“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” (Sir Walter Scott)
It appears that the “non-partisan” 9/11 Commission has some explaining to do. For the last 48 hours, they’ve tried to deny knowledge of the fact that a secret military intelligence unit known as Able Danger, had information on a terrorist cell headed up by 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. The unit, that pieced together the information using data mining techniques, subsequently tried to share the information on Atta with the FBI only to be rebuffed by the Justice Department due to the artificial “wall” put in place by the Clinton White House between the CIA and FBI.
At first, the Commission denied they had been briefed on the matter. But as this New York Times article makes clear, that’s not entirely accurate:
The Sept. 11 commission was warned by a uniformed military officer 10 days before issuing its final report that the account would be incomplete without reference to what he described as a secret military operation that by the summer of 2000 had identified as a potential threat the member of Al Qaeda who would lead the attacks more than a year later, commission officials said on Wednesday.
The officials said that the information had not been included in the report because aspects of the officer’s account had sounded inconsistent with what the commission knew about that Qaeda member, Mohamed Atta, the plot’s leader.
But aides to the Republican congressman who has sought to call attention to the military unit that conducted the secret operation said such a conclusion relied too much on specific dates involving Mr. Atta’s travels and not nearly enough on the operation’s broader determination that he was a threat.
The briefing by the military officer is the second known instance in which people on the commission’s staff were told by members of the military team about the secret program, called Able Danger.
The meeting, on July 12, 2004, has not been previously disclosed. That it occurred, and that the officer identified Mr. Atta there, were acknowledged by officials of the commission after the congressman, Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, provided information about it.
The Captain sums up the significance of the Commission’s apparent cover-up of the briefing:
Why didn’t the Commission press harder for military intelligence, and if the Times’ source has told the truth, why did they ignore the Able Danger operation in their deliberations? It would emphasize that the problem was not primarily operational, as the Commission made it seem, but primarily political—and that the biggest problem was the enforced separation between law enforcement and intelligence operations upon which the Clinton Department of Justice insisted. The hatchet person for that policy sat on the Commission itself: Jamie S. Gorelick.
Again, this begs the question of what else the Commission ignored, especially in terms of military and civilian intelligence, in order to reach its conclusions. It also undermines their recommendations to create two new levels of bureaucracy for the intelligence services. Instead, if the Able Danger development pans out, it means that the best fix is the Patriot Act and a reduction in bureaucratic drag on intelligence, not an increase in it. Congress needs to start from scratch and completely re investigate 9/11, this time outside the heat of a partisan presidential election cycle.
First, it may be interesting to examine why so many were skeptical when this story first came out. Reason number one is Congressman Curt Weldon himself.
Weldon wrote a book that was published a few months ago in which he claimed the CIA was ignoring a growing nuclear threat from Iran. He also claims that Iran “is hiding Osama bin Laden, is preparing terrorist attacks against the United States, has a crash program to build an atomic bomb and, as a Shiite country, is the chief sponsor of what is a largely Sunni-directed insurgency in Iraq.”
Weldon used what the CIA has termed “fabricators” as sources for information in the book. He is also known for stunts such as carrying around what he laughably claimed was a replica of a suitcase nuclear bomb. Weapons specialists have debunked the claim that a nuclear weapon could be carried around in a suitcase although small devices such as nuclear artillery shells could probably be rigged to fit inside a good sized steamer trunk.
So Weldon’s credibility was pretty low to begin with. And then when the first denials from the Commission regarding Able Danger came in, the thinking was that Weldon had screwed the pooch again.
Apparently, not this time:
In a letter sent Wednesday to members of the commission, Mr. Weldon criticized the panel in scathing terms, saying that its “refusal to investigate Able Danger after being notified of its existence, and its recent efforts to feign ignorance of the project while blaming others for supposedly withholding information on it, brings shame on the commissioners, and is evocative of the worst tendencies in the federal government that the commission worked to expose.”
Those “worst tendencies” are as old as government itself – the perceived necessity to cover up mistakes. It would have been so much easier if the Commission staff members, instead of denying contact with the member of Able Danger who was Mr. Weldon’s source for the information on the data mining project at the Pentagon, had just told the truth and said that yes, we met with the gentleman and he briefed us on what his unit had come up with regarding Mr. Atta but at the time, we didn’t think it was important enough to include in the final report.
Instead, now they look like they’re really hiding something that may or may not be important enough to affect the Commission’s final conclusions. Because even if domestic law enforcement had known of Mr. Atta and his cell, given the pre-9/11 mindset of the FBI, it’s doubtful whether it would have made a whit of difference.
John P. O’Neill was the FBI’s Counterterrorism Chief until his resignation in the summer of 2001. For several years prior to that, O’Neill had tried without success to get the FBI off the mark and make a concerted effort to counter what he rightly saw as a build up of terrorist assets here in the United States. FBI Chief Louis Freeh would have none of it. And O’Neill himself, by all accounts a flamboyant and somewhat abrasive man, didn’t help his case any by criticizing superiors for their lack of action. Despite his correct interpretation of al Qaeda’s goal of striking the United States, the pre-9/11 FBI was institutionally incapable of doing anything about it. This, along with the artificial “wall” put up by civil libertarians in the Clinton Justice Department, was cited as the main reasons why the 9/11 plot succeeded.
Could one more warning from one more source made a difference in preventing 9/11? Perhaps. But given the dysfunction of our intelligence agencies prior to that horrible day, I find the idea less than compelling that anything would have changed.
Michelle Malkin is tracking the blogswarm and has her usual great link roundup. See especially The Anchoress regarding a possible Sandy Berger connection. Was Able Danger the reason Berger purloined the documents at the National Archives? Also AJ at The Strata-Sphere (who posted on this speculation two days ago) has a neat timeline.
Now wouldn’t that take the cake? Sandy Berger covering up for his old boss to shift blame to the current Administration in an election year? Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Also, Tom Maguire takes time out from the Plame-Wilson-Rove controversey and posts some excellent thoughts somewhat along the line that I took:
As to how significant an error this was – obviously, after the fact Mohammed Atta was very important. Although I assume Able Danger did not offer any specific projections about hijacking planes, if Atta had been put under closer surveillance, the 9/11 plot might have been disrupted. Still, a point to ponder – was Atta noted by Able Danger as a key Al Qaeda figure even in 2001, or was he just one name among fifty, or five hundred?
In a further update, Ed Morrisey links to his Daily Standard column in which he details the strange case of Mohammed Afroze and his plots to carry out terrorist attacks in India and Australia in conjunction with the 9/11 attacks. Afroze was convicted in an Indian Court – a fact that seems not to have made the cut when the MSM was doling out news about al Qaeda terrorists.
Take a whiff. Do you smell what I smell? I smell a blog feeding frenzy about this story. And it’s just getting started.
It looks to me so far that this is in no way some bullshit Valerie Plame story, though; and even so, the significance of 9/11 makes the Plame Game look positively LAUGHABLE. No freaking way am I going to go blind looking at their meltdown at the DUh or Kos, though. I saw enough with a quick Technorati search.
I’d have to agree. The Plame Game looks like it’s stalled anyway. Also, Beth links to a post by the smartest Doctor around Dr. Sanity who has more on the possible Berger connection. Now THAT would be a story for the new millenium!