Monday, September 19, 2005

Tomorrow’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s top-secret military intelligence unit known as Able Danger should be quite a show. Rep. Curt Weldon, who deserves most of the credit for bringing the formerly forgotten unit to public attention, is promising as much with a list of potential witnesses who he says will be able to testify that Able Danger identified ringleader Mohamed Atta and several other terrorists inside the United States at least a year before the September 11 attacks.

The list includes:

• Naval Capt. Scott Philpott, an Able Danger team leader, according to the Pentagon, who approached the September 11 commission with what he knew about Atta in 2004.

• Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the Defense Intelligence Agency employee who acted as liaison with Able Danger team members. Col. Shaffer was the first to come forward with allegations that Pentagon lawyers rebuffed his attempts to coordinate a meeting between Able Danger analysts and the FBI.

• An FBI agent, who, according to Mr. Weldon, will testify under oath that she organized the meetings between the FBI and Able Danger analysts to discuss Atta.

• A Pentagon employee, who will testify that he was ordered to destroy 2.5 terabytes of information Able Danger had compiled, which is roughly equivalent to one-fourth of all the printed material in the Library of Congress. According to Mr. Weldon, this person, as yet unidentified, will also name the officer who gave the order.

As the Pentagon acknowledged earlier this month, destroying sensitive intelligence is not in itself unusual, because the Pentagon is forbidden to spy on Americans. “In a major data-mining effort like [Able Danger], you’re reaching out to a lot of open sources and within that there could be a lot of information on U.S. persons,” said Pat Downs, a senior policy analyst in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. We can only assume that the Able Danger chart identifying 60 known terrorists including Atta was lost in this destruction. So far, this chart is the only known material evidence that would corroborate Mr. Weldon’s claims. The Pentagon has found similar charts, but none which include Atta.

However, as with nearly everything related to Able Danger, there is some confusion. The employee who will testify that he destroyed the data will apparently also allege that a Special Operations Command general, who was in the Able Danger chain of command, was “incensed when he found out that material that he was a customer for was destroyed without his approval,” said Mr. Weldon. If true, this might mean that the order to destroy the Able Danger data came from elsewhere in the Pentagon, which could lead one to speculate that it was not part of normal procedure.

We hoped the Pentagon would clarify some of the particulars regarding Able Danger, and so it has. It has acknowledged that Able Danger existed as well as discovered three other defense employees who recall the unit’s identification of Atta before the September 11 attacks. Its confirmation of Able Danger, the existence of similar charts and Mr. Weldon’s witness list, do, however, place further pressure on the September 11 commissioners to explain why they didn’t mention the unit in their final report.

A new thread concerning the worst attack on U.S. soil is beginning to come to light. Although it is far too soon to conclude that this is a major scandal, it should be pursued with vigor and complete transparency.

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