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August 9, 2005
9/11 Cell Identified In 2000 (Updates)

Today's New York Times reveals that military intelligence had identified the core of the 9/11 cell more than a year before the attacks that killed 3,000 people. Mohammed Atta and three of the other hijackers remained unknown to the FBI, however, thanks to the working policy at the time which forbade intelligence services from sharing information with the FBI and other law-enforcement officials:

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.

The reason for the inability to share information with the FBI, information that might have led them to "connect the dots", in the parlance of the 9/11 Commission, was the wall between intelligence and law-enforcement operations constructed in large part by the Clinton Administration. While FISA, the legislation governing the use of law-enforcement resources for intelligence work, has existed since the 1970s, the 1990s saw a major reinterpretation of that law within the executive branch, prompted by Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick. As Andrew McCarthy noted last year, that reinterpretation had the practical effect of cutting off all communication between the two groups responsible for American security:

Commissioner Gorelick, as deputy attorney general the number two official in the Department of Justice for three years beginning in 1994, was an architect of the government's self-imposed procedural wall, intentionally erected to prevent intelligence agents from pooling information with their law-enforcement counterparts. That is not partisan carping. That is a matter of objective fact. That wall was not only a deliberate and unnecessary impediment to information sharing; it bred a culture of intelligence dysfunction. It told national-security agents in the field that there were other values, higher interests, that transcended connecting the dots and getting it right. It set them up to fail.

Now we have more proof of that in this report. One might wonder what the 9/11 Commission made of this information. Not much; in fact, the Commission never even heard about it. Farther down in the Times report, we find out that the intelligence official corroborating Curt Weldon tried to tell the 9/11 Commission about the Able Danger operation and its findings:

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."

The sensitivity of the data-mining aspects of Able Danger are obvious. The fact that the military had enough information to cull that they could identify potential terrorists, and ultimately so accurately, would have caused an outcry before 9/11 and probably in the bitter partisan atmosphere of the Commission as well. The cautiousness of the agent came from his desire to keep the program from a deluge of criticism and publicity that would have spelled an end to it. However, he and Weldon both assert that the Commission had been told of its existence and its results -- and yet the Commission completely disregarded it.

Why? Could it be that the Commission didn't want to provide any further embarrassment to one of its members -- the same Jamie S. Gorelick whose actions created the obstacles that kept military intelligence from coordinating with the FBI? It would have made crystal clear the damage done to the national-security effort through the hostility of the Clinton Administration towards intelligence efforts. It also would have shown the foolishness of including Gorelick on the 9/11 Commission, an objection made by CQ during the hearings last year, and for the same reasons.

This new information undermines the notion that the 9/11 Commission report provides a comprehensive look at the attacks. It considered the primary reason for the attacks' success as an intelligence failure, while this shows that at least one intelligence agency had it right. It found itself handcuffed by a political policy that forbade them from doing anything constructive with the intelligence they had.

UPDATE: Slate's Eric Umansky offers a healthy dose of skepticism:

As Times mentions in passing, Weldon has a reputation for relying on iffy sources. He recently wrote a much-panned book alleging all sorts of Iranian plots, including that Tehran is hosting Bin Laden. The book relied on one sourcea source one CIA official told the Times "was a waste of my time and resources." A "fabricator" recalled another former spook. (The American Prospect has more on Weldon's source troubles.)

As for the former unnamed defense official, he talked to the NYT while "in Mr. Weldon's office." And given the allegations being made, the Times offers a loopy explanation for why the former official isn't named: "He did not want to jeopardize political support and the possible financing for future data-mining operations by speaking publicly." (If his accusations are true, how would his being named undercut future data-mining efforts?)

So, what we have in the NYT are allegations by a congressman known to make wildly dubious claims, and one former defense official who backs up the congressman but for some reason declines to put his good name to the ... facts. On the other side, you haveas the Times mentions up high but only details in, oh, the 29th paragraphthe 9/11 commission insisting that they did look into the program and found nothing.

I suspect that he meant he didn't want data-mining to get too much of a public profile. The program generated a lot of controversy when first proposed in the 90s, and then again after 9/11. Furthermore, if one actually does a search through the entire 9/11 Commission Report, the phrase "Able Danger" appears nowhere. On the subject of data mining, the only reference made to the concept appears on pages 388-9 (emphasis mine):

Inspectors adjudicating entries of the 9/11 hijackers lacked adequate information and knowledge of the rules. All points in the border systemfrom consular offices to immigration services officeswill need appropriate electronic access to an individuals file. Scattered units at Homeland Security and the State Department perform screening and data mining: instead, a government-wide team of border and transportation officials should be working together. A modern border and immigration system should combine a biometric entry-exit system with accessible files on visitors and immigrants, along with intelligence on indicators of terrorist travel.

So perhaps the sourcing on Weldon and the Times' corroboration may seem slim to Umansky, but the 9/11 Commission appears to have no credibility at all on Able Danger or data mining. Indeed, they acknowledge that some had been done -- without noting the results -- and recommend that more of it be undertaken. Their claim that they "looked into the program and found nothing" doesn't match at all with their official report. If they found nothing as a result of data mining, why recommend more of it with better coordination? Someone isn't telling the truth -- and so far, I still suspect that the 9/11 Commission has more to lose than Curt Weldon and his corroborating source.

UPDATE II, BUMP to TOP: There's nothing wrong with skepticism, but I would suggest that the Commission has earned just as much of it as Weldon. Just as a further investigation into the credibility into the Commission's response on this point, I searched the 9/11 Commission report again for the phrase "military intelligence". I expected a ream of hits; I got 13. They referenced:

* Pakistani military intelligence (7 refs)
* A demand for coordination between allied & Pakistani MI (p 331)
* A recommendation to keep the DoD's JMIP and TIARA programs as is (p 429, 2 refs)
* A recommendation to disclose overall budgets for MI (p 433)
* A note explaining a recommendation using MI as an analogy (p 566)

Based on this "data mining" of the Commission report, it not only looks like they found nothing, it seems like they didn't ask around about American military intelligence at all. They had more to say about Pakistani military intelligence than our own. Does that sound comprehensive to you?

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 9, 2005 7:59 AM

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