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August 13, 2005
Able Danger 'Not Historically Significant': Commission

The Washington Post and the New York Times report extensively on the pushback from the 9/11 Commission's two co-chairs after a week of denials, evasions, and the resulting devaluation of their project. The joint statement from Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean minimizes the Able Danger program as not "historically relevant" and that the single source who came to the Commission -- an Navy officer in military intelligence -- did not appear credible. From the Post:

The second person, described by the commission as a U.S. Navy officer employed at the Defense Department, was interviewed by senior panel investigator Dieter Snell and another staff member on July 12, 2004, 10 days before the release of the commission's best-selling report.

According to the commission, the officer said he briefly saw the name and photo of Atta on an "analyst notebook chart." The material identified Atta as part of a Brooklyn al Qaeda cell and was dated from February through April 2000, the officer said.

"The officer complained that this information and information about other alleged members of a Brooklyn cell had been soon afterward deleted from the document," the statement says, because Pentagon lawyers were worried about violating restrictions on military intelligence gathering in the United States.

But the commission statement said that because no documents or other evidence had emerged to support the claim, "the commission staff concluded that the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation."

This would have been reasonable, under the circumstances, if this happened as Hamilton and Kean say. One person comes to the Commission a week prior to the release of the report and says, "Wait. The Pentagon had a secret program that ID'd Mohammed Atta and three of the other hijackers sometime in early 2000." The investigator says, "Wow! The Pentagon never mentioned that to us! Let's see the documents." The source says, "They don't exist. The Pentagon destroyed them."

That I would be inclined towards skepticism at this point would be an understatement. However, I would still follow up with the Pentagon to find out whether it was true. Such a development hardly qualifies as "historically insignificant" if it gets corroborated. The identification of the core group of terrorist pilots more than a year before the attacks would have tremendous significance -- to the historical record, as well as to the conclusions drawn.

And yet, from the Kean/Hamilton statement, no one on the Commission or its staff even bothered to pick up a phone to check with the Pentagon on Able Danger -- not even when their source turns out to be an officer in the regular Navy attached to the DoD. They dismissed him because of two reasons: he didn't bring documentary evidence, and his recollection of when Atta became known didn't fit the timeline on which they had already agreed -- which put Atta in the US no earlier than June 2000.

On the first point, it seems to me that such an approach to witnesses demonstrates a certain laziness on the part of the Commission. Witnesses who bring their own documentation obviously make it easier on investigators, but to dismiss those who have none in a case involving the highest type of classified data is ludicrous. Investigators have the responsibility to locate documentation, or at least follow up to find it if they can. People working in the intelligence field do not get handed fliers and bulletins containing top-secret information so they can maintain personal files of it at home and on the road. The notion that an officer in military intelligence bringing an insider tip has to bring his own evidence as a cover charge severely limits the effectiveness of any inquiry.

On the second point, it's also worth noting that the Commission had an unusual standard for determining Atta's timeline -- they relied on him to travel under his own name at all times. I discussed this in earlier posts, but it bears repeating: terrorists can change tactics situationally. All the report can possibly state was the first time Atta traveled under his own name or any known aliases, and then only if immigration records picked it up. It doesn't take much imagination, however, to think that he may have traveled here under a separate cover once or twice first to test the system and to do preliminary research for his mission.

Finally, as I posted last night, Hamilton himself has some pretty severe credibility problems himself. After the Commission spokesman denied that Able Danger ever came to their attention, Hamilton himself said, "The Sept. 11 commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell. Had we learned of it obviously it would've been a major focus of our investigation."

Three days later, we find out that not only did staffers hear about it, they dismissed it without investigating it at all. Hamilton also wants us to believe him when he says that another witness who claims to have briefed them on Able Danger in October 2003 is also unreliable. Somehow Hamilton does not fill me with confidence in his own credibility, nor should he do so with anyone else after this week of lies and evasions.

Curt Weldon, who started this ball rolling, has stated that his sources have offered to testify publicly, under oath, to Congress about Able Danger and what they told the 9/11 Commission. That sounds like a good idea, and Congress needs to make that happen immediately.

UPDATE: Jim Geraghty at TKS reminds us of some other statements from the Commission earlier this week, including Kean:

"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?" ...

"If this is true, somebody should be looking into it," said Thomas H. Kean, the commission chairman ...

Again, those statements came on August 9th. Three days later, the two co-chairs suddenly remember not only the mention of Able Danger but that they gave it due consideration and serious thought before rejecting it as unreliable and historically insignificant. It certainly is possible, but it sounds pretty strange -- and it sounds a lot more like a self-serving reversal.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 13, 2005 6:51 AM

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