WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Defense Department lawyers have blocked members of a data-mining intelligence team from testifying Wednesday before a congressional committee probing their claims that they identified the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 hijackers more than a year before the attacks.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary sought testimony from several members of the team -- code-named Able Danger -- as part of their investigation into claims that the project identified Mohamed Atta and three of the other 18 hijackers as linked to al-Qaida in early 2000, according to Senate staffers.
Mark Zaid, an attorney representing a liaison to the team, Army reserve Col. Tony Shaffer, told United Press International that a letter to his client gave no reasons for blocking the testimony.
The letter was signed by the principle deputy general counsel for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Robert Berry.
Zaid said the team members "were told verbally that they would not be allowed to testify," and that he had requested the decision about his client be put in writing.
He said that the team leader, Navy Capt. Scott Philpott, a civilian analyst named James Smith and other members of the team had all been denied permission to testify.
No one at the Department of Defense or the Defense Intelligence Agency returned calls for comment Tuesday.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Penn., who first put members of the Able Danger team in contact with the news media, was said by staff to be concerned about the move.
"It is unfortunate that we're trying to get answers ... and the people who could help us get them are not going to testify," said Russ Caso, the congressman's chief of staff.
The Able Danger team will not be the only witnesses missing from Wednesday's hearing. No one from the Sept. 11 commission will be present either, despite the fact that Weldon has publicly blamed them for -- in his words -- "ignoring" evidence about the project.
Commission staffers say that after Shaffer told them about the project in 2003 they requested documents about it from the Defense Department, but found nothing to support claims that the team had nailed Atta.
Former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington told United Press International that he had volunteered to testify, and had been invited to do so, but had to cancel at the last minute owing to an unexpected conflict. He said that he would be submitting a letter in place of his testimony, which would "answer, in detail, all the questions" that the committee had.
Judiciary aides said Shaffer, Philpott and other Able Danger team members had been interviewed by committee staff, seeking information about a chart generated using Able Danger's computer software, and listing the names and connections of about 60 individuals thought linked to the al-Qaida network.
Able Danger used data-mining on massive amounts of "open source" information: culled from the internet, purchased from credit rating bureaus or other data brokers or -- like phone and travel records -- obtained in some cases by means that are still classified.
According to Philpott, that chart -- produced in January or February 2000 -- bore the name and likeness of Mohamed Atta, and linked him to a mosque in Brooklyn which has been a center of Islamic extremism for more than 20 years.
The Pentagon said earlier this month that three more people who worked on the project now corroborate Philpott and Shaffer's claims about the chart -- but that defense officials destroyed documents the project generated.
Pat Downs a senior policy analyst in the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steven Cambone, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Sept. 1, that a search of "hundreds of thousands, probably" of documents and electronic files related to the project -- including those held by contractors who worked on the project -- had found no copies of the chart, and no documents referring to it.
But she acknowledged that the chart could have been among documents from the project that were -- in accordance with regulations designed to prevent U.S. intelligence agencies spying on citizens -- destroyed.
"There are strict regulations about collection, dissemination and destruction procedures for this type of information," she told a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, "and we know that that did happen in the case of Able Danger documentation."
She said that the regulations had been "very strictly interpreted pre-Sept. 11."
"In a major data mining effort like this," she said, "you're reaching out to a lot of open sources and within that there could be a lot of more information on U.S. persons.
"We're not allowed to collect that type of information."
Weldon said that a defense contractor who would testify Wednesday planned to tell the committee that he was ordered to destroy data from the project.
Weldon told UPI earlier this month that he does not believe the military's account of how the results of the project's work came to be destroyed.
"I seriously have my doubts that it was routine," he said, adding that he had asked the Pentagon for the certificates of destruction military officials must complete when classified data is destroyed.
He said that there had been "a second elimination of data in 2003," in addition to the destruction acknowledged last week.
"For some reason, the bureaucracy in the Pentagon -- I mean the civilian bureaucracy -- didn't want this to get out," he said.