In the days following 9/11, the names and faces of the terrorists who carried out the attacks became known to the world. Chief among these was Mohamed Atta, an al-Qaeda operative and terrorist ringleader, who, along with four accomplices, steered American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning. Prior to 9/11, scarcely any Americans had ever heard of Mohamed Atta. But his name was known well before 9/11 by a U.S. covert intelligence operation known as “Able Danger,” which had identified Atta and three other future hijackers in 1999. The recent revelations about Able Danger’s findings raise two questions of monumental importance: First, why wasn’t Able Danger’s information shared – in hopes of averting the disaster that was to come on 9/11 – with the FBI prior to September 11, 2001? possibly thwarting the worst attacks on U.S. soil? And second, why wasn’t Able Danger’s knowledge of Atta included in the 9/11 Commission report, which was ostensibly committed to unraveling all aspects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
The “Able Danger” Operation
From 1998 to 2001, the Army Intelligence and Special Operations Command initiated a small and highly classified intelligence-gathering endeavor titled Able Danger, whose mission was to investigate the al-Qaeda threat in the United States and abroad. Through its efforts to root out clandestine terrorist cells by means of data analysis and advanced technology, in 1999 Able Danger identified by name Mohammed Atta, as well as three other terrorists, as members of an al-Qaeda cell based in Brooklyn, New York.
Also monitoring terrorist activities at this time, including the movements of Atta, was the Czech Republic. It has been reported that Czech officials had observed Atta traveling to Prague on three separate occasions. On his first visit, on May 30 of 2000, Atta flew to Prague but, upon arrival, was not permitted to leave the airport because he had failed to secure a visa. On his second trip, on June 2, 2000, Atta arrived in Prague by bus, and was monitored and photographed by the Czech intelligence agency – the Security Information Service (BIS). Three days later, a large but undisclosed sum of money was transferred into Atta’s personal bank accounts.
Atta’s third visit to Prague, according to Czech officials, occurred on April 9, 2001. During this visit, Atta is believed to have met with Ahmed al-Ani, an Iraqi counsel, later revealed to be an Iraqi intelligence officer. Al-Ani was scheduled to meet with a “distinguished Arab student” on that date, and the BIS observed the meeting, which took place in a Prague restaurant. There is a dispute between U.S. and Czech officials as to whether or not that Arab student was indeed Atta (conflicting information from U.S. sources places Atta in Florida that day); however, three days later, an additional $100,000 was deposited into Atta’s bank account (enough to help finance the planned attacks on New York and Washington), providing credible evidence of another visit to Prague.
The Defense Department’s Able Danger program was as well aware of Atta’s movements throughout this period but never transmitted its intelligence to the FBI. Had the FBI been informed of Atta’s activities, his terror cell could have been broken and the 9/11 plot would likely have unraveled.
The Wall Between Agencies
On August 15, 2005, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the first member of Able Danger to speak publicly about his role with the operation, told the press about Able Danger’s findings and detailed the policies that caused the crucial intelligence to go unheeded. Shaffer acknowledged that Able Danger had been actively monitoring Atta and tried to arrange a series of meetings in 2000 with the Washington field office of the FBI to share its information. Shaffer also noted that military lawyers intervened and canceled the meetings, citing, according to Shaffer, fear of controversy “if Able Danger was portrayed as a military operation that had violated the privacy of civilians who were legally in the United States.” At the root of this fear was a clearly defined prohibition against inter-agency intelligence sharing in terror investigations. This prohibition, commonly referred to as the “Wall” blocking such communications, had its roots in the first term of the Clinton administration.
In 1995, while America’s intelligence agencies were still investigating the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (a time at which the sharing of intelligence to prevent future attacks should have been the highest priority), Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick was calling for increased separation between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and the halting of intelligence sharing. In her 1995 memo to then-FBI Director Louis Freeh and U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, titled “Instructions on Separation of Certain Foreign Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations,” Gorelick wrote the following:
We believe that it is prudent to establish a set of instructions that will more clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal investigations. These procedures, which go beyond what is legally required, will prevent any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance that FISA is being used to avoid procedural safeguards which would apply in a criminal investigation.
The wall between agencies was not new; it had been created during the Carter administration via the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted to defuse allegations of FBI espionage abuses. But Gorelick’s 1995 efforts served to strengthen the barrier and made it abundantly clear that cooperation between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies was forbidden. It should be noted that at the time Gorelick wrote the foregoing memo, the Clinton administration was contending with investigations into illegal Chinese contributions to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns; thus, the memo served its intended purpose of stifling the inter-agency inquiry.
In testimony he delivered before the 9/11 Commission in April of 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft made his own observations about the wall, stating:
In the days before September 11, the wall specifically impeded the investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. After the FBI arrested Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and sought approval for a criminal warrant to search his computer. The warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall. When the CIA finally told the FBI that al-Midhar and al-Hazmi were in the country in late August, agents in New York searched for the suspects. But because of the wall, FBI headquarters refused to allow criminal investigators who knew the most about the most recent al Qaeda attack to join the hunt for the suspected terrorists. At that time, a frustrated FBI investigator wrote headquarters, quote, ‘Whatever has happened to this--someday someone will die--and wall or not--the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’’
Mary Jo White, a New York attorney and an experienced al-Qaeda prosecutor, vehemently objected to the barrier emplaced between agencies by Gorelick. In a letter she wrote to Gorelick and Attorney General Janet Reno, White noted, “The most effective way to combat terrorism is with as few labels and walls as possible so that wherever permissible, the right and left hands are communicating.” The New York Post reported that White also wrote a second letter in which she warned that the policy enforced by Gorelick “could cost lives.” But White’s remarks were not heeded. Because of the guidelines that had been recently reinforced to protect President Clinton during the Chinese campaign-contribution scandal, the information gathered by Able Danger was not communicated to the FBI, and almost 3,000 innocent lives were indeed lost.
The 9/11 Commission Turns a Blind Eye
In November of 2002, The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, was established to serve as an “independent, bipartisan panel…directed to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks, identify lessons learned, and provide recommendations to safeguard against future attacks of terrorism.” Though the 9/11 Commission’s goal was to collect all information regarding the attacks, Able Danger’s crucial intelligence about Atta was not included in the official 9/11 Commission Report -- despite at least two briefings made to the Committee on the subject. Moreover, members of the Committee have steadfastly denied ever having heard about the Able Danger intelligence.
One of the aforementioned briefings was given by a military officer, and the other by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the Able Danger operative who recently went public with details of his role in the operation. Lt. Shaffer’s briefing occurred during a trip that Commission staffers made to Afghanistan in October 2003, at which time Shaffer provided those staffers with an expansive account of the information Able Danger had gathered on Atta. In August of 2005, however, Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg oddly noted that none of the Commission staff members present during the Shaffer briefing could remember Atta’s name being mentioned. “The name ‘Atta’ or a terrorist cell would have gone to the top of the radar screen if it had been mentioned,” said Felzenberg. Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, repeated this erroneous account, saying, “The September 11 Commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell. Had we learned of it obviously it would’ve been a major focus of our investigation.” Both Felzenberg and Hamilton later amended their statements, but only after The New York Times and the Associated Press went public with the fact that Commission staffers had been briefed on the two occasions.
Congressman Curt Weldon, R-PA, vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, has been at the forefront of efforts to expose the fact that the two separate briefings occurred, and more pointedly, that neither briefing prompted the Commission to discuss Able Danger’s findings. In a letter he wrote on August 10, 2005, addressed to 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Hamilton, Weldon wrote:
The impetus for this letter is my extreme disappointment in the recent, and false, claim of the 9-11 Commission staff that the Commission was never given access to any information on Able Danger. The 9-11 Commission staff received not one but two briefings on Able Danger from former team members, yet did not pursue the matter. Furthermore, commissioners never returned calls from a defense intelligence official that had made contact with them to discuss this issue as a follow on to a previous meeting…
The Commission's refusal to investigate Able Danger after being notified of its existence, and its recent efforts to feign ignorance of the project while blaming others for supposedly withholding information on it, brings shame on the commissioners, and is evocative of the worst tendencies in the federal government that the Commission worked to expose.
Changing course from their earlier attempts at outright denial, 9/11 Commission members are now telling a revised story. Felzenberg now contends that no reference to Able Danger’s findings were incorporated into the Commission’s final report because it was “not consistent with what the Commission knew about Mohamed Atta’s whereabouts before the attacks.” In short, the Commission believes that Atta was not in Prague on April 9, 2001 but rather in Florida – basing this assertion on records showing that Atta’s cell phone was used in Florida that day. No proof exists, however, that Atta was the one actually using the cell phone.
Able Danger’s intelligence on Atta was dismissed not only in 2000, but was ignored a second time in 2003 by the 9/11 Commission. In their article “9/11 Coverup Commission,” Ben Johnson and Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu made the following observation:
Recent revelations about covert ‘Able Danger’ operations are forcing certain people to deal with subjects that they had thought swept under the rug. Despite apparent attempts to conceal the fact, the 9/11 Commission has had to admit it was informed that government agents knew of Mohammed Atta’s affiliation with al-Qaeda two years before 9/11, that Clinton-era policies prevented intelligence officials from sharing that information with the FBI, that the amended time frame would allow Mohammed Atta to have made contacts with Iraqi intelligence, and – most damningly – that it kept all this out of its final report.
What could explain such a seemingly egregious lapse in judgment? To answer this, we must consider the role of President Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General, Jamie Gorelick, in the 9/11 Commission. Gorelick, who (as noted earlier) authorized the creation of the communication wall between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, was also a member of the 9/11 Commission. Thus a key individual who should have been testifying before the Commision was, instead, one of its sitting members. The seemingly inescapable conclusion is that Gorelick prevented the 9/11 Commission from including the Able Danger information so as to protect herself and the Clinton legacy from the condemnation they deserve.
A second possibility is that any reference to the Able Danger intelligence was omitted (from the 9/11 Commission report) because it seemed to suggest that Iraq was somehow involved in planning or funding the 9/11 attacks. Such a revelation would constitute a deathblow to the argument that the Iraq War was unjustified because Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorist threats against the United States. Admitting that the Able Danger intelligence, like the Czech intelligence, placed Atta at a meeting with an Iraqi agent in Prague on April 9, 2001 would strongly suggest that al-Qaeda and Iraq had worked in unison on the attacks. This conclusion would not sit well with the political enemies of George W. Bush. Of this possibility, Ben Johnson and Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu write in FrontPage:
If there was, in fact, covert direction from the top of the Commission to key members of its staff to cloak any link between Saddam and the September 11 attacks, to obfuscate evidence tying the Iraqi regime to al-Qaeda and Mohammed Atta, and to paint the most positive possible picture of the Clintons as implacable terror-warriors, then “Able Danger” had to be ignored and covered up…
By acknowledging the Iraq/al-Qaeda ties, not only to terrorism in general but to the September 11 attack, the war becomes completely justifiable as exactly what the Bush administration claimed it was: a defensive, if preemptive, war to protect the United States from a regime with cordial ties to anti-American terrorists.
Dismantling the Wall: The USA Patriot Act
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. House and Senate set about to create legislation that would provide new tools in combating the terrorist threat facing our country. On October 26, 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed, and with it new regulations regarding intelligence gathering were enacted, as well as new parameters that would pave the way for criminal investigators and intelligence agencies to cooperate on international terrorism cases. In March of 2002, the Justice Department asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which was responsible for the formation of the wall in 1978, to consent to new procedures that would, in effect, dismantle it. The Justice Department affirmed that the USA Patriot Act mandated such an action, and today, because of it, collaboration on vital anti-terrorism initiatives is occurring between different agencies.
In his April 2004 testimony before the 9/11 Commission, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that by the end of the Clinton Administration, “the Justice Department was so addicted to the wall, it actually opposed legislation to lower the wall. Finally, the USA Patriot Act tore down this wall between our intelligence and law enforcement personnel in 2001. And when the Patriot Act was challenged, the FISA Court of Review upheld the law, ruling that the 1995 guidelines were required by neither the Constitution nor the law.”
The way in which the Patriot Act succeeded in dismantling the wall was a simple change in the language of the law. Prior to the Patriot Act, FISA warrants were issued only when it could be demonstrated that the “primary purpose” of a particular surveillance was the collection of foreign intelligence information. The Patriot Act changed the language of the warrant to read as “significant purpose.” This simple modification purged the divider that existed between threats classified as foreign in nature and those that were classified as domestic crimes.
Jamie Gorelick, who played such a key role in the formation and reinforcement of that wall, has criticized the Patriot Act. At an October 2004 symposium titled, “Pursuing Justice and the War on Terrorism,” Gorelick remarked that “the President had yet to prove the effectiveness of the Patriot Act and other controversial national security legislation,” and that the Bush Administration “has also failed to show that there exist proper checks and balances to curb its expanded powers.”
Although critics of the Patriot Act regularly portray it as a threat to civil liberties and decry that no proper checks and balances are in place to restrain it, its merits in the post-9/11 world are unquestionable. With regard to abuses of civil liberties, the Justice Department's Inspector General, who monitors the ACT in an effort to prevent such abuses, has reported that none have yet occurred. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein agrees, stating, “I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me. My staff...asked [the ACLU] for instances of actual abuses. They...said they had none.” Prior to 9/11, and because of the efforts of the Clinton Administration, the nation’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were barred from sharing information with one another. The Patriot Act removed that barrier, and because of it, terrorist cells in Portland, Oregon; Lackawanna, New York; and Virginia were uncovered and eliminated.
The 9/11 Commission’s decision to exclude any mention of Able Danger from its report merits an aggressive and immediate inquiry. As things now appear, corrupt politics enabled the 9/11 hijackers to carry out their horrifying mission. Compounding the sin, the very Commission entrusted with the task of shedding light on what led to 9/11 appears to be engaged in a cover-up that is a slap in the face to the grieving loved ones of 9/11’s victims.