Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Defense Department lawyers have blocked members of a data-mining intelligence team from testifying today before a congressional panel probing their claims that they identified the September 11 ringleaders as terrorists more than a year before the attacks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee sought testimony from several members of the team — code-named Able Danger — as part of an investigation into claims that the project identified Mohamed Atta and three of the other 18 hijackers as tied to al Qaeda in early 2000.

Mark Zaid, an attorney for Army Reserve Col. Tony Shaffer, said his client, a Defense Intelligence Agency liaison to the Able Danger team, was told in a letter not to testify.

The letter, which gave no reason for the order, was signed by the principal deputy general counsel for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Robert Berry.

Mr. Zaid said the team members “were told verbally that they would not be allowed to testify” and that the order was put in writing only with regard to his client at his request.

He said that the team leader, Navy Capt. Scott Philpott, civilian analyst James Smith and other members of the team had been denied permission to testify. A Judiciary Committee aide said panel staff members already have interviewed Capt. Philpott and Col. Shaffer.

No one at the Department of Defense or the Defense Intelligence Agency returned calls for comment yesterday.

Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who first put the Able Danger team in contact with journalists, was concerned about the order, his staff said.

“It is unfortunate that we’re trying to get answers … and the people who could help us get them are not going to testify,” said Russ Caso, the congressman’s chief of staff.

At the center of the Senate committee’s investigation is a computer-generated chart listing the names and connections of about 60 people thought to be linked to al Qaeda.

Capt. Philpott said that chart, produced in January or February 2000, bore the name and likeness of Atta and linked him to a Brooklyn mosque that has been a center of Islamic extremism for more than 20 years.

Capt. Philpott was the special operations officer who ran the effort, an intelligence-led initiative to use data mining on massive amounts of “open source” information culled from the Internet, purchased from credit rating bureaus or other data brokers, or by other means that remain classified.

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