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August 23, 2005
Able Danger: Pentagon Backlash Tries To Undermine Credibility

The Pentagon continued its attempted public-relations recovery after almost two weeks of remaining silent on the Able Danger revelations. After issuing its official statement, spokesman Larry Di Rita spoke out on Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer and their inability to find the records he claimed to have produced (via The American Mind):

"We have been very aggressive," Mr. Di Rita told The Washington Times. "We haven't been able to find anything that would corroborate the kind of detail Lt. Col. Shaffer and Congressman Weldon seem to recall." ... "We have to wonder whether [the chart] did exist," Mr. Di Rita said. "It's a bit of a phantom search here."

Mr. Zaid said Col. Shaffer was on active duty when working as a liaison between the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and the Able Danger team. He then became a civilian analyst at DIA. He was suspended in March 2004.

The DIA is in the process of revoking Col. Shaffer's security clearance, Mr. Zaid said, for what he called "trivial matters." They include reimbursements for mileage and telephone charges, and whether he properly received an award for his Able Danger work.

Sean at TAM writes about his concern that this undercuts Shaffer's credibility, but it really just rehashes what has already been public knowledge. The first part, where Larry Di Rita adds a bit more emphasis than his official statement had, just means that the Pentagon still won't say categorically that the evidence doesn't exist now, let alone never existed at all. They say they're still looking, although Di Rita adds "aggressively" for Rowan Scarborough. Di Rita's statement falls apart now that three named witnesses all say the same thing -- the chart existed, and it identified Atta as a potential AQ operative in early 2000.

The revocation of Shaffer's security clearance has also been discussed since the first article at the New York Times, even before Shaffer came forward publicly. Mark Zaid disclosed that from the start, although we only have Zaid's word on the issues prompting the DoD review. Had Shaffer committed a serious breach of his clearance as an officer of the armed services, it would result in disciplinary action far worse than a simple revocation, and much sooner than 18 months later. The attempt to revoke his clearance while still promoting him in the Army Reserve (as happened last year) tends to argue against the clearance review being over anything very substantial, and looks more like a petty payback -- the kind of action that whistleblowing provokes.

The intel source that wrote "Al-Qaeda Brought The Matches," Big Sea, has some thoughts on credibility based on the ranks and status of the witnesses:

I'm curious if it has struck anyone else as quite significant that the second person to come forward to talk openly about Able Danger is an active-duty Navy captain? To me this seems huge. Except for the 3 years I worked at NAVSEA, I haven't had that many direct dealings with military officers, but I have real trouble believing that a Flag Officer would put his career on the line to support questionable or sexed-up claims to embarass a previous administration and the 9/11 commision.

I suspect witness credibility will be the main thing we have to go one in this case: I doubt actual details will be released, given the classification of the project and the risk that significant details would give the terrorists too much info on how we might ID them. And from what I know about document handling for canceled programs, it's quite possible the revelvant source material simply isn't around anymore, except in a summarised and downgraded form. So personal testimony may well be as good as it gets.

If Able Danger was all some dirty Rovian trick, I might argue that a Lt. Colonel would be just about the perfect guy to push it along -- senior enough to sound impressive with the public, and an excellent "fall guy" if his story does not bear up at a later date. Of all the ranks, Lt. Colonels can probably best afford to be mavericks and whistle blowers since most don't pursue promotion unless they think they have a good chance of making General. I might also add that Lt. Colonel Schaffer being a liaison officer, not an analyst or program manager, gives him a degree of "plausible deniability" as he can claim he was mislead, having "no direct knowledge." I certainly don't believe any of this, but if I was inclined to be conspiracy minded (or playing devil's advocate), those are the arguments that would occur me.

But an active-duty Navy captain is much too consequential a figure to act as a fall guy. Nor, in my experience, do mavericks make it to that rank. I suppose I could be wrong, but I just can't imagine Capt. Phillpott coming forward if he wasn't telling the truth and if he didn't have official sanction for doing so.

It will come down to credibility, as Big Sea points out. Three men, two of whom have put their military careers on the line -- including a flag officer who might have wanted a shot at the Admiralty -- have spoken out publicly to tell us about Able Danger and its results. The 9/11 Commission obviously did not bother to investigate this, and the Pentagon didn't want to do so either. Congress needs to start their own investigation immediately and start with these men who clearly have made the commitment to get this story to the American people.

UPDATE: Jim Geraghty at TKS has the transcript for the National Geographic special that appears to refer to Able Danger:

AT THIS AIR FORCE BASE IN TAMPA (Picture of Entrance Gate to MacDill Air Force Base), MEMBERS OF THE U.S. ARMY SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND ARE REVIEWING AN UNUSUAL CHART THAT REPORTEDLY IDENTIFIES BOTH ATTA (picture ID of Atta shown) AND AL-SHEHHI (picture ID of Al-Shehhi shown) AS LIKELY MEMBERS OF AN AL-QAEDA TERROR CELL OPERATING WITHIN THE U.S. THE OFFICIALS DECIDE THEY CANNOT PASS THIS INFORMATION ALONG TO THE FBI, IN PART BECAUSE THE MEN ARE HOLDING VALID U.S. VISAS AND MAY BE OFF LIMITS FROM INTELLIGENCE GATHERING BY THE MILITARY. The next segment discussed terrorist training camps in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In his next post, Jim does a good job of running down the know/don't know of Able Danger thus far but retains a bit of skepticism. Power Line's John Hinderaker says he's losing some of his skepticism now and wonders whether the entire Commission timeline on Atta should be thrown out. And Rick Moran agrees with me that Congress needs to act immediately.

UPDATE: Larry Di Rita, not Joe Di Rita. Not sure where that came from other than a lack of caffeine this morning. Thanks to CQ reader Ereynol in the comments for that one.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 23, 2005 6:11 AM

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