The Times, happily leaking double secret classified information again, tells us that a Pentagon intelligence unit identified four of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers operating in the United States in the summer of 2000, but sat on the warning rather than share it with the FBI.
But what are they really telling us? I guess they felt obliged to report this story - their primary sources are a US Congressman and one of the Pentagon operatives involved - but I sense robust skepticism leaking though the ink of the Old and Tired Gray Lady. Here we go:
Four in 9/11 Plot Are Called Tied to Qaeda in '00
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 - 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.
OK, this should open the door to some Clinton-era bashing - 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick was involved in constructing the walls that separated law enforcement from intelligence gathering, as the Captain explains.
However, one wonders - how did this tidbit escape the attention of the 9/11 Commission? And why are we only hearing about it now? The Times gets different answers from different people - the Pentagon operative says that Commission staffers were told, but the Commission staffers say they were not. Let's play "Dueling Excerpts":
For the Pentagon data-miners:
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 [on June 3, 2000]. 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.
For to the Commission:
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.
And Rep. Weldon joins the fray with perhaps the least likely comment of all (emphasis and links added:
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.
Weldon's book is a Regnery Publishing effort that came out in June 2005 (and frankly, based on the review the word "kooky" comes to mind). So, Weldon learned of this Pentagon success shortly after 9/11, discussed it with Stephen Hadley, but only recently realized its significance. Really?
I presume the Times is chatting with Representative Peter Hoekstra, to learn what progress two House committees have made in probing this - however, a confirming quote of any kind is painfully absent from this story. And I don't see a "no comment" or anything else from Hadley, either. Well, I guess everyone has a "To-Do" list.
Dare I guess as to what is going on? Well, the Times had to know this was pretty weak soup, but they front-paged it anyway. Maybe they figure they will go with what they have, and see if they can shake something loose.
UPDATE: Phil Carter is intrigued, but also sends us to Eric Umansky of Slate, who is even more skeptical than I. More reax at Memeorandum (who need to fix their auto-link to Phil Carter's "Intel Dump" - I'll put that reminder on my "To Do list", which is much less exciting than Mr. Jehl's.)
UPDATE 2: Here is an eerily prescient article by Daniel Pipes from May 2001 reprising the Al Qaeda embassy bombing trial in New York. Put it in the "Shoulda, coulda, woulda" file.
FOLLOWING UP: Here is Weldon's chat with the Norristown Times Herald from June 19, 2005. Weldon's doubters will seize on this:
...when officials asked Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to advise FBI agents of the "Able Danger" operation, the legal counsel shot down the plan, according to U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-7th Dist., dumbfounding those managing the covert effort.
... According to the congressman, SOCOM had advised the FBI during the law enforcement agency's ill-fated siege of the Branch Davidian compound, in Waco, Texas, in 1993, that resulted in more than 80 deaths after Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the compound. Following the fiery debacle, all the federal participants in the siege, including SOCOM, were harshly criticized.
Fear of suffering the fallout if "Able Danger" backfired, Weldon said, explains SOCOM's reluctance to assist the FBI.
Blaming it on Waco...
Here is the Aug 2005 Government Security News article
In September 2000, one year before the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, a U.S. Army military intelligence program, known as “Able Danger,” identified a terrorist cell based in Brooklyn, NY, one of whose members was 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta, and recommended to their military superiors that the FBI be called in to “take out that cell,” according to Rep. Curt Weldon, a longtime Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who is currently vice chairman of both the House Homeland Security and House Armed Services Committees.
...The officer was very disappointed when lawyers working for Special Ops decided that anyone holding a green card had to be granted essentially the same legal protections as any U.S. citizen. Thus, the information Able Danger had amassed about the only terrorist cell they had located inside the United States could not be shared with the FBI, the lawyers concluded.
...DoD lawyers may also have been reluctant to suggest a bold action by FBI agents after the bureau’s disastrous 1993 strike against the Branch Davidian religious cult in Waco, TX, said Weldon and the intelligence officer.
Finally, and most imnportant - the AP follows up with the news that the 9/11 Commission will look at this:
The Sept. 11 commission will investigate a claim that U.S. defense intelligence officials identified ringleader Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers as a likely part of an al-Qaida cell more than a year before the hijackings but didn't forward the information to law enforcement.
...Sept. 11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton said Tuesday that Weldon's information, which the congressman said came from multiple intelligence sources, warrants a review. He said he hoped the panel could issue a statement on its findings by the end of the week.
"The 9/11 commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell," said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Had we learned of it obviously it would've been a major focus of our investigation."
...Defense Department documents shown to an Associated Press reporter Tuesday said the Able Danger team was set up in 1999 to identify potential al-Qaida operatives for U.S. Special Operations Command. At some point, information provided to the team by the Army's Information Dominance Center pointed to a possible al-Qaida cell in Brooklyn, the documents said.
However, because of concerns about pursuing information on "U.S. persons" — a legal term that includes U.S. citizens as well as foreigners admitted to the country for permanent residence — Special Operations Command did not provide the Army information to the FBI. It is unclear whether the Army provided the information to anyone else.
The command instead turned its focus to overseas threats.
The documents provided no information on whether the team identified anyone connected to the Sept. 11 attack.
If the team did identify Atta and the others, it's unclear why the information wasn't forwarded. The prohibition against sharing intelligence on "U.S. persons" should not have applied since they were in the country on visas — they did not have permanent resident status.
Let's take the cheap shot - a possible Al Qaeda cell in Brooklyn? What's the next breakthrough, IRA sympathizers in Boston? C'mon, the 1993 WTC terrorists went to a mosque in Brooklyn:
Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue is only thirty minutes away by the Number 4 train from the World Trade Center... The mile stretch of Brooklyn seems a much closer cousin to downtown Cairo than Wall Street. It is a neighborhood overcrowded with the city’s densest concentration of Arabs.
...“This area is known as an Arab enclave throughout the world,” boasts Sam Moustapha, a co-owner of the family-run Oriental Pastry and Grocery Company.
...Inside the tiny room, dense with thick and heady smoke from hours of chain-smoking, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese sit, packed elbow to elbow, discussing the terror attacks. Many have lived through years of crises, including four Arab-Israeli wars, the arrests of local Hamas bomb makers, the nearby murder ten years earlier of radical Jewish activist Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Gulf War, and the now legendary neighborhood tales of the first World Trade Center bombers who lived and worshiped along these very streets.
Glad we figured that out.
STILL MORE: The Strata-Sphere makes the case for cover-up. It is certainly true that if the Able Danger story is true, no one who ignored it lacks for motive. One question to ponder - did Terror Czar Dick Clarke liase with the military, and does he mention data-mining or other creative military initiatives? Setting aside my feelings for the man, I can't see him ignoring this, and I would think that if the military had any contact with him at all, they would have found a way to leak it to him. (Well, maybe they did, and now he's covering...)