Those on-again, off-again Senate Judiciary Committee hearings concerning a once-secret military intelligence unit called “Able Danger” are off, again.
Citing national security concerns, top Defense Department officials refused to allow key witnesses to testify last week, setting off a firestorm of criticism from both the right and the left. Those same unnamed officials abruptly reversed course this week — their previous concern over our (their?) security presumably vaporized — and decided the witnesses could appear before the Committee, at new hearings set for October 5.
But the hearings were then “postponed” — supposedly in deference to the forthcoming Jewish holidays — and have yet to be rescheduled.
What is the significance of Able Danger, and why are Defense officials so adamant about keeping the lid on? One person who was permitted to testify last week, attorney Mark Zaid, represents two members of the clandestine unit that identified Mohammed Atta and three other 9/11 hijackers as threats a year before the attacks.
Both Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer, a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and reserve officer within the U.S. Army, and Mr. James Smith, a defense contractor at the time with Orion Scientific Systems, remember Atta’s picture or name being on a chart in 2000 — information they repeatedly tried to turn over to the FBI, and later did disclose to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States (informally known as the Sept. 11 commission) that investigated the attacks.
What precisely was Able Danger, and how did it work? As Zaid explained:
In the most understandable and simplistic terms, Able Danger involved the searching out and compiling of open source or other publicly available information regarding specific targets or tasks that were connected through associational links. No classified information was used. No government data base systems were used.
With respect to Al Qaeda, the starting point were those terrorists who were associated with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the New York City terror plots. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the blind Sheik, was one of those individuals who served as a focal point. … What was being explored were associational links between individuals, meaning person “A” who was associated with Sheik Abdel-Rahman, and then identifying person “B” who was associated with person “A” and so on. Essentially, think in your mind how the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” operates. That is a simplistic explanation of part of Able Danger’s activities.
Zaid testified that all Able Danger records were destroyed under orders of the Army between December 2000 and March 2001. Additionally, duplicate documentation maintained by Lt Col. Shaffer at his office was also destroyed — for reasons unknown — by DIA in Spring 2004.
Meanwhile, DOD has muzzled Lt. Col. Shaffer. In response to my request for an interview, Zaid’s law partner Roy Krieger said DIA told them their client is not to talk to anyone about any aspect of the explosive charges until further notice.
Before he was silenced, however, Shaffer was interviewed on the Jerry Doyle radio program. On air, Shaffer spoke of what he called “an effort to purposely, deliberately, slam me and try to discredit me before I go before the committee.” He also said he was told directly by two DOD officials that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield was behind the decision not to allow him and other analysts to testify.
Shaffer detailed how the government spent close to $400,000 trying to discredit him, and said he believes his Top Secret security clearance was revoked as a result of his decision to go public with information about the Able Danger program. As attorney Zaid told the committee,
Lt. Col. Shaffer’s security clearance problems were connected to his work on Able Danger, and the coincidences of the timing should not be overlooked. An investigation was initiated and his security clearance suspended by the DIA shortly after it became known that he had provided information to the 9/11 Commission. The revocation of his security clearance conveniently took place two days ago just as he was preparing for his testimony before this Committee. As part of my law practice I specialize in security clearance cases. That is why I was retained by Lt. Col. Shaffer in the first place. Based on years of experience I can say categorically that the basis for the revocation was questionable at best.
And as Shaffer told Jerry Doyle: “If they can do this to me, if they can do this to me who has given my entire life, 22 years to work in defense of this country, if they can do this to me over this issue, they can do this to anybody.
“It’s frightening because of the fact, as we pointed out before the last break, that data is now gone. We don’t know what happened to it, but it’s just destroyed,” Shaffer continued. “Within that we believe there were clues and linkages to individuals who may well be here right now, who are here legally, and that’s one of the topics we’ve talked about. These individuals applied for and received visas and green cards to be here legally. And so we don’t know with this data being gone now. It’s not like we can just go back and do the same thing, to do a new search on the Internet and recreate a large amount of that. But the problem is that data that we had back then, although open source, which was openly available, is unique. It was a single snapshot of relationships of locations of individuals which no longer exists.”
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Penn., is another hero of the story who has been pushing the issue for months. Weldon also testified last week, assailing the 9/11 Commission for repeatedly “changing their story” about Able Danger:
“First, they said that they were never briefed.” noted Weldon. “Second, they said that they were briefed and that there was never a mention of Mohammed Atta. Third, they said they were briefed, Atta was mentioned, but they found Able Danger to be ‘historically insignificant.'”
“As someone who had supported the creation of the 9/11 Commission and their recommendations … I was incensed by this cavalier attitude,” Weldon concluded.
The Able Danger data — as much as 2.5 terabytes — contained information on U.S. persons with ties to terrorism that Weldon believes “could have helped prevent 9-11 and possibly even be used to track terrorist movements today. … I have never alleged any wrongdoing, conspiracy or cover-up. However, I have been bewildered by the response to Able Danger — both by the 9-11 Commission and the Pentagon.”
Weldon and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (who complained publicly that “the Department of Defense owes the American people an explanation as to what went on here”) aren’t the only conservatives professing bewilderment at DOD’s jittery Able Danger dance. Right-leaning publications such as the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard (“there is no defending the destruction of valuable data.”) attacked the Pentagon and supported Specter’s effort to get at the truth. The right brain of the blogosphere was equally critical, as best expressed by the Heritage Foundation’s Mark Tapscott in a post entitled “Republicrats Protecting Each Other in Able Danger”:
Either the powers-that-be think most people are too stupid to figure out that a whitewash is in process or they assume most people aren’t paying attention and there is little to fear from the Senate. Now watching the Pentagon under Bush refusing to let witnesses testify about Able Danger, it is clear the Washington Establishment takes care of its own no matter which party happens to be in power. Call them Republicrats.
What’s it all about, ultimately? Even 2.5 terabytes of more information might not be enough to unravel this spooky story. But as attorney Zaid told the committee, “The primary concern we should focus on is not who to blame for the obvious disconnect that occurred with respect to sharing information. We are already well aware of that problem, which still exists today. Instead, the focus should be on identifying the current location of the other several dozen possible terrorists on that list and what are they planning against us today, as well as to reconstitute the successful work initially started by Able Danger.”
Sounds to me like our national security may be threatened more by the Defense Department’s attempt to hide whatever skeletons hang in the Able Danger closet than it ever could be by allowing the nation to hear what Lt. Col. Shaffer and his colleagues have to say. In lieu of his testimony, then, I’ll let Shaffer have the last word (at least for now) as he expressed in his last interview: “I’m honestly, you know, flabbergasted that there’s such resistance on this,” Shaffer told Jerry Doyle. “And I don’t know exactly which ant hill exactly we kicked over. We’ve all kind of talked amongst ourselves on this and there seems to be something else, something bigger here, that maybe we’re just so close to that we can’t see.”
This and other articles by Rory O’Connor are available on his blog. © 2005 Independent Media Institute