Did a small intelligence group within the Defense Department identify hijacker Mohammed Atta as a member of a terrorist cell operating in the U.S. almost two years before he and 18 other terrorists killed 3,000 Americans? And if so, why didn’t this explosive information make it into the 9/11 Commission report, which was supposed to be the definitive analysis on the worst terrorist incident in American history? Depending on whom you talk to, this story is either proof that the Clinton administration was asleep at the switch while terrorists were planning their attacks during their tenure, or it’s a case of false memory syndrome. The Defense Department seems to be leaning toward the latter explanation, reading between the lines of official statements.
The controversy began earlier this summer when Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, first made public the allegations that a small unit within DoD, aptly named "Able Danger," had identified Atta as a potential threat in early 2000 and tried to pass the information on to the FBI but were prevented from doing so. Weldon said he relied on information provided by people familiar with Able Danger, including some who had seen a flowchart representing suspected Al Qaeda cell members in the U.S. that included a picture of Mohammed Atta. To make matters worse, Weldon’s informants said that they had briefed the 9/11 Commission staff about Able Danger’s findings prior to the release of the commission’s report.
Two men have come forward to say they were involved with Able Danger, an Army reserve officer, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, and Navy Captain Scott J. Phillpott. Both men confirm that the intelligence operation identified Atta in early 2000. A third man, a contractor who worked on the project, has also said that he actually possessed a copy of the chart described by Rep. Weldon and others until last year, when he moved and could not remove it because it had become stuck to the wall in his office at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland.
Stung by the assertion that the 9/11 Commission had ignored important information, the now-defunct group’s chairman, former Gov. Tom Kean, called for a Pentagon investigation into what Able Danger uncovered about Atta and others involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Now, although Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita says the Defense Department will continue to investigate the matter, he cast considerable doubt on whether the story is credible. "We have not been able to find anything that would corroborate the kind of detail Lt. Col. Shaffer and Congressman Weldon seem to recall," DiRita told The Washington Times this week.
Is it possible that those involved with Able Danger are misremembering such important information? It’s hard to say. Memory can play tricks, particularly if a story fits with a preconceived notion. It’s also possible to confuse dates and names. In talking about this issue recently on "Eye on Washington," a public affairs show that airs on PBS stations around the country, I recently conflated some "facts" in trying to explain why this case resonated. I noted that what upset many people about this story was that the Able Danger unit was not allowed to share information about Atta with the FBI because Defense Department lawyers prevented it. "Guess who one of those top people at the Defense Department at the time was?" I asked. "A woman named Jamie Gorelick, who happens to have sat on the 9/11 Commission," I asserted. But I was wrong, at least partly.
Jamie Gorelick was general counsel for the Clinton Defense Department, and she was also someone whom many people blame for making it more difficult for intelligence agencies to share information with law enforcement when she was deputy attorney general under President Clinton. But she had left the Clinton administration in 1997, long before Able Danger was in operation, so I was wrong.
We may never know exactly what Able Danger discovered in early 2000, but we do know that there is plenty of blame to go around in missed opportunities to prevent the horrible attack on this country. Let’s hope that in the future we spend less time pointing fingers and more time ensuring it never happens again.