- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

An Army intelligence officer yesterday said he told staff members from the September 11 commission that a secret military unit had identified two of the three cells involved in the 2001 terrorist strikes more than a year before the attacks.

Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who said he was associated with the Able Danger unit, recalled that during a 2003 meeting with commission staffers in Afghanistan, he mentioned that the unit had identified September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta along with three other hijackers as terrorist suspects.

Three months later, in January 2004, Col. Shaffer said he was back in the United States and offered to follow up with the commission, but his offer was declined.

“I just walked away shocked that they would kind of change their mind, but I figured someone with equal or better knowledge … probably came and talked to them, so they must’ve taken care of it,” Col. Shaffer said.

The colonel said he was told that the commission obtained only two briefcase-size loads of documents from at least 15-plus boxes of information on Able Danger.

Lt. Col. Chris Conway, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that an investigation into Able Danger was under way.

Col. Conway said it was too soon to comment on findings related to the program.

Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the September 11 commission’s follow-up project, said the commission is awaiting the results of the Pentagon’s investigation.

A statement Friday by former Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton said the commission did not obtain enough information on the operation to consider it historically significant.

Col. Shaffer said Able Danger identified Atta and three other September 11 hijackers in 2000, but that military lawyers stopped the unit from sharing the information with the FBI out of concern about the legality of gathering and sharing information on people in the United States.

“The lawyers’ view was to leave them alone, they had the same basic rights as a U.S. citizen, a U.S. person, and therefore the data was kind of left alone,” Col. Shaffer said.

Col. Shaffer said he and a Navy officer disagreed with that decision and tried to set up meetings with the FBI, but each time the idea was rejected by lawyers from the special operations command.

“There was a feeling … if we give this information to the FBI and something goes wrong, we’re going to get blamed for whatever goes wrong,” Col. Shaffer said.

Also yesterday, the New York Times reported that State Department analysts warned the Clinton administration in July 1996 that Osama bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan “could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run” than his stay in Sudan, where the al Qaeda leader had resided since 1993.

The declassified documents were obtained by the legal advocacy group Judicial Watch. The State Department analysis was written after bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan and was thought to be relocating to Afghanistan. It warned that Afghanistan would make an “ideal haven” for bin Laden and warned of “increased terrorism,” the New York Times reported.

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