Thursday, September 22, 2005

Military Knew About Atta a Year Before 9/11

By BART JANSEN Washington D.C. Correspondent,

WASHINGTON — Pentagon researchers linked Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta to a New York group of al-Qaida terrorists a year before the 2001 attacks, but the military destroyed the evidence after the hijackings, witnesses testified Wednesday. The Defense Department has refused to discuss the intelligence program called "Able Danger" and prohibited those who were involved from testifying at Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The refusal has fueled talk about whether the military could have prevented the attacks.

A Pentagon official acknowledged at the hearing that officials should have shared the information with the FBI if it was gathered in an acceptable manner.

Committee members called the destruction of paperwork a cover-up of missed opportunities. More urgently, lawmakers questioned what other information was destroyed that could have helped prevent future terrorist attacks.

"Terrorism remains the No. 1 problem in the United States today," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. and committee chairman. "It is not a matter of attaching blame, it is a matter of correcting any errors so that we don't have a repetition of 9/11. If there is intelligence available, it ought to be shared."

Atta was the apparent leader of 19 hijackers aboard four planes Sept. 11 that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing about 3,000 people. Atta is of great interest in Maine because he and another hijacker passed through Portland International Jetport the morning of the attacks, flying to connections in Boston.

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., and vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee, sparked the investigation of Able Danger after learning about the secret program through his congressional work. He lost a neighbor and military colleagues in the attacks.

"There's something wrong with the system, and we should be able to discuss that," he said.

Weldon has found five military officials who described seeing Atta among Able Danger records.

One was Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a civilian at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Army reserve officer who tried to pass along warnings to the FBI three times and was rebuffed.

Another was James Smith, a defense contractor who kept a chart on his office wall that linked pictures of suspected terrorists including Atta with text about them.

Both men attended the hearing, but the Pentagon ordered Shaffer not to testify. His security clearance, which was suspended after he spoke to the Sept. 11 Commission about Able Danger, was fully revoked Monday.

His lawyer, Mark Zaid, also urged Smith not to testify for fear of losing his own security clearance.

But Zaid described what they would have said. He compared Able Danger to the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," where players name actors or movies connected to the prolific actor.

At Able Danger, researchers started with links to Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Atta, who wasn't known to be in the United States, was linked to Abel-Rahman's Brooklyn group of al-Qaida, placing his picture on Smith's giant chart, Zaid said.

"It was grainy photograph," Zaid said. "He remembered it vividly because of the potentially evil, death look in Mohamed Atta's eyes, and his narrow, drawn face."

The Pentagon has refused to discuss Able Danger for fear of revealing classified secrets. But Specter said he would continue pressing for answers.

"This looks to me like it may be obstruction of the committee's activities," Specter said.

Able Danger operated primarily in 1999 and 2000, although briefings based on the program's research continued in early 2001, according to witnesses. When the program ended, the military destroyed 2.5 terabytes of documentation, which Weldon said equals one-quarter of the books at the Library of Congress.

Erik Kleinsmith, who trains others in intelligence gathering for Lockheed Martin Information Technology, was an Army major in intelligence who worked on Able Danger. He said the data "allowed us to map al-Qaida as a worldwide threat with a surprisingly significant presence within the United States."

But he told the committee that he ordered the destruction of the program's documents based on military regulations calling for routine elimination. "This destruction was dictated by and conducted in accordance with intelligence oversight procedures that we lived by," Kleinsmith said.

In another twist, witnesses at the hearing said the documents could be destroyed easily because they were not secret. Weldon said military officials acknowledged to Armed Services Committee members two weeks ago at an informal meeting that Able Danger had used voting records that were publicly available.

Lawmakers voiced frustration with the destruction of the intelligence. "I don't get the purpose of the cover-up," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.

After highlighting the public nature of the information, Specter asked William Dugan, acting assistant to the defense secretary for intelligence oversight, whether it was a mistake for the Pentagon not to share the information with the FBI. Dugan said he wasn't sure whether it was properly collected.

But Specter pressed, asking what should happen if information was properly collected.

"If it's properly collected, yes," Dugan said.

Washington Correspondent Bart Jansen can be contacted at 202-488-1119 or at:


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