the Patriot Act and expand the FBI's surveillance
powers so agents could track people who changed cell phones to elude FBI
Osama bin Laden used prepaid minutes on a satellite phone in Afghanistan
during the 1990s, thinking it would disguise his communications, according
to past court testimony. Officials have said bin Laden stopped using the
phone when it became known it was being monitored by U.S. intelligence.
Oklahoma City bombing convicts Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a
prepaid telephone card to make calls from public pay phones and other
places in the two years before that 1995 attack was carried out. The card
was put in a fake name, Daryl Bridges.
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