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August 22, 2005
Able Danger: Did They ID Atta Before He Got Here?

One of the reasons why the 9/11 Commission claim they dismissed the information regarding Able Danger is because the claims made by Col. Tony Shaffer and Captain Scott Phillpott did not match the known travel timeline for Mohammed Atta. That timeline had Atta arriving for the first time in the US in June 3, 2000, on a flight from Prague to Newark. However, according to Shaffer, he recalled seeing Atta on a chart as early as spring 2000, and Phillpott today said that Able Danger ID'd Atta in January-February 2000.

That poses an interesting question. If the Commission timeline holds up, could Able Danger have ID'd Atta as an AQ operative while he was still overseas? Or did the 9/11 Commission use faulty data to construct a completely incorrect timeline for Atta?

The Commission report gives the following data for Atta's travel during the early months of 2000 (page 167-168 of the Commission report):

After leaving Afghanistan, the four began researching flight schools and aviation training. In early January 2000, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali a nephew of KSM living in the UAE who would become an important facilitator in the plot used Shehhis credit card to order a Boeing 747-400 flight simulator program and a Boeing 767 flight deck video, together with attendant literature;Ali had all these items shipped to his employers address. Jarrah soon decided that the schools in Germany were not acceptable and that he would have to learn to fly in the United States. Binalshibh also researched flight schools in Europe, and in the Netherlands he met a flight school director who recommended flight schools in the United States because they were less expensive and required shorter training periods.

In March 2000,Atta emailed 31 different U.S. flight schools on behalf of a small group of men from various Arab countries studying in Germany who, while lacking prior training, were interested in learning to fly in the United States. Atta requested information about the cost of the training, potential financing, and accommodations.

This information came from interrogations of Ali and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. However, that puts Atta and the gang squarely in Hamburg for the period in which Able Danger team says the four men had been identified as potential AQ threats. That can mean have one of three different explanations:

1. Shaffer, Phillpott, and Smith all lied, and went out of their way to lie to the Commission not once but several times, despite the Pentagon themselves today noting the "respected" service of the two officers.

2. The Able Danger team identified the cell overseas before they traveled to the US.

3. The Commission got their timeline wrong, or incomplete, and Atta and his team had already been in the United States.

None of these explanations sound promising. The first could have been plausible when none of Weldon's sources would come forward publicly, but now we have three of them openly stating their case, at least one and probably two of whom appear to have worked directly on the project.

The second has a flaw built into it, although not a show-stopper: had Able Danger identified Atta and his henchmen as AQ while in Hamburg, they could have simply informed the State Department of their suspicions about him. That would have kept Atta from getting a visa for entry into the US, and more importantly, it wouldn't have set off any bells regarding coordination between foreign counterintelligence investigations and domestic law-enforcement, such as the policy in place with the 1995 Gorelick memo at OIPR and the DoJ.

Would the Pentagon attorneys still have stopped Able Danger from talking to State? Probably not, but another possibility exists: the generals might not have wanted to explain how Able Danger came up with the names of potential terrorists -- the program appears to have been a black-box operation at the time -- or else simply didn't trust the product of the analysis. However, the Able Danger team specifically wanted to coordinate with the FBI, which points to Atta being in the US at the time of identification.

That leaves option 3. How good was the data for the Atta timeline, and how solid did the Commission nail down his movements? Looking at the data on pages 167 and 168 of the report, it appears that all of the information that the Commission used to establish travel timelines for the Atta cell came from interrogations of Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. These two AQ officers later also discounted Atta's travel to Prague in April 2001, despite the insistence of Czech intelligence that he met with the Iraqi envoy and an IIS agent at that time.

It seems most likely that Atta and his team may have traveled to the US, either under their own names or variants, and performed some scouting for suitable locations before moving themselves to the US for good. The Able Danger squad has insisted that their requests to coordinate with the FBI got denied on the basis that Atta had become a resident of the US. Binalshibh and KSM could have created a disinformation scenario for the FBI; only the interrogators there know for sure how reliable the pair's information proved to be.

If the timeline for Atta's travels proves incorrect or incomplete, this casts serious doubt on the insistence that Atta never went to Prague, as it is based on the same intelligence. We need to know when and where Able Danger first ID'd Atta, and whether their data has better evidence of his travels in and out of the US than that given by two co-conspirators with plenty of motivation to mislead American investigators. Congress needs to act now to do what it should have done itself the first time -- find out what the hell went on before 9/11.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 22, 2005 9:31 PM

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