Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pentagon, Senate committee bicker over 9/11 probe


Pentagon, Senate committee bicker over 9/11 probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon and the Senate Judiciary Committee squabbled publicly on Friday about whether lawmakers could question five key witnesses in public about their claims the U.S. military identified four September 11 hijackers long before the 20001 attacks.

The Defense Department came under fire from Republican and Democratic lawmakers this week when it prohibited the same witnesses, including members of a secret military intelligence team code-named Able Danger, from appearing before the judiciary panel at a public hearing on Wednesday.

The panel's chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said at Wednesday's hearing the Pentagon could be guilty of obstructing congressional proceedings. Other lawmakers accused the Defense Department of orchestrating a cover-up.

On Friday, the Senate committee announced the Pentagon had reversed its position and would allow the five witnesses to testify at a new public hearing scheduled for October 5.

The Pentagon denied anything had changed, despite behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach a solution agreeable to both sides.

"Our position has not changed," Defense spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters. "This is a classified program and there are still aspects of it that are not appropriate for an open hearing. And that's what we have told the committee."

Not so, responded William Reynolds, the judiciary committee's director of communications.

"The Pentagon has agreed to make five witnesses available. Although there was no talk at the time when they made that offer, the assumption was that it would be in an open committee hearing," Reynolds said in an interview.

"If the Pentagon has issues with that, they need to let us know," he added.

Able Danger, now defunct, was a small highly classified data-mining operation that used powerful computers to sift through reams of public data in search of intelligence clues on a variety of topics.

The five witnesses in question were all involved with Able Danger and contend the team identified September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers as members of an al Qaeda cell in early 2000 -- more than a year before the attacks.

A Pentagon review of the operation has turned up no documents to support the assertion.

But one prospective witness, Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, has said publicly that Able Danger members tried to pass the information about Atta along to the FBI three times in September 2000 but were forced by Pentagon lawyers to cancel the meetings.

Much of the information related to Able Danger was destroyed in 2000, according to a former Army officer who testified before Specter's panel on Wednesday.

Lawmakers from both parties have suggested the Pentagon is trying to prevent the witnesses from testifying for fear that they could confirm that data which might have prevented the attacks on New York and Washington was known to the federal government long before September 11, 2001.