Friday, September 02, 2005

Three more assert Pentagon knew of 9/11 ringleader


Three more assert Pentagon knew of 9/11 ringleader

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three more people associated with a secret U.S. military intelligence team have asserted that the program identified September 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta as an Al Qaeda suspect inside the United States more than a year before the 2001 attacks, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The Pentagon said a three-week review had turned up no documents to back up the assertion, but did not rule out that such documents relating to the classified operation had been destroyed.

Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott and Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer last month came forward with statements that a secret intelligence program code-named "Able Danger" had identified Atta, the lead hijacker in the attacks that killed 3,000 people, in early 2000. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, also went public with the allegations.

Pat Downs, a senior policy analyst in the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told reporters that as part of the review, the Pentagon interviewed 80 people.

Downs said that three more people, as well as Phillpott and Shaffer, recalled the existence of an intelligence chart identifying Atta by name. Four of the five recalled a photo of Atta accompanying the chart, Downs said.

Pentagon officials declined to identify the three by name, but said they were an analyst with the military's Special Operations Command, an analyst with the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center and a contractor who supported the center.

Downs said all five were considered "credible people."

But officials said an exhaustive search of tens of thousands of documents and electronic files related to Able Danger failed to find the chart or other documents corroborating the identification of Atta. Phillpott has said Atta was identified by Able Danger by January or February of 2000.

"We have not discovered that chart," Downs said.

Asked whether it ever existed, she said, "We don't know. We don't have it at the moment." Downs said it was possible that the chart and any other document that might have referred to Atta were destroyed by the military.

"Able Danger," now disbanded, was a small, classified military operation engaged in data-mining analysis of information including media reports and public records through the use of powerful computer systems.

"There are strict regulations about collection, dissemination and destruction procedures for this type of information. And we know that did happen in the case of Able Danger documentation," Downs said.

But Navy Cmdr. Christopher Chope of the Special Operations Command said that "we have negative indications" that destruction of such a chart was advised by military lawyers.

When Shaffer, currently on paid leave as an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, went public, he said analysts involved in Able Danger were blocked by military lawyers when they sought to provide the team's findings to the FBI in 2000 in an effort to find Al Qaeda suspects.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the review turned up no evidence that the Pentagon prevented the disclosure of Atta's name to other agencies of the U.S. government.

Shaffer also has said Able Danger identified some of Atta's fellow hijackers, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, as part of an al Qaeda cell inside the United States.