Pentagon lawyers during the Clinton administration ordered the destruction of intelligence reports that identified September 11 leader Mohamed Atta months before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, according to congressional testimony yesterday.
A lawyer for two Pentagon whistleblowers also told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that the Defense Intelligence Agency last year destroyed files on the Army’s computer data-mining program known as Able Danger to avoid disclosing the information.
Retired Army Maj. Erik Kleinsmith, former director of the Army Land Information Warfare Center, told the panel he was directed by Pentagon lawyers to delete 2 terabytes of computer data — the equivalent of one-quarter of the information in the Library of Congress — on Able Danger in May or June 2000 because of legal concerns about information on U.S. citizens.
Maj. Kleinsmith said keeping the data beyond 90 days would have violated an Army directive limiting the collection of information on U.S. citizens.
“Yes, I could have conveniently forgot to delete the data, and we could have kept it,” Maj. Kleinsmith said. “But I knowingly would have been in violation of the regulation.”
The attorney for two Pentagon officials involved in Able Danger testified that the program did not identify Atta as being in the United States, only that he was linked by analysts to an al Qaeda cell in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“At no time did Able Danger identify Mohamed Atta as being physically present in the United States,” said Mark Zaid, who represents Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, an intelligence analyst, and J.D. Smith, a defense official, who both claim Able Danger data was mishandled.
“And no information at the time that they obtained would have led anyone to believe that criminal activity had taken place or that any specific terrorist activities were being planned. All they developed were associational links.”
Mr. Zaid said Able Danger-related data, including possibly a chart containing a photo of Atta, that was compiled by Orion Scientific, was destroyed by DIA some time in the spring of 2004 after the official who held the material had his security clearance revoked.
The Senate hearing included testimony from Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, who first went public with information that the Army intelligence unit had uncovered information on Atta in Brooklyn, and three other of the September 11 suicide hijackers in 2000 through the computer-based program that sifted both secret intelligence and unclassified databases for information.
“Over the past three months, I have witnessed denial, deception, threats to [Defense Department] employees, character assassination, and now silence,” said Mr. Weldon.
He said that if the information had been handled properly “it might have had an impact on the most significant attack ever against our country and our citizens.” He charged that the government commission that investigated September 11 had overlooked the Able Danger material on Atta.
A recent Pentagon inquiry into the matter found no reports linking Atta to a Brooklyn al Qaeda cell. However, investigators uncovered one report linking al Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef, to Islamists in Brooklyn. Atef was killed in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mr. Weldon said he thinks Able Danger was shut down after a “profile” of Chinese weapons proliferation linked two Americans to Chinese students at Stanford University engaged in technology acquisition for China.
During the profile, the names of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at the time the Stanford University provost, and former Defense Secretary William Perry were mentioned in the data and created “a wave of controversy,” he said.
After Congress sought the data, “tremendous pressure was placed on the Army, because this was a prototype operation, and they shut down the Able Danger operation,” Mr. Weldon said.