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The New York Times has a late report tonight on the Able Danger story, as one of Rep. Curt Weldon's sources went public in order to testify to the public about the program. Colonel Tony Shaffer tells Philip Shenon that Able Danger did indeed identify Mohammed Atta as a possible member of an al-Qaeda terrorist cell by mid-2000:
Colonel Shaffer said in an interview that the small, highly classified intelligence program known as Able Danger had identified by name the terrorist ringleader, Mohammed Atta, as well three of the other future hijackers by mid-2000, and had tried to arrange a meeting that summer with agents of the F.B.I.'s Washington field office to share the information.
But he said military lawyers forced members of the intelligence program to cancel three scheduled meetings with the F.B.I. at the last minute, which left the bureau without information that Colonel Shaffer said might have led to Mr. Atta and the other terrorists while the Sept. 11 plot was still being planned.
"I was at the point of near insubordination over the fact that this was something important, that this was something that should have been pursued," Colonel Shaffer said of his efforts to get the evidence from the intelligence program to the F.B.I. in 2000 and early 2001.
He said he learned later that lawyers associated with the Defense Department's Special Operations Command had canceled the F.B.I. meetings because they feared controversy if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States. "It was because of the chain of command saying we're not going to pass on information - if something goes wrong, we'll get blamed," he said.
Not only did Shaffer get stiffed on informing the FBI, it appears that the 9/11 Commission had less than a fully enthusiastic response to his information. He insists that he told Commission staffers about the identification of Atta when he briefed them in October 2003, despite the counterclaims of the Commission staff. In fact, Shaffer says he risked his current security clearance to go public after Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean released their last statement on Friday in order to counter the frustration their latest story change caused him.
At least we know that Rep. Curt Weldon didn't make up the whole story. The DoD has not responded to Shaffer's revelations, preferring to wait until it performs an internal investigation into Able Danger. The Times also reports that Shaffer is not the same officer who attempted to brief the Commission in July 2004, which establishes two separate sources for the Atta identification prior to 9/11.
Now we need to hear what the 9/11 Commission has to say next. The Times quotes Commissioner Richard Ben Veniste, easily one of the most partisan of the players, as blaming the Pentagon for not giving them the information:
A Democratic member of the commission, Richard Ben Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor, said in an interview today that while he could not judge the credibility of the information from Colonel Shaffer and others, the Pentagon needed to "provide a clear and comprehensive explanation regarding what information it had in its possession regarding Mr. Atta."
"And if these assertions are credible," he continued, "the Pentagon would need to explain why it was that the 9/11 commissioners were not provided this information despite request for all information regarding to Able Danger."
No, Mr. Ben Veniste, the Commission owes us an explanation for why two different sources with the same information about Mohammed Atta's identification got ignored by the panel. Why didn't the Commission follow up on this? Were they so married to the Atta timeline that they could not bear to rethink it? If so, why? Blaming the Pentagon for ignoring Colonel Shaffer and the Navy captain sounds a lot like the blame-shifting for which the Commission piously blasted the Bush administration during the ridiculously political public hearings in 2004.
The Commission has a big problem now. As long as Weldon's sources remained anonymous, they could easily dismiss them as a figment of Weldon's imagination or worse, phantoms created to help him sell a book. Now we have at least one American officer risking his career to tell the public what we should have already known about 9/11, and what the Commission failed to tell us.
My Weekly Standard column will be out tomorrow. It will discuss another development that never made it into the 9/11 Commission report.
UPDATE: Junkyard Blog has some interesting and detailed thoughts on Shaffer's career-threatening revelations.Sphere It View blog reactions
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