More Able Danger Weirdness

MORE ABLE DANGER WEIRDNESS….Yeah, I know everyone is bored with this story, but one way or another I think it’s going to turn out to be pretty interesting. I’m just not sure yet which way it’s going to be interesting.

The latest comes from the New York Times, which interviewed Capt. Scott Phillpott, a member of the Able Danger team:

“My story is consistent,” said Captain Phillpott, who managed the program for the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command. “Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000.”

Now, this is just plain odd. As I mentioned a few days ago, Mohamed Atta’s full name was “Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta,” and prior to 2000 he went by “Mohamed el-Amir.” The first reference to “Mohamed Atta” that we know of was in his March 2000 emails to American flight schools, but it’s very unlikely that Able Danger had access to those. The first reference to “Mohamed Atta” that would have been accessible to American authorities was on his visa application, in May 2000.

So how did Able Danger learn about Mohamed el-Amir (or Mohamed Atta) in January 2000? The Times article provides this clue:

Representative [Curt] Weldon also arranged an interview with a former employee of a defense contractor who said he had helped create a chart in 2000 for the intelligence program that included Mr. Atta’s photograph and name.

The former contractor, James D. Smith, said that Mr. Atta’s name and photograph were obtained through a private researcher in California who was paid to gather the information from contacts in the Middle East.

This is even weirder. A private researcher who gathered information from “contacts in the Middle East”? This could actually explain the naming confusion, since a researcher with subject matter expertise might very well figure out that Mohamed el-Amir and Mohamed Atta were the same person.

But none of this is data mining, which is what we’ve been told Able Danger was. It’s plain old human intelligence. If a private researcher gathered information about, say, Egyptian nationals who visited Afghanistan in 1999, it’s quite possible he would have come up with el-Amir/Atta’s name. But a person like this wouldn’t be working for the small and experimental Able Danger project, he’d be working for an intelligence agency.

So we’re still left with an intriguing question: who first came up with Mohamed Atta’s name? Did Able Danger use intelligence assets of its own, or did this researcher work for someone else? If so, who? And what did they do with the information?

Obviously, we’re in wild speculation mode here. Take it all with a big grain of salt.

UPDATE: Miscellaneous corrections made. Atta was Egyptian, not Saudi, and his visa was issued with a surname of Atta, not el-Amir.