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Did DoD lawyers blow the chance to nab Atta?

By Jacob Goodwin

In September 2000, one year before the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, a U.S. Army military intelligence program, known as “Able Danger,” identified a terrorist cell based in Brooklyn, NY, one of whose members was 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta, and recommended to their military superiors that the FBI be called in to “take out that cell,” according to Rep. Curt Weldon, a longtime Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who is currently vice chairman of both the House Homeland Security and House Armed Services Committees.
 
The recommendation to bring down that New York City cell -- in which two other Al Qaeda terrorists were also active -- was not pursued during the weeks leading up to the 2000 presidential election, said Weldon. That’s because Mohammed Atta possessed a “green card” at the time and Defense Department lawyers did not want to recommend that the FBI go after someone holding a green card, Weldon told his House colleagues last June 27 during a little-noticed speech, known as a “special order,” which he delivered on the House floor.
 
Details of the origins and efforts of Able Danger were corroborated in a telephone interview by GSN with a former defense intelligence officer who said he worked closely with that program. That intelligence officer, who spoke to GSN while sitting in Rep. Weldon’s Capitol Hill office, requested anonymity for fear that his current efforts to help re-start a similar intelligence-gathering operation might be hampered if his identity becomes known.
 
The intelligence officer recalled carrying documents to the offices of Able Danger, which was being run by the Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, FL. The documents included a photo of Mohammed Atta supplied by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and described Atta’s relationship with Osama bin Laden. The officer was very disappointed when lawyers working for Special Ops decided that anyone holding a green card had to be granted essentially the same legal protections as any U.S. citizen. Thus, the information Able Danger had amassed about the only terrorist cell they had located inside the United States could not be shared with the FBI, the lawyers concluded.
 
“We were directed to take those 3M yellow stickers and place them over the faces of Atta and the other terrorists and pretend they didn’t exist,” the intelligence officer told GSN.
 
DoD lawyers may also have been reluctant to suggest a bold action by FBI agents after the bureau’s disastrous 1993 strike against the Branch Davidian religious cult in Waco, TX, said Weldon and the intelligence officer.
 
“So now, Mr. Speaker,” Weldon said on the House floor last June, “for the first time I can tell our colleagues that one of our agencies not only identified the New York cell of Mohammed Atta and two of the terrorists, but actually made a recommendation to bring the FBI in to take out that cell.”
 
Weldon has developed a reputation for making bold pronouncements and, occasionally, ruffling the feathers of some of his colleagues. His recent non-fiction book, “Countdown to Terror,” which draws on information from an Iranian expatriate source Weldon has dubbed “Ali,” has drawn criticism from the CIA, others in the intelligence community and some congressional colleagues.
 
A longtime champion of firefighters and first responders, Weldon has a particular interest in this subject because he has been openly and actively pushing since 1999 for the establishment of an integrated government-wide center that could consolidate, analyze and act upon intelligence gathered by dozens of U.S. agencies, armed services and departments.
 
Weldon’s proposal was based on the innovative intelligence gathering capabilities he had witnessed at the U.S. Army’s Information Dominance Center, based at Fort Belvoir, VA, (which was formerly known as the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center.) This Army center had employed data mining, profiling and data collaboration techniques before several other intelligence agencies, and was using such cutting edge software tools as Starlight (developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) and Spires.
 
For years, the CIA resisted the congressman’s recommendation, Weldon told GSN in a telephone interview on August 1, claiming that his plan to integrate dozens of discrete and classified intelligence streams was both unworkable and unnecessary. Weldon had dubbed his proposed organization the National Operations and Analysis Hub, nicknamed  NOAH, because the center was intended “to protect our nation from the flood of threats,” he explained.
 
Sixteen months after 9/11, such a “data fusion center,” named the Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC) was indeed established by the Bush Administration.
 
At the urging of the 9/11 Commission, the TTIC has since been restructured and renamed the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC).
 
Weldon is pleased that steps have been taken to unify the nation’s intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities, now headed by a newly established Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Negroponte, but Weldon remains concerned that the “stovepipe” mentalities that plagued the intelligence community in the past continue to inhibit true information sharing between intelligence agencies.
 
He is also extremely frustrated by the fact that so little official attention seems to have been paid to the intelligence failure related to the Mohammed Atta cell in Brooklyn. Weldon contends that few in the Bush Administration seem interested in investigating that missed opportunity.
 
“If we had had that [military intelligence] system in 1999 and 2000, which the military had already developed as a prototype, and if we had followed the lead of the military entity that identified the Al Qaeda cell of Mohammed Atta, then perhaps, Mr. Speaker, 9/11 would never have occurred,” Weldon said during his special order remarks.
 
According to Weldon, staff members of the 9/11 Commission were briefed on the capabilities of the Able Danger intelligence unit within the Special Operations Command, which had been set up by General Pete Schoomaker, who headed Special Ops at the time, on the orders of General Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Staffers at the 9/11 Commission staffers were also told about the specific recommendation to break up the Mohammed Atta cell. However, those commission staff members apparently did not choose to brief the commission’s members on these sensitive matters.
 
Weldon said he was told specifically by commission members, Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana; and John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy; that they had never been briefed on the Able Danger unit within Special Ops or on the unit’s evidence of a terrorist cell in Brooklyn.
 
“I personally talked with [Philip] Zelikow [executive director of the 9/11 Commission] about this,” recalled the intelligence officer. “For whatever bizarre reasons, he didn’t pass on the information.”
 
The State Department, where Zelikow now works as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said he was traveling and unavailable for comment.
 
“Why did the 9/11 Commission not investigate this entire situation?” asked Weldon on June 27. “Why did the 9/11 Commission not ask the question about the military’s recommendation against the Mohammed Atta cell?”
 
Weldon is also disappointed with himself for not pushing harder against the intelligence bureaucracy that he saw as resisting his proposal to set up a more integrated intelligence-gathering operation. But he saves some of his greatest ire for the lawyers within the Department of Defense -- he is not sure if they were working within the Special Operations Command or higher up the organizational chart, within the Office of the Secretary of Defense -- for their unwillingness to allow Able Danger to send to the FBI its evidence and its recommendation for immediate action.
 
“Obviously, if we had taken out that cell, 9/11 would not have occurred and, certainly, taking out those three principal players in that cell would have severely crippled, if not totally stopped, the operation that killed 3,000 people in America,” said Weldon.
 
Shining a spotlight on this intelligence gaffe has not been easy. Russ Caso, Weldon’s chief of staff, explained to GSN the steps his boss has taken to shed light on the situation.
 
Weldon spoke with Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, about conversations he has had with several members of the Able Danger intelligence unit. Weldon has urged Hoekstra to investigate the reasons why Able Danger’s revelations were not shared with the FBI. Hoekstra looked into the matter at the Pentagon, but after several days of fruitless inquiries, was unable to find anyone at the Defense Department who seemed to know anything about Able Danger or would acknowledge the intelligence unit had ever existed, explained Caso in a telephone interview with GSN.
 
Unwilling to let the matter drop, Weldon arranged for a face-to-face meeting in late July between Hoekstra, himself and the former intelligence officer who had worked with Able Danger, and who outlined his former unit’s evidence and recommendations for Hoekstra.
 
“Congressman Weldon has met with several people who were working on Able Danger to identify where Al Qaeda was set up around the world,” said Caso. “They made the suggestion that this information be passed to the FBI, and lawyers within the Defense Department -- whether within Special Ops or within OSD, we don’t know -- and the lawyers said, ‘No’.”
 
A report about some of these events appeared last June 19 in The Times Herald newspaper, of Norristown, PA, which is located in the Philadelphia suburbs that Rep. Weldon represents in Congress.