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December 7, 2005
The 20-Foot Rings Of Able Danger

AJ Strata has more on the Able Danger story tonight, following the release of a National Journal article at that might fill in some of the blanks on why the program lost its backing in mid-2000, just when it appeared to make headway against al-Qaeda. As Shane Harris reports, the second dry run of the data harvest that eventually spawned Able Danger turned up more politically difficult names in connection to Chinese espionage:

The experiment "went well," the former IDC employee said. "Unfortunately, it went too well." During construction of those link diagrams, the names of a number of U.S. citizens popped up, including some very prominent figures. Condoleezza Rice, then the provost at Stanford University, appeared in one of the harvests, the by-product of a presumably innocuous connection between other subjects and the university, which hosts notable Chinese scholars.

William Cohen, then the secretary of Defense, also appeared. As one former senior Defense official explained, the IDC's results "raised eyebrows," and leaders in the Pentagon grew nervous about the political implications of turning up such high-profile names, or those of any American citizens who were not the subject of a legally authorized intelligence investigation. Rumors still abound about other notable figures caught up in the IDC's harvest. "I heard they turned up Hillary Clinton," the official said. The experiment was not continued.

"We determined that there were significant methodological problems," Hamre said of the IDC's techniques. Data-correlation analyses on raw information "produce impossibly large numbers of potential correlations. The numbers are too large to be operationally helpful."

But it appears not everyone in the military establishment agreed. Over the next several months, Kleinsmith estimated he gave more than 200 briefings on the IDC to members of Congress, generals, and senior government officials. "I could tell in three to four minutes if someone 'got it,' " Kleinsmith said. Hamre got it, he noted. And so, it seems, did officials with the Army's Special Operations Command, who, despite the unease over the China experiment, came to the IDC asking for information about a then-shadowy organization called Al Qaeda.

This history of LIWA and Able Danger makes the timelines a bit more clear than in the past. The Pentagon ran the Chinese experiment in 1999, during the height of the impeachment backlash and well after the worst of the Chinese campaign-funds scandal. Turning up Hillary as part of the research would not have been all that dramatic, as speculation about how closely the Chinese had tied themselves to the Clintons through the efforts of their intelligence agents. In fact, it probably would have culled John Kerry's name as well.

I doubt that the data proved anything about Hillary other than the connections to the already well-known Johnny Chung and Liu Chaoying. Nevertheless, as the results got wider exposure in Washington, the pressure of having all these important political players sitting in a database must have triggered a case of nerves at the Pentagon. A year later, as the IDC went through the Able Danger exercise using the same data harvest as part of its information, the order came down to kill all data that contained American citizens -- and one would have to presume that everyone understood that citizens such as anyone named Clinton would get especial scrutiny. That data cull crippled the ongoing effort to find al-Qaeda assets inside the US, although the AD team continued to focus outside the country for more terrorists using the technology.

Read the rest of this piece for an excellent rundown of Able Danger and the context from which it sprang, and then recheck AJ Strata's excellent analysis of the information. I'd put this as confirmation of some of the most interesting theories about the program, but it still doesn't explain why the FBI never went back and rechecked on the status of this promising counterterrorism program.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 7, 2005 8:53 PM

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