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August 10, 2005
Confirmation Of Able Danger Raises Even More Questions

The AP reported yesterday that they independently verified the claims published in the New York Times that a secret Army data-mining operation identified a handful of Brooklyn residents as members of al-Qaeda in 2000, but did nothing to notify the FBI because of Justice Department policies forbidding cooperation between intelligence and law-enforcement operations. This confirmation comes from DoD documents, not unnamed sources or grandstanding politicians:

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 shown to the AP do not specify the identities of the individuals named, but they do corroborate Rep. Curt Weldon and the Times' source to the extent that identification was made and that no action was taken by the DoD. Tom Maguire noted this development as an update to his post on the Times article (and posted a comment here), pointing out that finding Islamist sympathizers in Brooklyn should not have been a big surprise to the US after the first WTC bombing in 1993. Law-enforcement authorities knew of the Brookly mosque where the terrorist cell responsible for the earlier attack had gathered and plotted.

Now the 9/11 Commission wants some answers for these new documents:

Members of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks called on Congress to determine whether the Pentagon withheld intelligence information showing that a secret American military unit had identified Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers as potential threats more than a year before the attacks.

The former commission members said the information, if true, could rewrite an important chapter of the history of the intelligence failures before Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think this is a big deal," said John F. Lehman, a Republican member of the commission who was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration. "The issue is whether there was in fact surveillance before 9/11 of Atta and, if so, why weren't we told about it? Who made the decision not to brief the commission's staff or the commissioners?"

According to the Times' source, however, he did explicitly brief the Commission on the existence of the Able Danger program and its identification of Atta and three other 9/11 hijackers as al-Qaeda operatives, as mentioned yesterday:

The former intelligence official said he was among a group that briefed the former staff director of the Sept. 11 panel, Philip D. Zelikow, and at least three other staff members about Able Danger when the staff members visited the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in October 2003. The official said that he had explicitly mentioned Mr. Atta in the briefing as a member of the American terrorist cell.

This hearkens back to the 9/11 Commission report. As I noted yesterday, the volumnous report comprises almost 600 pages. Yet the report remains incredibly bereft of insight on military intelligence. It only contains 13 references to military intelligence at all, over half of which specifically refer to Pakistani military intelligence. American MI only gets mentioned in their recommendations and not in the analysis of how the US failed to detect the 9/11 plot before its successful conclusion. In retrospect, that gaping hole in analysis seems highly odd, almost as if the 9/11 Commission never bothered to ask the Pentagon about its intelligence missions -- or simply disregarded evidence relating to it.

Could the latter be possible? Consider the single mention of "data mining" in the report on page 388-9. The Commission notes that "scattered units at Homeland Security and the State Department" perform data mining and screening without explaining which units do what. MI falls within the DHS. However, not a word gets mentioned as to what results data mining produced. Nevertheless, in the same breath, the Commission endorses data mining on a wider and more coordinated scope than ever before.

Why didn't the Commission press harder for military intelligence, and if the Times' source has told the truth, why did they ignore the Able Danger operation in their deliberations? It would emphasize that the problem was not primarily operational, as the Commission made it seem, but primarily political -- and that the biggest problem was the enforced separation between law enforcement and intelligence operations upon which the Clinton Department of Justice insisted. The hatchet person for that policy sat on the Commission itself: Jamie S. Gorelick.

Again, this begs the question of what else the Commission ignored, especially in terms of military and civilian intelligence, in order to reach its conclusions. It also undermines their recommendations to create two new levels of bureaucracy for the intelligence services. Instead, if the Able Danger development pans out, it means that the best fix is the Patriot Act and a reduction in bureaucratic drag on intelligence, not an increase in it. Congress needs to start from scratch and completely reinvestigate 9/11, this time outside the heat of a partisan presidential election cycle.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 10, 2005 6:11 AM

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