The Able Danger Papers
(New York Times) Four in 9/11 Plot Are Called Tied to Qaeda in '00. Douglas Jehl. August 9, 2005.
More than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, a small, highly classified military intelligence unit identified Mohammed Atta and three other future hijackers as likely members of a cell of Al Qaeda operating in the United States, according to a former defense intelligence official and a Republican member of Congress.
In the summer of 2000, the military team, known as Able Danger, prepared a chart that included visa photographs of the four men and recommended to the military's Special Operations Command that the information be shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the congressman, Representative Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, and the former intelligence official said Monday.
The recommendation was rejected and the information was not shared, they said, apparently at least in part because Mr. Atta, and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, United States citizens and green-card holders may not be singled out in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies. That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Mr. Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.
A former spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, Al Felzenberg, confirmed that members of its staff, including Philip Zelikow, the executive director, were told about the program on an overseas trip in October 2003 that included stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Mr. Felzenberg said the briefers did not mention Mr. Atta's name.
The report produced by the commission last year does not mention the episode.
Mr. Weldon first spoke publicly about the episode in June, in a little-noticed speech on the House floor and in an interview with The Times-Herald in Norristown, Pa. The matter resurfaced on Monday in a report by GSN: Government Security News, which is published every two weeks and covers domestic-security issues. The GSN report was based on accounts provided by Mr. Weldon and the same former intelligence official, who was interviewed on Monday by The New York Times in Mr. Weldon's office.
In a telephone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, Mr. Weldon said he was basing his assertions on similar ones by at least three other former intelligence officers with direct knowledge of the project, and said that some had first called the episode to his attention shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The account is the first assertion that Mr. Atta, an Egyptian who became the lead hijacker in the plot, was identified by any American government agency as a potential threat before the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the 19 hijackers, only Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi had been identified as potential threats by the Central Intelligence Agency before the summer of 2000, and information about them was not provided to the F.B.I. until the spring of 2001.
Mr. Weldon has long been a champion of the kind of data-mining analysis that was the basis for the work of the Able Danger team.
The former intelligence official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to jeopardize political support and the possible financing for future data-mining operations by speaking publicly. He said the team had been established by the Special Operations Command in 1999, under a classified directive issued by Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to assemble information about Al Qaeda networks around the world.
"Ultimately, Able Danger was going to give decision makers options for taking out Al Qaeda targets," the former defense intelligence official said.
He said that he delivered the chart in summer 2000 to the Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and said that it had been based on information from unclassified sources and government records, including those of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"We knew these were bad guys, and we wanted to do something about them," the former intelligence official said.
The unit, which relied heavily on data-mining techniques, was modeled after those first established by Army intelligence at the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center, now known as the Information Dominance Center, at Fort Belvoir, Va., the official said.
Mr. Weldon is an outspoken figure who is a vice chairman of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee. He said he had recognized the significance of the episode only recently, when he contacted members of the military intelligence team as part of research for his book, "Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the C.I.A. Has Ignored It."
Mr. Weldon's book prompted one veteran C.I.A. case officer to strongly dispute the reliability of one Iranian source cited in the book, saying the Iranian "was a waste of my time and resources."
Mr. Weldon said that he had discussed the Able Danger episode with Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and that at least two Congressional committees were looking into the episode.
In the interview on Monday, Mr. Weldon said he had been aware of the episode since shortly after the Sept. 11 attack, when members of the team first brought it to his attention. He said he had told Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, about it in a conversation in September or October 2001, and had been surprised when the Sept. 11 commission report made no mention of the operation.
Col. Samuel Taylor, a spokesman for the military's Special Operations Command, said no one at the command now had any knowledge of the Able Danger program, its mission or its findings. If the program existed, Colonel Taylor said, it was probably a highly classified "special access program" on which only a few military personnel would have been briefed.
During the interview in Mr. Weldon's office, the former defense intelligence official showed a floor-sized chart depicting Al Qaeda networks around the world that he said was a larger, more detailed version similar to the one prepared by the Able Danger team in the summer of 2000.
He said the original chart, like the new one, had included the names and photographs of Mr. Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, as well as Mr. Mihdhar and Mr. Hazmi, who were identified as members of what was described as an American-based "Brooklyn" cell, as one of five such Al Qaeda cells around the world.
The official said the link to Brooklyn was meant as a term of art rather than to be interpreted literally, saying that the unit had produced no firm evidence linking the men to the borough of New York City but that a computer analysis seeking to establish patterns in links between the four men had found that "the software put them all together in Brooklyn."
According to the commission report, Mr. Mihdhar and Mr. Hazmi were first identified in late 1999 or 2000 by the C.I.A. as Qaeda members who might be involved in a terrorist operation. They were tracked from Yemen to Malaysia before their trail was lost in Thailand. Neither man was put on a State Department watch list before they flew to Los Angeles in early 2000. The F.B.I. was not warned about them until the spring of 2001, and no efforts to track them were made until August 2001.
Neither Mr. Shehhi nor Mr. Atta was identified by the American intelligence agencies as a potential threat, the commission report said. Mr. Shehhi arrived in Newark on a flight from Brussels on May 29, 2000, and Mr. Atta arrived in Newark from Prague on June 3 that year.
The former intelligence official said the first Able Danger report identified all four men as members of a "Brooklyn" cell, and was produced within two months after Mr. Atta arrived in the United States. The former intelligence official said he was among a group that briefed Mr. Zelikow and at least three other members of the Sept. 11 commission staff about Able Danger when they visited the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in October 2003.
The official said he had explicitly mentioned Mr. Atta as a member of a Qaeda cell in the United States. He said the staff encouraged him to call the commission when he returned to Washington at the end of the year. When he did so, the ex-official said, the calls were not returned.
Mr. Felzenberg, the former Sept. 11 commission spokesman, said on Monday that he had talked with some of the former staff members who participated in the briefing.
"They all say that they were not told anything about a Brooklyn cell," Mr. Felzenberg said. "They were told about the Pentagon operation. They were not told about the Brooklyn cell. They said that if the briefers had mentioned anything that startling, it would have gotten their attention."
As a result of the briefing, he said, the commission staff filed document requests with the Pentagon for information about the program. The Pentagon complied, he said, adding that the staff had not hidden anything from the commissioners.
"The commissioners were certainly told of the document requests and what the findings were," Mr. Felzenberg said.
An article on Saturday about a conclusion by the Sept. 11 commission that an intelligence program known as Able Danger was not historically significant, despite a claim that it had identified the leader of the attacks, misspelled his given name. (The error was repeated in articles last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.) He is Mohamed Atta, not Mohammed.
(New York Times) Officer Says Pentagon Barred Sharing Pre-9/11 Qaeda Data With F.B.I. By Philip Shenon. August 16, 2005.
A military intelligence team repeatedly contacted the F.B.I. in 2000 to warn about the existence of an American-based terrorist cell that included the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a veteran Army intelligence officer who said he had now decided to risk his career by discussing the information publicly. The officer, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, said military lawyers later blocked the team from sharing any of its information with the F.B.I.
Colonel Shaffer said in an interview that the small, highly classified intelligence program known as Able Danger had identified by name the terrorist ringleader, Mohammed Atta, as well three of the other future hijackers by mid-2000, and had tried to arrange a meeting that summer with agents of the F.B.I.'s Washington field office to share the information.
But he said military lawyers forced members of the intelligence program to cancel three scheduled meetings with the F.B.I. at the last minute, which left the bureau without information that Colonel Shaffer said might have led to Mr. Atta and the other terrorists while the Sept. 11 plot was still being planned.
"I was at the point of near insubordination over the fact that this was something important, that this was something that should have been pursued," Colonel Shaffer said of his efforts to get the evidence from the intelligence program to the F.B.I. in 2000 and early 2001.
He said he learned later that lawyers associated with the Defense Department's Special Operations Command had canceled the F.B.I. meetings because they feared controversy if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States. "It was because of the chain of command saying we're not going to pass on information - if something goes wrong, we'll get blamed," he said.
The Defense Department did not dispute the account from Colonel Shaffer, a 42-year-old native of Kansas City, Mo., who is the first military officer associated with the so-called data-mining program to come forward and acknowledge his role.
At the same time, the department said in a statement that it was "working to gain more clarity on this issue" and that "it's too early to comment on findings related to the program identified as Able Danger." The F.B.I. referred calls about Colonel Shaffer to the Pentagon.
The account from Colonel Shaffer, a reservist who is also working part-time for the Pentagon, corroborates much of the information that the Sept. 11 commission has acknowledged that it received about Able Danger last July from a Navy captain who was also involved with the program but whose name has not been made public.
In a statement issued last week, the leaders of the Sept. 11 commission said the panel had concluded that the intelligence program "did not turn out to be historically significant." The statement said that while the commission did learn about Able Danger in 2003 and immediately requested Pentagon files about the program, none of the documents turned over by the Defense Department referred to Mr. Atta or any of the other hijackers.
Colonel Shaffer said that his role in Able Danger was as the program's liaison with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, and that he was not an intelligence analyst. The interview with Colonel Shaffer on Monday night was arranged for The New York Times and Fox News by Representative Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a champion of data-mining programs like Able Danger.
Colonel Shaffer's lawyer, Mark Zaid, said in an interview that he was concerned that Colonel Shaffer was facing retaliation from the Defense Department - first for having talked to the Sept. 11 commission staff in October 2003 and now for talking with news organizations.
Mr. Zaid said that Colonel Shaffer's security clearance had been suspended last year because of what the lawyer said were a series of "petty allegations" involving $67 in personal charges on a military cellphone. He noted that despite the disciplinary action, Colonel Shaffer had been promoted this year from the rank of major.
Colonel Shaffer said he had decided to allow his name to be used in news accounts in part because of his frustration with the statement issued last week by the commission leaders, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton.
The commission said in its final report last year that American intelligence agencies had not identified Mr. Atta as a terrorist before Sept. 11, 2001, when he flew an American Airlines jet into one of towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
A commission spokesman did not return repeated phone calls for comment. A Democratic member of the commission, Richard Ben Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor, said in an interview today that while he could not judge the credibility of the information from Colonel Shaffer and others, the Pentagon needed to "provide a clear and comprehensive explanation regarding what information it had in its possession regarding Mr. Atta."
"And if these assertions are credible," he continued, "the Pentagon would need to explain why it was that the 9/11 commissioners were not provided this information despite request for all information regarding to Able Danger."
Colonel Shaffer said that he had provided information about Able Danger and its identification of Mr. Atta in a private meeting in October 2003 with members of the Sept. 11 commission staff when they visited Afghanistan, where he was then serving. Commission members have disputed that, saying they do not recall hearing Mr. Atta's name during the briefing and that the terrorist's name did not appear in documents about Able Danger that were later turned over by the Pentagon.
"I would implore the 9/11 commission to support a follow-on investigation to ascertain what the real truth is," Colonel Shaffer said in the interview this week. "I do believe the 9/11 commission should have done that job: figuring out what went wrong with Able Danger."
"This was a good news story because, before 9/11, you had an element of the military - our unit - which was actually out looking for Al Qaeda," he continued. "I can't believe the 9/11 commission would somehow believe that the historical value was not relevant."
Colonel Shaffer said that because he was not an intelligence analyst, he was not involved in the details of the procedures used in Able Danger to glean information from terrorist databases. Nor was he aware, he said, which databases had supplied the information that might have led to the name of Mr. Atta or other terrorists so long before the Sept. 11 attacks.
But he said he did know that Able Danger had made use of publicly available information from government immigration agencies, from internet sites and from paid search engines such as Lexis Nexis.
"We didn't that Atta's name was significant" at the time, he said, adding that "we just knew there were these linkages between him and these other individuals who were in this loose configuration" of people who appeared to be tied to an American-based cell of Al Qaeda.
Colonel Shaffer said he assumed that by speaking out publicly this week about Able Danger, he might effectively be ending his military career and limiting his ability to participate in intelligence work in the government. "I'm proud of my operational record and I love what I do," he said. "But there comes a time - and I believe the time for me is now -- to stand for something, to stand for what is right."
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