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August 14, 2005
Able Danger: Commission Response Doesn't Add Up

Tom Maguire and Jim Geraghty have done a fine job this morning dissecting the latest official, four-page response from the 9/11 Commission about the Able Danger program and its supposed identification of Mohammed Atta as an al-Qaeda operative a year before the attacks. Both Tom and Jim believe this response puts the onus back on Curt Weldon and his sources to provide more evidence that refutes Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton.

In one sense, that's correct; in fact, I'd say that the onus has never really left Weldon in that he needs to get as much of the facts in the open now as possible. However, I remain deeply skeptical of this latest response, as much for the detail it provides as anything else:

On July 12, 2004, as the drafting and editing process for the Report was coming to an end (the Report was released on July 22, and editing continued to occur through July 17), a senior staff member, Dieter Snell, accompanied by another staff member, met with the officer at one of the Commissions Washington, D.C. offices. A representative of the DOD also attended the interview. According to the memorandum for the record on this meeting, prepared the next day by Mr. Snell, the officer said that ABLE DANGER included work on link analysis, mapping links among various people involved in terrorist networks. According to this record, the officer recalled seeing the name and photo of Mohamed Atta on an analyst notebook chart assembled by another officer (who he said had retired and was now working as a DOD contractor). The officer being interviewed said he saw this material only briefly, that the relevant material dated from February through April 2000, and that it showed Mohamed Atta to be a member of an al Qaeda cell located in Brooklyn. The officer complained that this information and information about other alleged members of a Brooklyn cell had been soon afterward deleted from the document (redacted) because DOD lawyers were concerned about the propriety of DOD intelligence efforts that might be focused inside the United States. The officer referred to these as posse comitatus restrictions. Believing the law was being wrongly interpreted, he said he had complained about these restrictions up his chain of command in the U.S. Special Operations Command, to no avail.

And that's just in reference to the July 2004 interview. For the October 2003 briefing, the Commission response runs two pages, describing in detail how the Commission requested and received documentation from the DoD and other sources. They claim that their staff carefully analyzed it then, and this week reviewed all of it a second time to see if they missed the name Mohammed Atta. They claim that it does not appear anywhere in their records.

That describes an amazing amount of activity for a program and topic which no one recalled at all just five days ago:

Lee Hamilton, Aug 8: "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."

Commissioner John Lehman, Aug 8: "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?"

The New York Times on Al Felzenberg, Aug 9: Al Felzenberg, who served as the commission's chief spokesman, said earlier this week that staff members who were briefed about Able Danger at a first meeting, in October 2003, did not remember hearing anything about Mr. Atta or an American terrorist cell. On Wednesday, however, Mr. Felzenberg said the uniformed officer who briefed two staff members in July 2004 had indeed mentioned Mr. Atta.

Clearly the Commission has little credibility left. Five days ago, no one could remember the July 2004 briefing, and the Commission only admitted to it when pressed by the New York Times. Four days later, they have a prepared rebuttal with everything but pictures showing how they gave the allegations serious consideration but ultimately rejected it. Why? As I posted yesterday, the naval officer did not have any documentation with him -- which would, incidentally, have landed him in Leavenworth for life -- and the time frame didn't match up with the Commission's understanding of when Atta entered the US.

Color me unimpressed. If the Commission had this level of understanding about Able Danger and the July 2004 briefing, why did it deny knowledge of the program and the subsequent briefing that named Atta? The statement itself shows the absurdity of taking Hamilton, Kean, and the Commission at face value.

Tom Maguire notes another potential conflict of interest at work as well. Philip Zelikow, the Commission staffer who wrote the report, has some interest in the amount of credibility that data-mining receives in the intelligence community:

Before joining the 9/11 Commission Mr. Zelikow was "the Executive Director of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age (2002-2003). This task force investigated ways of developing an information network to prevent terrorism while protecting citizens' civil liberties."

How about that? The fellow who led the first Able Danger de-briefing was also an expert in terrorism and information management. Did he, or the Markle Foundation, have thoughts about data-mining? Indeed they did - we take this from their press release:

As the recent controversies surrounding DARPA's Terrorist Information Awareness program and an Army contractor's use of Jet Blue passenger data demonstrate, government access to, and use of, privately held data remains a vexing problem. In its report, the Task Force notes that the government should effectively utilize the valuable information that is held in private hands, but only within a system of rules and guidelines designed to protect civil liberties. Since it is not possible for the nation to harden all potential targets against terrorist attack, the Task Force concludes that the government must rely on information to detect, prevent, and effectively respond to attacks. The travel, hotel, financial, immigration, health, or educational records of a person suspected by the government to be a terrorist may hold information that is vital to unveiling both his intentions and those of other terrorists.

However, the Task Force also concludes that the government should not have routine access to personally identifying information even if it is widely available to the public. If government is to sustain public support for its efforts, it must demonstrate that the information it seeks to acquire is genuinely important to the security mission and is obtained and used in a way that minimizes its impact on privacy and civil liberties.

Does this mean that Mr. Zelikow would prefer to quash news of "Able Danger", if it really had been a successful data-mining program? Who knows?

Now we have Jamie Gorelick, whose actions in promoting a policy preventing collaboration between intelligence and law enforcement in the Clinton administration contributed greatly to our failure to 'connect the dots' prior to 9/11, joined by Philip Zelikow among the Commission staff with axes to grind in this effort. Both, coincidentally, have specific conflicts with the manner in which intelligence gets collected and coordinated. Given that the Commission had been specifically tasked to investigate these exact kinds of questions, how did they wind up in these critical positions?

As I have posted earlier, Congress has to step in and get to the bottom of these questions. Obviously the model that created this Commission does not work; it allows for zero accountability and rampant conflict of interest. Elected officials at least have accountability for their actions, and it is far past time for them to take primary responsibility for the 9/11 investigation.

UPDATE: John Podhoretz finds this convincing, and he's a pretty bright guy. I'd say this falls short of a credible explanation, for all the reasons I put above, but even if the Able Danger story got exaggerated by Weldon, we had at least one naval officer attached to a datamining program that claimed we had knowledge of Atta. Why didn't the final report mention that? Again, they recommend not only increased datamining in the report, but a more coordinated effort to provide it (see pages 388-9 of the report), without ever explaining why. Was there other datamining projects that came up with even better intelligence, and why aren't they mentioned in the report?

It may turn out that Weldon is all wet, but from the terrible performance coming from the Commission this week on their first serious challenge, full of falsehoods and walkbacks, no one owes them an apology.

Also, Mark Steyn has thoughts on relying on INS records to categorically state when Atta first came to the US and how.

UPDATE II: John Podhoretz notes this passage from Time Magazine:

In a particularly dramatic scene in Weldons book, Countdown to Terror, the Pennsylvania Republican described personally handing to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, just after Sept. 11, an Able Danger chart produced in 1999 identifying Atta. But Weldon told TIME hes no longer certain Attas name was on that original document. The congressman says he handed Hadley his only copy. Still, last week he referred reporters to a recently reconstructed version of the chart in his office where, among dozens of names and photos of terrorists from around the world, there was a color mug shot of Mohammad Atta, circled in black marker.

That's pretty damned lame, Rep. Weldon. It doesn't add anything to your credibility, either.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 14, 2005 9:58 AM

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