The Able Danger disaster will soon be coming to a newspaper near you. Much of the information contained in this column can be found on various blog sites, both liberal and conservative, now crackling with the story. This is what is known so far about the brewing scandal:
• Able Danger, an intelligence unit established by the Pentagon in 1999 to identify al-Quada affiliated members and cells for U.S. Special Operations Command, hit pay dirt sometime in August or September of 2000. According to a military intelligence official and U.S. Rep Kurt Weldon, who claims to have spoken to four people involved with Able Danger, the intelligence unit identified Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi as members of an al-Quada cell named “Brooklyn” by the internet sleuths because of the cell’s loose connection with Brooklyn, New York. Atta and two other cell members went on to achieve notoriety by steering planes into the Trade Tower buildings in New York, killing upwards of 3,000 Americans.
• The analysts recommended that the information they had gathered from internet sites by a process called “data mining from open sources” – along with a photograph of Atta, the mastermind of 9/11 – be passed along to the FBI so that the members of the cell could be rounded up.
• According to accounts written in the New York Times and the Associated Press, pentagon lawyers determined that anyone possessing a green card had to be given the same legal protections afforded U.S. citizens; therefore the information assembled by Able Danger could not be shared with the FBI. This determination was in accord with a policy established in 1995 by President Bill Clinton’s Assistant Attorney General Jamie Gorelik. The policy, since dismantled by the Patriot Act, placed a wall between intelligence gatherers and law enforcement officials, directing both to exceed what the law demanded to keep both functions separated, a prohibition that should not have applied to the Brooklyn cell since its members were in the country on visas and did not have permanent resident status.
• Gorelik, chiefly responsible for the erection of an informational Berlin Wall, was a member of the commission. Her own political interests could not have been advanced by the inclusion of the information excluded in the report.
• The Sept. 11 commission looked into the matter, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, but chose not to include the information in its final report, apparently because time line data concerning Atta’s presence in the United States supplied by the military investigators attached to Able Danger did not mesh with the time line information accepted by the commission.
• Important critical details recently have been disputed by members of the commission. A statement recently released by commission members noted that the committee had interviewed the military officer who reported he had seen Atta’s name and photo recorded in an analyst’s notebook chart in 2,000. The interviewee, the commissioners noted, “said he had only seen the document briefly some years earlier. The interviewee had no documentary evidence, and The Department of Defense documents had mentioned nothing about Atta, nor had anyone come forward between September 2001 and July 2004 with any similar information. He could not describe what information had led to this supposed Atta identification. Nor could the interviewee recall, when questioned, any details about how he thought a link to Atta could have been made by this DOD program in 2000 or any time before 9/11. Weighing this with the information about Atta’s actual activities, the negligible information available about Atta to other U.S. government agencies and the German government before 9/11, and the interviewer’s assessment of the interviewee’s knowledge and credibility, the Commission staff concluded that the officer’s account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation.”
The conflicting claims no doubt will be sifted and adjusted by relevant agencies, and eventually the truth will emerge. But important unanswered questions ought to be answered, foremost among them:
• Did the military lawyers who intervened to stop the flow of information involve their superiors in making such decisions? It strains credulity to believe that legal functionaries would not have passed on information collected by Able Danger to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger or Richard Clarke, President Bill Clinton’s chief advisor on counterterrorism.
Apprised of the new information concerning the monitoring of al-Quada that had been available during the Clinton administration, the September 11 Advocates, a group of politically active widows of the Twin Tower workers murdered by Atta, professed they were “horrified” to learn of the existence of evidence undisclosed by the 9/11 commission.
"The revelation of this information,” the group said in a letter, “demands answers that are forthcoming, clear and concise," the statement said. "The Sept. 11 attacks could have and should have been prevented."
Amen to that.