Able Danger

ABLE DANGER….Here’s a funny thing. Last Friday I got an email from a PR guy for Government Security News telling me about a story they were preparing to publish later that day (link here). The story was about a U.S. Army military intelligence program called “Able Danger” that had supposedly used data mining techniques to identify the al-Qaeda cell run by Mohamed Atta a year before 9/11. Unfortunately, as the story went, nothing was done about it because Defense Department lawyers prevented the Able Danger team from telling the FBI about the Atta cell.

For better or worse, I scanned the email briefly, saw that the primary source of the story was Pennsylvania congressman Curt Weldon, and decided to pass on it. On Tuesday, though, Douglas Jehl of the New York Times ran a piece about Weldon’s accusations (here) and then followed it up on Wednesday with another piece (here) that quoted a number of people wondering why this information was only being made public now and why the 9/11 commission hadn’t investigated it last year. That’s an especially good question, Laura Rozen says (here), because Weldon has been beating the Able Danger drum since at least 2002, when she heard him give a talk about it at the Heritage Foundation.

So who’s the culprit? Why didn’t the 9/11 Commission investigate this? Weldon’s source for his story is a “former defense intelligence officer” who worked closely with the Able Danger program, and he told GSN exactly where he thought the fault lied:

?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.

The GSN story actually has quite a bit more detail than either of Jehl’s pieces, so read the whole thing if you’re interested in learning more. So far, nobody has gotten Zelikow to comment on this, but Jehl reports today that the reason the 9/11 Commission staff didn’t follow up on the Able Danger story was because they didn’t believe it:

Al Felzenberg, who served as the commission’s chief spokesman, said earlier this week that staff members who were briefed about Able Danger at a first meeting, in October 2003, did not remember hearing anything about Mr. Atta or an American terrorist cell.

…. Mr. Felzenberg said the commission’s staff remained convinced that the information provided by the military officer [during a second briefing in July 2004 just a few days before the final commission report went to press] was inaccurate in a significant way.

….Mr. Felzenberg said staff investigators had become wary of the officer because he argued that Able Danger had identified Mr. Atta, an Egyptian, as having been in the United States in late 1999 or early 2000. The investigators knew this was impossible, Mr. Felzenberg said, since travel records confirmed that he had not entered the United States until June 2000.

For myself, I remain agnostic. Weldon is not exactly a reliable source, he has a huge axe to grind here (data mining is a longtime hobby horse of his), and Zelikow seems to be pretty well regarded in DC circles as a straight shooter. If he and his staff decided not to pursue the Able Danger lead, it sounds like they may have had good reason.

Bottom line: This is an intriguing story, but my guess is that Weldon and his source may be considerably embroidering the scope and reliability of what the Able Danger team actually uncovered in 2000 ? as people are often wont to do after the fact. Stay tuned.