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September 2, 2005
Able Danger: The Shaffer Interview

Several CQ readers sent me a link to a lengthy interview with LTC Tony Shaffer in the upcoming issue of Government Security News. Although hardly exclusive, the Pentagon's latest revelation of three more corroborating witnesses lends a lot more credence to Shaffer's testimony, and the broad reach of this interview will provide a touchstone for those who watch the upcoming hearings to see whether Congress really intends on a full investigation.

The interview starts off with a summation of its highlights, which allows readers to understand the scope of the discussion. Among the revelations in the summary is a CIA refusal to cooperate based on turf-protecting attitudes and an explanation of how Able Danger used information from mosques to identify relationships between potential terrorists:

After briefing the CIAs representative stationed at SOCOM headquarters, and explaining that Able Danger would not be competing with the CIAs own separate mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden, Shaffer was surprised by the CIA reps stern resistance to sharing any information, said Shaffer. I clearly understand the difference, the CIA rep told him, according to Shaffer. I clearly understand. Were going after the leadership. You guys are going after the body. But, it doesnt matter. The bottom line is, CIA will never give you the best information from Alex Base or anywhere else. CIA will never provide that to you because if you were successful in your effort to target Al Qaeda, you will steal our thunder. Therefore, we will not support this. Shaffer told GSN that one key to Able Dangers success in identifying suspected terrorists was its willingness to buy information from brokers that identified visits by individuals to specific mosques located around the world. By crunching data about such visits during a six-month period, Able Dangers data miners were able to spot illuminating patterns and identify potential relationships among alleged terrorists, Shaffer explained.

Shaffer's testimony on these points underscore the lack of cooperation and undue competition between intelligence agencies that most had presumed caused some of the intelligence failures prior to the 9/11 attacks. We expected that some streamlining of intelligence units would comprise part of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, instead of the restructuring that allowed all the units to continue operating separately, but with an additional two layers of bureaucracy above them. The issue of cooperation and competition never got addressed at all.

Far more interesting, however, is the timeline Shaffer describes in his dealings with the 9/11 Commission as well as the chain of command for Able Danger after the terrorists attacked. Shaffer once again recounts the call he received, reminding him that their team had identified Atta and his cell as potential terrorists over a year earlier. Shaffer says that the information reached Congress and the NSA as soon as it became apparent, but that the chaos that followed the attacks may have buried the information:

GSN: How soon after the 9/11 attack did you realize that Able Danger had actually identified about a year earlier the Brooklyn cell and several of the actual 9/11 terrorists, including Mohammed Atta? SHAFFER: It was within two weeks of 9/11, when one of my colleagues, who had kept one of the charts, called me and said, Youre not going to believe this. Hes on one of our charts -- Atta. I just felt this sinking in the pit of my stomach like, Youve got to be kidding me. Nope, you want to come see? This [colleague] and I get together for coffee. Here it is, [said the colleague.] Im just sitting there shocked, like I cant believe we have this, and I asked, What are we going to do about this? and [the colleague] said, I dont know yet. I was told later that the information [on Able Dangers findings] was passed by Congressman [Curt] Weldon over to Stephen Hadley [then the deputy national security advisor in the Bush White House]. At that point in time, I was convinced, Okay, we got the word out. Were good to go. At least someone will know now that this happened.

Bear in mind that Shaffer, who worked on Able Danger liaison as one of several projects on his plate, went back to active duty at this time and moved on to new assignments. General Rod Isler had ordered him to drop the Able Danger project early in the year, which preceded its rapid demise after General Pete Schoomaker retired initially at the beginning of 2001. With a war on, Shaffer assumed that Able Danger data had reached the top and had the attention of investigators and intelligence operatives.

In October 2003, while he served in other intelligence roles in Afghanistan, Philip Zelikow came to visit. Army brass wanted anyone who had information relevant to 9/11 to step forward, and Shaffer compiled his talking points, which he showed GSN but would not allow them to publish. He specifically recalls telling Zelikow about Atta:

SHAFFER: Same thing [in Afghanistan.] It took time to go through these points. The bottomline was, and the way I phrased it was, We found two of the three cells which conducted 9/11, to include Atta. Thats the way I phrased it to them. I dont know if they didnt recognize the Atta part, but I did specifically mention two of the three cells which conducted 9/11, and at the end of that I threw in Atta. Because my focus, honestly, was that we found two of the three cells. That was to me the most important factor, rather than focusing on Atta, as an individual. And that was what I told them. ...

As I recall, at the end of the meeting, there was silence. People were just silent at what Id said.

Now, I dont know how to interpret that, but I do know that two things came out of that meeting, some of which are admitted by the 9/11 Commission now.

First, Zelikow approached me at the end of the meeting and said, This is important. We need to continue this dialogue when we get back to the states. Heres my card.

Now a senior executive handing an [Army] major his card, I would consider that a fairly big indication that Hey, theres something to this.

Second thing, by the 9/11 Commissions own statement of 12 August, it talks about Dr. Zelikow calling back [to the U.S.] immediately. My understanding from talking to another member of the press is that [Zelikows] call came into America at four o clock in the morning. He got people out of bed over this.

So, I dont know what they heard. I can only tell you that I was told by Zelikow to re-contact him and we have their own statement here. So, it seems to me that what theyre saying about [Able Danger] not being important is contradicted by the fact that he did tell me to contact him.

After this, strange events start to transpire. Shaffer completes his tour of duty and takes his 30-day leave. By the time he calls Zelikow in January, Zelikow no longer wants to see him. During his initial briefing, he offered to give Zelikow all of his collected documentation for Able Danger, as he had become the repository of the information. The last time he recalls seeing the data was February 2004. By the time Zelikow says he got the information in March 2004, Zelikow reported that it comprised two briefcase-sized boxes of documents, far less than what Shaffer had archived. By the next month, the Pentagon had suspended his security clearance over $67 worth of disputed cell-phone charges which Shaffer offered to pay just to get rid of the nuisance. Eventually the Army cleared him, but in the meantime his collected information on Able Danger had apparently disappeared.

Several questions come out of this interview, and the answers may make people from both administrations very incomfortable:

* Who had access to Shaffer's files, and what happened to them?
* Who initiated the clearance suspension for Shaffer?
* Shaffer identifies Pete Schoomaker as the man who specifically recruited him for Able Danger, and indeed as the leading light of the concept. Schoomaker retired, but returned in 2003 to the Joint Chiefs by the request of Donald Rumsfeld. Why has Schoomaker kept silent?

It would appear from this testimony that Shaffer's revelation in October 2003 set off a chain of events that rather conveniently left little from Able Danger except live witnesses. Seeing as how that revelation went to Philip Zelikow, now serving as Condoleezza Rice's right-hand man at State, one has to presume that Zelikow would know something about how that happened. To whom did he make that late-night phone call, and what happened in two months that made Shaffer go from explosive source to persona non grata?

If Congress is inclined to ask questions, they could start with those.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 2, 2005 6:37 AM

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