Despite initially hyping Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer's and Rep. Curt Weldon's claims that the military intelligence unit Able Danger identified Mohamed Atta prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, CNN and other media outlets have completely ignored the Defense Department inspector general's September 21 conclusion that "prior to September 11, 2001, Able Danger team members did not identify Mohammed Atta or any other 9/11 hijacker."
Despite initially hyping Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer's and Rep. Curt Weldon's (R-PA) claims that the U.S. military intelligence unit Able Danger identified 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight and The Situation Room, as well as USA Today and CBS' The Early Show, have completely ignored the Defense Department inspector general's September 21 conclusion that the claims were without merit. The inspector general's report found that "[p]rior to September 11, 2001, Able Danger team members did not identify Mohammed Atta or any other 9/11 hijacker." CNN's coverage, particularly of Shaffer's and Weldon's claims that Able Danger had identified Atta, was extensive. There have been at least 35 different segments devoted to the claims since August 12, 2005, on Lou Dobbs Tonight, where Weldon has been hosted at least eight different times to discuss his Able Danger allegations. Host Lou Dobbs has frequently referred to the allegations, as he did on January 3, as "what could be one of the most explosive intelligence failure controversies in our history." From August 9, 2005, until December 29, 2005, The Situation Room featured no fewer than eight different segments on the controversy; it has also aired interviews on the subject with Shaffer, Weldon, and former FBI director Louis Freeh.
On August 9, 2005, The New York Times reported that Weldon and a "former defense intelligence official," later revealed to be Shaffer, claimed that the Able Danger unit had identified Atta and other would-be 9-11 hijackers in the summer of 2000. Among other things, Shaffer and Weldon claimed, according to the Times, that the unit "prepared a chart that included visa photographs of the four men and recommended to the military's Special Operations Command that the information be shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," but that the Pentagon refused to share the information with the FBI. Shaffer and Weldon aggressively pushed these claims throughout much of 2005, sparking a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation in September 2005 and drawing substantial media coverage.
But on September 21, the Defense Department inspector general's office released the results of an internal investigation into the matter and found that Shaffer's and Weldon's claims "were not accurate." The report "determin[ed] that there is no evidence to substantiate claims that Atta's name and photograph were on charts collected by military officials before the strikes." Additionally, the inspector general's report concluded: "[W]e found no evidence to corroborate LTC Shaffer's claim that Able Danger members were prohibited by DoD officials from attending meetings he allegedly arranged with the FBI" and, as The Washington Post noted, "Previous probes by the Sept. 11 commission, the Defense Department and others turned up no evidence to support the allegations."
Yet, despite these findings, several media outlets that initially hyped the Able Danger claims have ignored the inspector general's findings:
- Lou Dobbs Tonight: Dobbs gave the Able Danger allegations significant weight, devoting 35 different segments of his show to the claims from August 12, 2005, to February 17, 2006, and interviewing Able Danger supporters -- such as Weldon, Shaffer's lawyer Mark Zaid, Freeh, and journalist and author Peter Lance -- 14 different times. By contrast, those questioning Shaffer's and Weldon's claims, such as former 9-11 Commission members, former Rep. Timothy Roemer (D-IN) and former Sen. Thomas Slade Gorton (R-WA), who were interviewed a combined total of six times. Dobbs promoted Weldon's assertion that "the Able Danger scandal is bigger than Watergate," frequently referred to the allegations as "one of the greatest scandals of our time," highlighted on his show's website Weldon's petition to launch a criminal investigation into Able Danger, referred to Weldon's efforts for a congressional investigation as Weldon's "campaign for the truth about Able Danger," and even counted down the number of days since Weldon had sent his "Able Danger letter to Defense Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld demanding an Able Danger hearing on Capitol Hill" and had "not received a response." By mid-February, Dobbs had tapered his Able Danger coverage, focusing more on illegal immigration or "Broken Borders"; Lou Dobbs Tonight does not appear to have reported on Able Danger since February 17.* Despite the considerable coverage Dobbs has given to the Able Danger allegations, as of the September 26 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs has not reported that the Able Danger claims have, in fact, been found to be inaccurate.
- The Situation Room: The Situation Room also heavily promoted Shaffer's and Weldon's accusations when they were first made. Between August 9, 2005, and December 29, 2005, The Situation Room featured eight different segments on the story, including airing interviews with Shaffer, Weldon, Roemer, and Freeh. During these interviews, host Wolf Blitzer aired, mainly unchallenged, numerous claims about the Able Danger unit. For instance, on the August 9, 2005, edition of the show, Weldon claimed that Defense Department intelligence officials not only knew the identities of Atta and others but went so far as to "put stickies over the top of the faces of Mohammad Atta [sic], saying they're here legally" so "[y]ou can't give anything to the FBI." For his part, Shaffer suggested on the August 17, 2005, edition of the show, that Able Danger could have prevented 9-11, telling Blitzer, "we could [have] do[ne] ... this thing before 9/11"; on the December 29, 2005, show, Freeh asserted that it "would have been very, very helpful" to receive the information Able Danger allegedly possessed because "FBI agents might have reacted to that." Yet, the IG report discrediting the Able Danger allegations has gone unreported on The Situation Room; the show has not mentioned Able Danger since December 29, 2005.**
- The Early Show: On August 17, 2005, The Early Show co-host Hannah Storm interviewed Shaffer about his Able Danger allegations. In the interview, Shaffer claimed to have "discover[ed]" Atta and three other would-be hijackers by using "pattern analysis" and added that his unit repeatedly attempted to coordinate a meeting between the Defense Department and "the FBI so they could discuss this and take the appropriate course of action," only to have the unit's claims consistently rejected by government lawyers. Yet, in spite of prominently featuring Shaffer's claims, The Early Show never followed up on the story and has yet to report the inspector general's findings that Shaffer's claims were false.***
- USA Today: On August 18, 2005, USA Today ran an article discussing Shaffer's claims, reporting that Shaffer asserted that the Able Danger unit "identified four members of the terrorist organization a year before they became 9/11 hijackers," and that "the FBI did not get the information and that the 9/11 Commission failed to expose the lapse." On August 26, 2005, the paper ran a follow-up story on Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter's (R-PA) inquiries into Shaffer's and Weldon's accusations. But the paper has not run a story on Able Danger since the end of August 2005 and has yet to report that the claims have been found to be without merit.****
*A Nexis search of "CNN" with terms "show: (Lou Dobbs Tonight) and Able Danger" from 8/1/05 to 9/26/06 yielded these results.
** A Nexis search of "CNN" with terms "show: (Situation Room) and Able Danger" from 8/1/05 to 9/26/06 yielded these results.
*** A Nexis search of "CBS News Transcripts" with terms "show: (Early Show) and Able Danger" from 8/1/05 to 9/27/06 yielded these results.
**** A Nexis search of "USA Today" with term "Able Danger" from 8/1/05 to 9/26/06 yielded these results.