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August 27, 2005
Able Danger: Mixed Wires And Chinese Fried Rice

As people often say, you just can't make this stuff up. A couple of revelations today on Able Danger not only give more background on the secret data-mining project and the failure to use its information to stop Mohammed Atta a year before 9/11, they also tend to confirm that it indeed qualified as a government-run program. First, AJ Strata points readers to the Norristown Times-Herald, where Shaffer vents a bit of frustration at the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Though the original chart has not been unearthed, several other facsimiles have been recreated showing the terrorist links. Shaffer said about 20 boxes full of documents existed on "Able Danger" when he was involved. The Pentagon's Office of General Counsel is ultimately responsible for legal decisions, he said, and he believes getting hold of the legal papers on "Able Danger" is paramount to resolving the controversy.

"If I could have one (set of) documents, I would ask for the lawyers' notes," he said.

In Specter's letter to the FBI director, the chairman requested Mangum's correspondence with Shaffer, who attempted to arrange meetings at the FBI, according to the letter. The document request asks for "e-mail communication, notes, phone message slips, memos or any other supporting documentation" relevant to "Able Danger." The letter also requested an interview with Mangum.

In June, Shaffer said he tried to "broker" a working arrangement between Special Operations and the FBI for the operation, but the effort failed. After reading the letter Thursday, Shaffer said the text was at odds with what he told the committee.

"They got it wrong," he said.

Shaffer claimed he directed the committee to ask for information from an agency other than the FBI, which he refused to identify for The Times Herald."This (request) isn't going to get (the committee) the information they're looking for," he said.

Tom Maguire believes that this points to a credibility problem for Shaffer, arguing that this means a second government committee misunderstood Shaffer and that the pattern reveals more about Shaffer than government committees. He wonders if Shaffer made himself clear in either briefing, a good point when dealing with people who work in intel and have to speak carefully but precisely about their information.

However, I think Tom misses the point, and so did the committee; the problem in cancelling the meeting came from the General Counsel of the Pentagon, not the FBI. If Judiciary wants to talk to Xanthig Mangum at the FBI to confirm Shaffer's assertions that he tried to connect with them, as a means to test Shaffer's credibility, that sounds like a good idea. If they want to call Mangum to find out why the FBI failed to meet with the Able Danger team, then they're way off base. Shaffer has made it clear since the beginning that the Pentagon refused to allow him to meet with the FBI, not that the FBI refused to meet with him. My guess is that the "other agency" he suggested for legal papers is the Pentagon legal staff, and possibly the OIPR, which gives legal advice to the Pentagon on intel sharing.

The Times-Herald also reports that Able Danger worked at Fort Belvoir at the Land Information Warfare Asssistance Center, where half the staff remained unaware of Able Danger's mission. Only a dozen people knew of the Able Danger mission to identify potential terrorists through open-source datamining. So far, three of those twelve have stepped forward publicly to confirm that Able Danger ID'd Atta -- a pretty healthy percentage. The third source, however, has even more information about the Army's datamining in today's New York Post reagrding another effort to identify potential espionage agents from the same data sources -- and how it caused Able Danger to come to a screeching halt (via the excellent John Podhoretz):

Cyber-sleuths working for a Pentagon intelligence unit that reportedly identified some of the 9/11 hijackers before the attack were fired by military officials, after they mistakenly pinpointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent Americans as potential security risks, The Post has learned. ...

Sources said the private contractors, using sophisticated computer software that sifts through massive amounts of raw data to establish patterns, came up with a chart of Chinese strategic and business connections in the U.S.

The program wrongly tagged Rice, who at the time was an adviser to then-candidate George W. Bush, and former Defense Secretary William Perry by linking their associations at Stanford, along with their contacts with Chinese leaders, sources said.

The program also spat out scores of names of other former government officials with legitimate ties to China, as well as prominent American businessmen. There was no suggestion that Rice or any of the others had done anything wrong.

And here we have the dark side of data mining, of course; it comes up with connections free of any context, which investigators must apply themselves in each case. When these names poppep up on a chart, the Clinton appointees must have choked on their beverages, especially given the generally hostile attitude towards intel work that pervaded the administration. Their experimental project had just produced documentation that, if leaked, strongly suggested that the administration had started spying on their political opponents using military resources to smear them.

With visions of Watergate dancing in their heads, they followed their first instincts -- fire everyone involved and pretend the program never existed. When J.D. Smith got the axe, the colonel who fired him let him know that Smith's charts had effectively ended the colonel's military career.

This would also explain why the data and documentation no longer exists at the Pentagon, and why the military has shown such reluctance to make definitive statements about the program. It might also explain why the lawyers at the Pentagon refused to allow any use of the material. The attorneys might have been afraid that if Able Danger material had to be used in court (that *$&%^# law-enforcement approach to terrorism!), the Pentagon might have had to disclose the rest of the connections made through these efforts -- which would not just embarrass the Clinton Administration, but would also certainly destroy Al Gore's presidential campaign if it came out before the election.

How would the Republicans have reacted to this news, after all? Would we have welcomed this as a positive development in identifying terrorists prior to 9/11 -- or a Big Brotheresque gross infringement on personal privacy despite its open sourcing? I can guarantee anyone that had the Rice/Perry points been disclosed, the howls of "Watergate!" ("Datagate"?) would have made the impeachment of Clinton look like a subcommittee hearing on agricultural subsidies. Only the context of 9/11 makes that understandable at all.

The more details that come out about Able Danger, the more solid it begins to look. Now we even have the normal government FUBARs and resultant CYAs to accompany it. All that's missing are the $8,000 mousepads.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers, and happy birthday to Glenn! For those of you who haven't followed much of the Able Danger story to this point, select the '9/11 Commission' category or click here for all my posts on the subject.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 27, 2005 7:43 AM

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