Able Danger and the Lawyers

ABLE DANGER AND THE LAWYERS….Why is it that Able Danger, the team that supposedly ID’d Mohamed Atta and his Brooklyn al-Qaeda cell a year before 9/11, was prevented from sharing this information with the FBI? Last night I noticed that the explanation offered by Tony Shaffer, an intelligence officer who worked with the program, has shifted subtly over the past week.

Here’s the first New York Times piece about Able Danger:

The information was not shared, [Shaffer and Curt Weldon] said, apparently at least in part because Mr. Atta, and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, United States citizens and green-card holders may not be singled out in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies. That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Mr. Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.

Here is Tuesday’s New York Times article:

[Shaffer] said he learned later that lawyers associated with the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command had canceled the F.B.I. meetings because they feared controversy if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States.

Finally, here is Gil Spencer’s story in the Delaware County Daily Times today:

Yet when he tried to share this information with the FBI, [Shaffer] said he was blocked from doing so by Department of Defense. Part of the reason was recent history and the lack of trust that existed between the federal agencies.

The Branch Davidian debacle in Waco that left 70 people dead was still in the memory banks of all those who had been involved in it, including the U.S. Army Delta Force that advised the siege team.

When it came to al-Qaida, Shaffer believes the mindset of the military was “if we pass the information on to the FBI and they do something with it and if something goes wrong (we?re) going to get the blame for it.”

The explanation has gone from (a) legal concerns to (b) PR concerns rooted in legal issues to (c) PR concerns rooted in memories of the Waco debacle.

So what was the real reason? As it happens, Waco was mentioned in passing in the very first Able Danger story in Government Security News, but it never resurfaced after that. Until now, the story has been pretty consistently rooted in the actions of timid military lawyers.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but wanted to pass it along for the record. The reason it makes a difference is that it speaks to how solid the Able Danger material really was. Was it rock solid, but lawyers wouldn’t let them share it with the FBI? Or was it vague and iffy material, and higher-ups didn’t want it to blow up in their face if it turned out to be wrong? There’s a big difference between the two.