Weldon doubts DoD on Able Danger

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Sept. 8, 2005 at 10:46 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- The congressman who first made public claims that a secret Pentagon data mining project linked the Sept. 11 attacks ringleader to al-Qaida more than a year before the attacks took place says 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," Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Penn., told United Press International.

Last week, Pentagon officials told a hastily arranged briefing for reporters that much data generated by the project -- code-named Able Danger -- was destroyed in accordance with standard operating procedure for handling material that might contain the names of Americans.

Weldon said he had asked the Pentagon for the certificates of destruction that 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.

Weldon said that a hearing next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee would hear testimony from the individual who destroyed the data.

"For some reason, the bureaucracy in the Pentagon -- I mean the civilian bureaucracy -- didn't want this to get out," he said.

Last month, Weldon arranged for select groups of reporters to interview two people associated with the Able Danger team, which used computer software to comb through huge quantities of data. The data was culled from the internet, purchased from credit rating bureaus or other data brokers or -- like phone and travel records -- and/or obtained in some cases by means that are still classified.

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was a liaison to the project said that in early 2000, it produced a chart bearing the names -- and in some case photographs -- of about 60 people thought linked to al-Qaida.

Among them was Mohamed Atta, the plot ringleader.

The Able Danger team leader, Navy Capt. Scott Philpott of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a much smaller group of reporters that he supported the main outlines of Shaffer's tale.

At last week's briefing, Pentagon intelligence officials said that three other people who had worked on Able Danger also recalled such a chart.

If their recollections turn out to be accurate, it will entail a re-writing by the Sept. 11 commission of their official account of who knew what and when about the suicide hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people.

The Pentagon officials were careful to stress that there were inconsistencies in the recollections of the five.

Four remembered Atta's name and picture on the chart, one only a name. There was a chart with other Mohameds, or Mohammeds on it -- Ajaz and Atef -- they said, implying that memories might be at fault.

And other memories are also inconsistent.

Shaffer told UPI that he told three staff members of the Sept. 11 commission about the Able Danger project, and the fact that it had developed information on al-Qaida before the attacks, at a meeting at Bagram airbase outside of Kabul on Oct. 21, 2003.

No one disputes that.

But he also says that he told them the project had linked some of the hijackers to al-Qaida before the attacks -- and that he told them Atta's name had been on a list of people linked to al-Qaida.

Philip Zelikow, the staff director of the commission who is now counsel to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the other members of staff who were at Bagram have so far not given their account of the meeting publicly.

A three-page statement from the commission's successor body, the 9-11 Public Discourse Project, says that a memorandum for the file prepared at the time by the staff "does not record any mention of Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers, or any suggestion that their identities were known to anyone at (the Department of Defense) before Sept. 11."

Former commission staffers -- who asked for anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the subject matter or the rules imposed by current employers -- said it was inconceivable that any member of the staff at the Bagram meeting would have heard Atta's name, or the names of any other hijackers, and not remembered it.

"That was exactly what we were looking for!" said one.

"I told them that we, Able Danger, had identified two of the three cells that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks," Shaffer said. "At the end (of the presentation) I mentioned Atta."

Shaffer says he "sort of dropped (the name) in" at the end of the meeting, and his account of the difference in recollections is conciliatory, "If they want to say they didn't hear it, fair enough. But I know what I said. I said we had two of the three cells."

Shaffer too has a contemporaneous note of the meeting -- talking points he says he prepared for his presentation, and which he has provided to several committees on Capitol Hill.

He declined to provide UPI with a copy, but he did say that Atta was not named in them.

If copies of the chart held by the military were indeed destroyed, it could mean that the sole remaining copy is the one Rep. Curt Weldon says he gave to national security adviser Steven Hadley at a White house meeting on Sept. 25, 2001.

"Steve Hadley looked at the chart and said, 'Congressman, where did you get that chart from?'" Weldon said in a June 27 floor speech in Congress.

"Steve Hadley said, 'Congressman, I am going to take this chart, and I am going to show it to the man. The man that he meant, Mr. Speaker, was the President of the United States.'"

Weldon repeated the account of the meeting in a book published earlier this year.

The White House has repeatedly refused to comment on the issue or to arrange an interview with Hadley.

"Mr. Hadley's recollections are very germane," said another former commission staffer.

"Did he see the chart? Was there a sticker on Atta's face? Or is the book hocus?"

Weldon and Shaffer have said that when the chart was shown to military officials, the face of Atta had to be covered with a yellow Post-It note to conform with regulations about privacy protection.

"It's time for Hadley to step up to the plate," said the former commission staffer. "He needs to come to the microphone and answer these questions."

Weldon says he does not know why the White House refuses to comment, but told UPI that at a meeting last June, Hadley acknowledged meeting him in September 2001 and receiving the chart.

"I've never had a detailed discussion about it with him, but he remembered the meeting," Weldon said.

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