Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Able Danger as elusive as ever

Able Danger as elusive as ever

As the story of the Pentagon’s top secret mining program that some claim linked the 9/11 ringleader to al-Qaida well before the attacks on the US becomes increasing foggy, reporters are having a hard time getting the truth to the public.

Commentary by Shaun Waterman in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch (25/09/05)

The story of Able Danger - a top secret Pentagon data-mining program that some claim linked the 9/11 plot ringleader to al-Qaida more than a year before the attack - is the kind conspiracy-mongers love.

It has everything: the destruction or loss of important documents, an inquiry accused of ignoring evidence, and a gag on key witnesses.

Did a secret data-mining project really link 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and three of the other hijackers to Islamic extremists in Brooklyn - and from there to al-Qaida - in early 2000?

Did the project - which used proprietary software to trawl through massive amounts of information culled from the internet, purchased from data brokers or, like certain travel and other records, obtained in some cases by means that are still classified - really fall afoul of some legal interpretation of the protections against spying on Americans or military involvement in law enforcement? And was it closed down, and all its data destroyed, as a result?

Did Representative Curt Weldon (Republican-Pennsylvania), who first made Able Danger public this summer, really hand the last copy of a “proof of concept” chart from that time, bearing Atta’s name and likeness - the key document that would prove the truth of the allegations - to National Security Advisor Steven Hadley at a White House meeting on 25 September 2001?

And did the 9/11 Commission, charged with providing an unassailable official account of the failures of the US government to protects its citizens from the attacks, ignore evidence of Able Danger’s success?

The story is also long on colorful characters and heated rhetoric.

“I have witnessed denial, deception, threats to (Department of Defense) employees, character assassination, and now silence,” Weldon said at this week’s hearing on Able Danger held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This reporter, who had been tracking the story all summer, was looking forward to the Senate hearings.

From a reporter’s point of view, the story has been a nightmare: the sources initially anonymous and now silent, with cagey lawyers; the whole tale shot through with misinformation, much of it the product of careless retellings. But worst of all, the inevitable struggle between the fourth estate and the executive branch over information was waged on the bureaucratic terrain of the Pentagon - the most vast, labyrinthine, and secretive organ of the US government.

In common with others, I had been hoping to get some ground truth from the hearings – “Just one actual fact that I can check”, in the words of a colleague.

Instead, the “X-Files” plotline thickened.

Judiciary Chairman Senator Arlen Specter (Republican-Pennsylvania), told the hearing he was “surprised to find that the Department of Defense has ordered five key witnesses not to testify”. The five were serving and reserve military officers and civilian contractors who had worked on Able Danger and who say they remember the chart.

Specter added that his staff had been in negotiations with Pentagon officials, and that many of the documents that they had requested had only arrived the previous evening.

“That looks to me as if it may be obstruction of the committee’s activities,” Specter warned, “something we will have to determine.”

Friday afternoon, Specter’s committee announced it would hold another hearing in October, at which the five would testify. But in another twist, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters later that day, that the department was still insisting that the five could only testify in a closed hearing.

One of the senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (Democrat-Delaware), said he was disappointed at the Defense Department’s decision.

“I think that’s a big mistake,” he said.

Why the witnesses had been denied permission to testify was unclear, Specter said. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked later that day by reporters about the decision, referred to the issue of jurisdiction. The Defense Department jealously guards its relationship with the Armed Services Committees in both chambers - and only grudgingly cooperates with other panels. One Pentagon tactic is to use the turf conflicts between competing chairmen to play their committees off against each other.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee, as I understand it, has jurisdiction over this matter and is looking into it,” said Rumsfeld, adding: “The department, I'm told, offered a classified briefing because the subject matter is classified. And as I understand it, the Judiciary Committee preferred to have an open hearing on a classified matter, and therefore the department declined to participate.”

But Specter told the hearing that, on legal advice he was “instructing the witnesses not to disclose any classified information”, adding that if they had secrets they wished to discuss, the committee could go into closed session.

He needn’t have bothered. As they were all keen to stress, none of the witnesses who actually testified knew any of the classified details of the Able Danger program.

“I have not had access to classified information on this,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents and testified on behalf of two of the former Able Danger operatives. “I haven’t even had access to the full scope of unclassified information,” he added.

“My knowledge of Able Danger is very limited,” said the sole Pentagon witness, William Dugan, Rumsfeld’s special assistant for intelligence oversight.

“He’s a piñata,” said one congressional staffer, referring to Dugan and the hollow papier-mâché animals filled with sweets which are hung from trees and beaten with sticks until they break open.

“I understand that you were sent over in a very limited capacity with perhaps a calculation that you didn’t have this information,” Specter told Duggan at one point.

Instead of witnesses, the committee took hearsay evidence about what they might have said had they been allowed to testify, from Weldon and Zaid.

As a result, not much of the “ground truth” some reporters had hoped for ever materialized.

Zaid told Senators he would try to put the record straight on some issues. He said, for instance, that the project had never identified Atta as being in the US in early 2000 - only linked him with US-based Islamic extremists in that timeframe.

But that only begs another question, and reveals that there was a problem with the Judiciary Committee inquiry that could not have been solved by more or different witnesses. Zaid was never asked how it came to be reported - in at least three different places - that the project had identified Atta as being in the country at that time.

Weldon even said - on the floor of the US Congress - that military intelligence had been barred from keeping information on Atta because he had a green card.

He actually did not have a green card, but Weldon has never admitted his error.

We’ll have to hope for better next month.

Shaun Waterman, a British journalist based in Washington, DC covers homeland and national security for United Press International. In June, he won the Society of Professional Journalists' Dateline Washington award for his coverage of last year's intelligence reform debate.