- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

Did a small intelligence group within the Defense Department identify hijacker Mohamed Atta as a member of a terrorist cell operating in the U.S. almost two years before he and 18 other terrorists killed more than 3,000 people on U.S. soil in 2001? And if so, why didn’t this explosive information make it into the September 11 Commission report, which was supposed to be the definitive analysis on the worst terrorist incident in U.S. history? Depending on whom you talk to, this story is either proof the Clinton administration was asleep at the switch while terrorists planned attacks, or it’s a case of false memory syndrome. Official statements seem to indicate the Defense Department leans toward the latter explanation.

The controversy began earlier this summer when Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, first publicized allegations a small unit within Defense, aptly named “Able Danger,” had identified Atta as a potential threat in early 2000 and tried to pass the information on to the FBI but were prevented from doing so. Mr. Weldon said he relied on information provided by people familiar with Able Danger, including some who had seen a flowchart representing suspected al Qaeda cell members in the U.S. that included a picture of Mohamed Atta.

To make matters worse, Mr. Weldon’s informants said they had briefed the September 11 Commission staff about Able Danger’s findings before release of the commission’s report.

Two men have come forward to say they were involved with Able Danger, an Army reserve officer, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, and Navy Capt. Scott J. Phillpott. Both men confirm the intelligence operation identified Atta in early 2000. A contractor who worked on the project also has said he possessed a copy of the chart described by Mr. Weldon and others until last year, when he moved and could not remove it because it had become stuck to the wall in his office at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland.

Stung by the assertion it ignored important information, the disbanded September 11 Commission’s chairman, former Gov. Tom Kean, called for a Pentagon investigation into what Able Danger uncovered about Atta and others involved in the attacks. Though Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita says the Defense Department will continue investigating, he cast considerable doubt on the story’s credibility. “We have not been able to find anything that would corroborate the kind of detail Lt. Col. Shaffer and Congressman Weldon seem to recall,” Mr. DiRita told The Washington Times this week.

Is it possible those involved with Able Danger are misremembering such important information? It’s hard to say. Memory can play tricks, particularly if a story fits with a preconceived notion. It’s also possible to confuse dates and names. In talking about this issue recently on “Eye on Washington,” a PBS public affairs program, I recently conflated some “facts” in trying to explain why this case resonated.

I noted that many people were upset that the Able Danger unit was not allowed to share information about Atta with the FBI because Defense Department lawyers prevented it. “Guess who one of those top people at the Defense Department at the time was?” I asked. “A woman named Jamie Gorelick, who happens to have sat on the September 11 Commission,” I asserted. But I was wrong, at least partly.

Miss Gorelick was general counsel for the Clinton Defense Department, and many people blame her for making it more difficult for intelligence agencies to share information with law enforcement when deputy attorney general under President Clinton. But she left the Clinton administration in 1997, long before Able Danger was in operation, so I was wrong.

We may never know exactly what Able Danger discovered in early 2000, but we do know there is plenty of blame to go around in missed opportunities to prevent the horrible attack on this country. Let’s hope we spend less time in the future pointing fingers and more time ensuring it never happens again.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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