The Times tells us on Thursday that the 9/11 Commission simply needed its collective memory prodded a bit - yes, the Commission was briefed about "Able Danger", and yes, Mohammed Atta was mentioned. Folks who wondered about Congressman Curt Weldon's credibility (Yes, that included me) will need a moment to regroup. The Captain, on the other hand, has shivered his timbers and is keel-hauling the Commission. From the Times:
The Sept. 11 commission was warned by a uniformed military officer 10 days before issuing its final report that the account would be incomplete without reference to what he described as a secret military operation that by the summer of 2000 had identified as a potential threat the member of Al Qaeda who would lead the attacks more than a year later, commission officials said on Wednesday.
The officials said that the information had not been included in the report because aspects of the officer's account had sounded inconsistent with what the commission knew about that Qaeda member, Mohammed Atta, the plot's leader.
...The briefing by the military officer is the second known instance in which people on the commission's staff were told by members of the military team about the secret program, called Able Danger.
The meeting, on July 12, 2004, has not been previously disclosed. That it occurred, and that the officer identified Mr. Atta there, were acknowledged by officials of the commission after the congressman, Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, provided information about it.
Mr. Weldon has accused the commission of ignoring information that would have forced a rewriting of the history of the Sept. 11 attacks. He has asserted that the Able Danger unit, whose work relied on computer-driven data-mining techniques, sought to call their superiors' attention to Mr. Atta and three other future hijackers in the summer of 2000. Their work, he says, had identified the men as likely members of a Qaeda cell already in the United States.
In a letter sent Wednesday to members of the commission, Mr. Weldon criticized the panel in scathing terms, saying that its "refusal to investigate Able Danger after being notified of its existence, and its recent efforts to feign ignorance of the project while blaming others for supposedly withholding information on it, brings shame on the commissioners, and is evocative of the worst tendencies in the federal government that the commission worked to expose."
Al Felzenberg, who served as the commission's chief spokesman, said earlier this week that staff members who were briefed about Able Danger at a first meeting, in October 2003, did not remember hearing anything about Mr. Atta or an American terrorist cell. On Wednesday, however, Mr. Felzenberg said the uniformed officer who briefed two staff members in July 2004 had indeed mentioned Mr. Atta.
The Congressman's tirade currently appears to be justified.
Now, why did the Commission give the Able Danger briefing short shrift?
Mr. Felzenberg said the commission's staff remained convinced that the information provided by the military officer in the July 2004 briefing was inaccurate in a significant way.
"He wasn't brushed off," Mr. Felzenberg said of the officer. "I'm not aware of anybody being brushed off. The information that he provided us did not mesh with other conclusions that we were drawing" from the commission's investigation.
Mr. Felzenberg said staff investigators had become wary of the officer because he argued that Able Danger had identified Mr. Atta, an Egyptian, as having been in the United States in late 1999 or early 2000. The investigators knew this was impossible, Mr. Felzenberg said, since travel records confirmed that he had not entered the United States until June 2000.
"There was no way that Atta could have been in the United States at that time, which is why the staff didn't give this tremendous weight when they were writing the report," Mr. Felzenberg said. "This information was not meshing with the other information that we had."
But Russell Caso, Mr. Weldon's chief of staff, said that "while the dates may not have meshed" with the commission's information, the central element of the officer's claim was that "Mohammed Atta was identified as being tied to Al Qaeda and a Brooklyn cell more than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, and that should have warranted further investigation by the commission."
"Furthermore," Mr. Caso said, "if Mohammed Atta was identified by the Able Danger project, why didn't the Department of Defense provide that information to the F.B.I.?"
Not a bad question.
Mr. Felzenberg goes on to explain that the Able Danger briefing was also put to one side because a dog nearly ate the Commission's report:
The Sept. 11 commission issued its final report on July 22, 2004. Mr. Felzenberg noted that the interview with the military officer had taken place in the final, hectic days before the commission sent the report to the printers, and said the meeting reflected a willingness by the commission to gather facts, even at the last possible minute.
"Lots of stuff was coming in over the transom," Mr. Felzenberg said. "Lots of stuff was flying around. At the end of the day, when you're writing the report, you have to take facts presented to you."
Yes, you go to the printer with the report you have - who almost said that?
Well, at this point we ought to await a description of the one hour condensed briefing that, per Weldon, was given to Gen. Hugh Shelton in January 2001 - that would seem to represent a clear, contemporaneous version of the Able Danger product. It is still dimly possible that the Able Danger briefing given to the 9/11 Commission conflated the initial effort with some post-9/11 updating, and that the original Able Danger briefing either had no names, or too many names to have been useful. Very dimly possible.
But assuming for a moment that Weldon is holding aces, how monumental an intelligence debacle is this, and who will be blamed? The obvious whipping boys of summer would be Clinton/Berger/Gorelick, for fostering an overly legalistic approach to the War on Terror; Bush/Tenet/Rice for failing to draw this information from the system in the summer of 2001, when we were at a high terrorist threat level and Tenet's hair was on fire; and Gen. Hugh Shelton and the Pentagon. Gen. Shelton (ret.) was Chairman of the JCS in Jan 2001 - if he heard and downplayed the Able Danger briefing then, he and the Pentagon might prefer to see it buried now.
As to how significant an error this was - obviously, after the fact Mohammed Atta was very important. Although I assume Able Danger did not offer any specific projections about hijacking planes, if Atta had been put under closer surveillance, the 9/11 plot might have been disrupted. Still, a point to ponder - was Atta noted by Able Danger as a key Al Qaeda figure even in 2001, or was he just one name among fifty, or five hundred?
I suspect that Congressional hearings into this will be forthcoming.
MORE: 9/11 Commissioner Gorelick is a particular target of the right. Here are a couple of posts about her conflicts of interest with this assignment, and let's note that Dwight Meredith started this.
Bottom line: This is an intriguing story, but my guess is that Weldon and his source may be considerably embroidering the scope and reliability of what the Able Danger team actually uncovered in 2000 — as people are often wont to do after the fact. Stay tuned.
I DON'T THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS: From Fox:
Hamilton confirmed that commission staff members learned of Able Danger during a meeting with military personnel in October 2003 in Afghanistan, but that the staff members do not recall learning of a connection between Able Danger and any of the four terrorists now mentioned. He also said no mention made of Atta.
It was "inconceivable" that staffers would have missed such a reference, Hamilton told FOX News.
Well, they didn't seem to care at the July 12, 2004 meeting.
Jim Geraghty at TKS says that "if Rep. Curt Weldon is right, a political earthquake is about to hit Washington."