Did DoD lawyers blow the chance to nab Atta?
By Jacob Goodwin
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,”
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
“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.