Sunday, August 21, 2005

What was Able Danger and what exactly did it know about September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta? At this point, it all depends on whom you ask.

This much is known: Able Danger was a Defense Department program designed in the late 1990s to track al Qaeda activities around the world. In October 2003, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who worked as a liaison between the Defense Intelligence Agency and Able Danger, met with September 11 commission staff director Philip Zelikow in Afghanistan. Col. Shaffer told Mr. Zelikow about the top-secret program, which ended in 2002, and that it had information concerning the September 11 hijackers. The commission followed up on Col. Shaffer’s request a few months later and analyzed Pentagon documents about the program. Then, in July 2004, just weeks before the commission released its report, a naval intelligence officer approached commission staff members with information saying that Able Danger had identified Atta and three other hijackers as early as February 2000. The commission, however, never mentioned Able Danger or what it supposedly found in its final report.

Embedded within this timeline are a series of unanswered questions and conflicting recollections. First, Col. Shaffer says that he attempted to arrange a meeting between the FBI and Able Danger analysts in 2000 to share intelligence on al Qaeda and possibly Atta and his Brooklyn terrorist cell. His requests were apparently rebuffed by Pentagon lawyers who feared a public-relations “blow back” if it was leaked that the Pentagon was engaged in domestic spying. The question of what Col. Shaffer wanted to share with the FBI is an important one. Did he know in 2000 that Able Danger had specific information on Atta or only that it was tracking domestic cells? If he knew about Atta, then it’s quite possible that the FBI, had there been a meeting, would have been able to thwart September 11.

Col. Shaffer’s account conflicts on this point. He has said his knowledge of Atta comes from an Able Danger chart identifying at least 60 known terrorists inside the United States. Yet by his own admission, Col. Shaffer said he learned about the chart from two sources after September 11. Neither source has come forward. The commission, for example, denies Col. Shaffer mentioned Atta’s name to Mr. Zelikow in 2003, which, if true, would be remarkable. Rep. Curt Weldon, who gave this story national attention a few weeks ago, said he handed a similar chart to then Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley soon after September 11. Unfortunately, Mr. Weldon says he handed Mr. Hadley his only copy. So, where is this chart?

Other questions remain: Why did the commission change its story three times in a single week on what it knew about Able Danger? Its current recollection is the one cited in the above timeline. We also still don’t know for certain when the commission first heard that Able Danger had identified Atta — if it identified him at all. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has said only that it’s investigating the matter.

The conflicting accounts by themselves do not necessarily mean any of this amounts to a major scandal. Early statements which have to be withdrawn or amended are typical in a breaking story. Clearly, Col. Shaffer and Mr. Weldon believe that valuable information concerning the safety of the country was twice ignored — first by Pentagon lawyers, then by the commission. The commission argues that Able Danger was not “historically significant.” It’s time to hear what the Pentagon thinks.

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