Atta listed at cia front mosque El Farouq with blind sheik
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Testimony barred by Pentagon
By: KEITH PHUCAS, Times Herald Staff
NORRISTOWN - Three men familiar with the "Able Danger" data-mining operation shut down in 2001 by the Defense Department, were warned by the Pentagon against testifying Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the secret program.
Though Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott and James D. Smith, a defense contractor, choose not to testify, Shaffer and Smith were present at the Capitol Hill hearing.
Shaffer, whose Top Secret clearance was suspended in 2004 over a disputed expense account, had his security clearance revoked Monday.
Also at Wednesday's hearing, a former Army intelligence officer, Erik Kleinsmith, told the committee that he was ordered to destroy information collected during the intelligence operation.
Congressman Curt Weldon, R-7th Dist., and other senators on the committee, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., expressed their disappointment at the Pentagon's lack of cooperation on the inquiry.
"I think that's a big mistake," committee member Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said.
Atta's terror links
In June, Shaffer, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) employee, told The Times Herald that "Able Danger" had linked Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to an al-Qaida cell in New York City. The newspaper was the first to publish his story on June 19.
The military's Special Operations Command ran the high-tech dragnet that searched for terrorist links. The terrorist associations were mapped out on large charts, according to Shaffer, during the program that operated from 1999 to 2001.
But when Shaffer tried to pull the FBI into the operation to delve deeper into the domestic terror associations, he and other "Able Danger" team members were discouraged by military lawyers, he said.
Ultimately the data-mining project was shut down by the Pentagon, which claimed it had concerns about retaining intelligence on United States citizens and foreign residents living in the U.S., so-called "U.S. persons."
Shaffer, Phillpott and James have all said they recall seeing Atta's grainy photo on a chart during the 15-month operation, Weldon said. James, who worked for defense contractor Orion Corp., obtained the picture on his own, and displayed it on the wall of his office.
The intelligence group operated at the Army's former Land Information Warfare Center (LIWA), in Ft. Belvoir, Va.
The Pentagon has been unable to account for any of the "Able Danger" charts.
Pentagon probe denounced
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, Weldon accused the Pentagon of dragging its feet on its monthlong probe into the defunct program.
"The Department of Defense never actually conducted an investigation, but rather an informal inquiry," he said. Weldon said his dealings with the Pentagon about the obscure program were characterized by "denial, deception, character assassination and now silence."
The Seventh District congressman, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Shaffer's career has been "ruined" because the Army reservist went public with his story.
Weldon, who has advocated intelligence sharing among U.S. agencies, said the Pentagon's justification for destroying the "Able Danger" material is weak, given that the lion's share of the data was publicly available, and according to Pentagon policy, would not have to be destroyed.
The huge amount of collected data was equivalent in size to one quarter of the Library of Congress' printed materials, Weldon said.
Currently, Weldon is trying to launch "Able Providence," a new and improved version of "Able Danger."
Shaffer's attorney, Mark Zaid, called the Pentagon's reluctance to cooperate a "cover up" that has more to do with defense officials trying to avoid blame than with protecting classified material.
Zaid said those working on "Able Danger" made connections, or "associational links," between terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 American embassy bombings in Africa, and other attacks.
"At no time did 'Able Danger' identify Atta as being in the United States," he said.
Previously, Shaffer told The Times Herald that Atta, an Egyptian, had been linked to the El Farouq mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., a hotbed of anti-American sentiment once frequented by Sheik Omar Ahmed Abdul Rahman, know as the "Blind Sheik." Rahman is also Egyptian.
In 1995, Rahman was convicted of plotting to bomb various sites in New York City. Four of Rahman's associates were convicted in 2002 of conspiring with him to commit terrorist acts while he was in prison.
As a sobering reminder of the intelligence program's unfulfilled promise, Zaid said the charts likely contained "several dozen" terrorist yet to be captured.
"There are terrorists on the chart who may still be out there and planning attacks," he said.
When queried later Wednesday by e-mail, Zaid speculated about why the Pentagon halted "Able Danger."
One theory is that Defense Department officials became "very uncomfortable" when the LIWA program ran China charts that showed links to U.S. political officials. The China effort, however, was not part of "Able Danger," he wrote.
When LIWA shut its operation down in 2000, the "Able Danger" program was forced to move elsewhere. But why the program itself was shut down in late 2000 or early 2001 is still a mystery.
Should have shared
Kleinsmith testified that he deleted program records in spring 2000 after being ordered to do so by a military officer.
"I'm the one who deleted all the documents," he said. "Both hard and soft copy were deleted."
William Dugan, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight, said that the Pentagon's intelligence oversight rules required the destruction of data on "U.S. persons."
He testified this term referred not only to American citizens, but also "permanent resident aliens" and corporations incorporated in the U.S. A student visa, however, does not meet the definition, Dugan said.
Sen. Specter pressed him on the Pentagon's reluctance to share "Able Danger" information with the FBI, asking him if this cooperation failure was a mistake.
"Should (the information) have been shared if it could have prevented (the) 9/11 (attacks)?" Specter asked.
After evading a similar question a moment earlier, Dugan conceded.
"Yes, if (the information) was properly collected," he said.
Finally, Specter asked Dugan if Atta was considered a "U.S. person" during the time of the intelligence gathering effort.
"No, he was not," Dugan said.
The Pennsylvania senator asked Dugan to tell Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that "The American people deserve some answers" on "Able Danger."
Keith Phucas can be reached at email@example.com or 610-272-2500, ext. 211.
ŠThe Times Herald 2006