Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Pentagon investigation has found no evidence that Able Danger, a secret military intelligence operation, identified September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta as a terror cell member more than a year before the attacks.

Larry Di Rita, chief Pentagon spokesman, said investigators have failed to find a chart that Able Danger supposedly created before the winter of 2000 that listed Atta as a member of an al Qaeda cell in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer has told reporters and cable news shows that Able Danger had created such a chart and that Pentagon attorneys in 2000 had blocked moves to provide the information to the FBI.

Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has backed Col. Shaffer’s assertion.

But Mr. Di Rita said investigators have not found any evidence that such a chart existed.

“We have been very aggressive,” Mr. Di Rita told The Washington Times. “We haven’t been able to find anything that would corroborate the kind of detail Lt. Col. Shaffer and Congressman Weldon seem to recall.”

Mark Zaid, Col. Shaffer’s attorney, said yesterday that his client stands by his assertion.

He also said: “There are at least two other Able Danger team members who are coming forward and are specifically confirming what Mr. Shaffer has been saying in that they had identified several of the hijackers, including Atta, prior to September 11,” Mr. Zaid said. “The Pentagon is either looking in the wrong places or not talking to the right people to confirm this same information.”

The national commission that investigated the September 11 attacks first learned of Able Danger in 2003 and requested information from the Pentagon before releasing its report last year. Commission staff met with Col. Shaffer in Afghanistan but say he never mentioned Atta’s name.

Mr. Di Rita said the Pentagon’s review, spearheaded by Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, confirmed that relevant data on Able Danger was turned over to the commission in 2003 and 2004.

“We, to the best of our understanding now, developed the information that was available at that time for the commission, and the commission factored it in as it felt appropriate,” Mr. Di Rita said.

Former Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton said Aug. 12 that information on Able Danger was not significant enough to include in the panel’s lengthy report.

Able Danger was essentially a data-mining operation aimed at obtaining more information on terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and Islamic terrorist cells.

Mr. Di Rita said Able Danger compiled some information on suspected cells in this country, but that investigators have found no evidence that the operation identified Atta or other September 11 hijackers.

Col. Shaffer has said that he was told about the Atta chart by Able Danger team members. He has said it identified Atta as being in the U.S. in early 2000. But the September 11 commission said Atta did not enter the country until late 2000 and was not identified by the U.S. as a terror suspect.

“We have to wonder whether [the chart] did exist,” Mr. Di Rita said. “It’s a bit of a phantom search here.”

He said investigators debriefed Col. Shaffer, who acknowledged that he does not have a copy of the chart and had based his statements on what others told him.

Mr. Di Rita said the probe is continuing, but will end “soon” unless new evidence materializes.

“We have not been able to determine the information Lt. Col. Shaffer and Congressman Weldon described actually existed,” Mr. Di Rita said.

Mr. Zaid said Col. Shaffer was on active duty when working as a liaison between the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and the Able Danger team. He then became a civilian analyst at DIA. He was suspended in March 2004.

The DIA is in the process of revoking Col. Shaffer’s security clearance, Mr. Zaid said, for what he called “trivial matters.” They include reimbursements for mileage and telephone charges, and whether he properly received an award for his Able Danger work.

Mr. Zaid said the Army promoted Col. Shaffer from the rank of major during the time of his paid suspension.

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