An August 15 New York Post editorial strongly criticized the 9-11 Commission for its failure to report that a secret military intelligence unit, code-named Able Danger, allegedly identified Mohammed Atta as an Al Qaeda operative at least a year before his actions as lead hijacker in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But this claim about military intelligence awareness of Atta, made recently by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), who has reportedly cited a senior intelligence official, has been strongly undermined in news accounts. Moreover, the Post editorial ignored an August 12 memo from the commission detailing its investigation into the Atta allegations and subsequent conclusion that the evidence did not warrant inclusion in its final report.
From the New York Post editorial titled "The 9/11 Omission Commission":
It's outrageous enough to learn -- via Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) -- that a classified military-intelligence unit, working out of the Army's Information Dominance Center and code-named "Able Danger," identified 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and three others as members of a Brooklyn-based terrorist cell fully a year before the World Trade Center attacks.
And it's more outrageous still to discover that the Pentagon never handed over the information to the FBI -- under orders from Pentagon lawyers.
But now it's been disclosed that, despite initial denials, the staff of [chairman Thomas] Kean's [9-11] commission twice was told this alarming story -- but rejected the information and refused to inform the commission members or even refer to it in their final report.
This, from a commission that was tasked to uncover the full story of 9/11 and shed light on why it happened.
On Friday, Kean & Co. said the operation was not considered "historically significant." But make no mistake: These facts are critical to a complete understanding of the conditions that permitted 9/11 to take place.
Contrary to the Post's apparent confidence in the Able Danger allegations, significant evidence has come to light in recent days calling into question the veracity of Weldon's claims. While Weldon has previously asserted that he saw Atta's name on a chart produced by Able Danger prior to September 11, a Time magazine article published online on August 14 reported that Weldon conceded he is "no longer certain" if Atta's name appeared on the document:
In a particularly dramatic scene in Weldon's book, Countdown to Terror, the Pennsylvania Republican described personally handing to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, just after Sept. 11, an Able Danger chart produced in 1999 identifying Atta. But Weldon told TIME he's no longer certain Atta's name was on that original document. The congressman says he handed Hadley his only copy.
Further, Time reported that Pentagon officials "say they can find nothing produced by the Able Danger program ... mentioning Atta's name."
Ignoring the serious doubt recently cast on Weldon's underlying allegations, the Post editorial joined in criticizing the 9-11 Commission for failing to include mention of Able Danger's findings in its final report. The Post suggested that new disclosures had refuted the commission's "initial denials" that its staff "twice was told this alarming story -- but rejected the information." The editorial concluded, "[I]t's time they [the commission] started providing some of their own information to the people they were meant to serve."
But the 9-11 Commission had, in fact, provided its "own information" days earlier. On August 12, Kean and commission vice-chairman Lee H. Hamilton issued an account of their investigation of Able Danger and its findings. The memo depicted the commission staff actively pursuing information on the unit after learning of its existence from intelligence officials during an October 2003 meeting in Afghanistan. According to Kean and Hamilton, commission staffers were told only once -- not twice -- that Able Danger had identified Atta. This mention came during a July 2004 interview with an unnamed naval officer who claimed to have briefly seen the terrorist's name on an "analyst notebook chart" four years earlier. As the memo stated, however, the officer's account lacked the specificity and substantiation to warrant inclusion in the final report:
The interviewee had no documentary evidence and said he had only seen the document briefly some years earlier. He could not describe what information had led to this supposed Atta identification. Nor could the interviewee recall, when questioned, any details about how he thought a link to Atta could have been made by this DOD [Department of Defense] program in 2000 or any time before 9/11. The Department of Defense documents had mentioned nothing about Atta, nor had anyone come forward between September 2001 and July 2004 with any similar information. Weighing this with the information about Atta's actual activities, the negligible information available about Atta to other U.S. government agencies and the German government before 9/11, and the interviewer's assessment of the interviewee's knowledge and credibility, the Commission staff concluded that the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation.
While Weldon has asserted that commission staffers were first informed at the 2003 meeting in Afghanistan that Able Danger had identified Atta as early as 2000, Kean and Hamilton's memo disputed this account:
As with their other meetings, Commission staff promptly prepared a memorandum for the record. That memorandum, prepared at the time, 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 DOD before 9/11. Nor do any of the three Commission staffers who participated in the interview, or the executive branch lawyer, recall hearing any such allegation.
The memo further stated that the Able Danger documents subsequently examined by the commission staff did not mention Atta:
None of the documents turned over to the Commission mention Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers. Nor do any of the staff notes on documents reviewed in the DOD reading room indicate that Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers were mentioned in any of those documents.
Beyond asserting Weldon's Able Danger allegations as fact and entirely ignoring the 9-11 Commission's version of events, the Post editorial also repeated the claim, which Media Matters for America has debunked, that former commission member Jamie Gorelick, while deputy attorney general under President Clinton, had created a "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This "wall," the Post suggested, may have led to the Defense Department's failure in 2000 to notify the FBI of Atta's Al Qaeda connections. The editorial posited the theory that the commission ignored the Able Danger information "to protect one of its members":
Had the Pentagon information [on Atta] been passed along to the FBI, it's possible the terrorist attack would have succeeded nonetheless.
But it's also possible it wouldn't have.
Either way, the orders preventing the passage of information surely didn't help.
And, just as surely, their role in the story should have been recognized in the 9/11 Commission's official report.
Equally disturbing is the possibility that the commission ignored the information to protect one of its own members, Democratic attorney Jamie Gorelick.
As a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, Gorelick wrote the infamous order creating a "wall of separation" that precluded intelligence on terrorists from being shared with law-enforcement agencies -- the very "wall" that kept Able Danger from passing along the information it had uncovered on Mohammed Atta.
As The Post's Deborah Orin reported Friday, then-U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White -- who headed up key terrorism prosecutions, like the first WTC bombing -- blasted Gorelick's order in blistering memos at the time.