The mysterious "conference call" of al Qaeda leaders that led the United States to close its embassies around the Middle East in August was deciphered by a low-ranking enlisted man in the Air Force, who alerted his senior officers after finding clues about the ominous communication in the course of his regular duties.
"The warning that prompted that action [the embassy closures] came from the 70th ISR Wing, and specifically from a senior airman," Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the Air Force chief of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, said at the Air Force's annual conference in Washington.
The individual analyst being credited with the key discovery that alerted officials to a possible terrorist attack is a "cryptologic linguist" with the rank of senior airman who leads a team of electronic data analysts in one of the Air Force's premier signals intelligence units, Lt. Gen. Otto said. A senior airman in the Air Force is equivalent in rank to a corporal in the Army.
"Part of his job is just sifting through troves of data and determining what's relevant and then translating that data into useful information to our decision makers," Otto said.
That "senior airman is leading a team of people, he's the one that checks their work to make sure it's right, and there's just volumes of material in a language that at most one or two people in this room could read or speak," Otto said. "With so much information, we had to trust him to get it right, no one's checking his work."
"That happened to be a day when he was in the right place at the right time, doing his job perfectly," the three-star general said. "He alerted his leadership and the alert ran its way all the way to the Secretary of State, to the President of the United States. They didn't know the name of the senior airman who put two and two together, but thank you to that senior airman."
Otto did not reveal the type of communications channel the airman was eavesdropping on, and he didn't give the airman's name.
There was much debate in the press last month as to whether or not the embassies were closed due to information gleaned from a simple telephone conference call, something many experts believed al Qaeda leaders would be smart enough to avoid using. Some journalists speculated that the call itself was fabricated.
The Daily Beast, which first reported the call, later revealed that U.S. spies had followed a courier to discover details about the communication among more than 20 of al Qaeda's top officials. The conference "was conducted over a secure Internet messaging system...[and] U.S. and Yemeni officials learned about it after intercepting the communications of an al Qaeda courier, who was subsequently captured by Yemen's National Security Bureau with help from the CIA," the Beast reported.
"Earlier this summer," the report continued, "the al Qaeda courier began uploading messages to a series of encrypted accounts containing minutes of what appeared to have been an important meeting. A U.S. intelligence agency was able to exploit a flaw in the courier's operational security, intercepting the digital packets and locating the courier, according to two U.S. intelligence officials and one U.S. official who reviewed the intelligence."
Otto did not mention the courier in his remarks.
Headquartered at Fort Meade, Md., with subordinate units scattered around the world, the 70th ISR Wing is the Air Force's contribution to the National Security Agency's global electronic spying efforts.
The unit, dubbed "the Air Force's Cryptologic Wing" provides "time-sensitive, high impact, national-level intelligence to the battle space," according to an Air Force fact sheet.
"The Wing conducts worldwide, real-time SIGINT and information assurance missions for ongoing air, space and cyberspace operations,' reads the fact sheet.
It also "provides applications, services and resources in areas such as information warfare/command and control warfare, security acquisition, foreign weapons systems and technology and treaty monitoring."
The wing breaks into other countries' electronic communications networks to eavesdrop on whether they are adhering to treaties, steal information on their weapons, and scramble their command and control dat
That mission is consistent with story that U.S. intelligence agencies cracked some form of encrypted electronic communications that al-Qaeda leaders had previously thought safe to use.
-- Shane Harris contributed to this report.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.