27 October 2005

ABLE DANGER

NORRISTOWN - Senior Pentagon officials were warned not to let the USS Cole dock in Yemen two days before terrorists attacked the ship five years ago killing 17 sailors, according to Congressman Curt Weldon, who said the crucial intelligence was gleaned from the former secret defense operation, "Able Danger."

Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed the information in a House speech that blasted the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) attempts to discredit Army Reserve LTC Anthony Shaffer, a DIA employee who worked as a liaison with the "Able Danger" team.
In June, Shaffer told The Times Herald newspaper during an interview on Capitol Hill that the now-defunct data mining operation at the Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) - now the 1st IO Command, Ft. Belvoir, VA had linked Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to an al-Qaida cell in Brooklyn in 2000 - more than a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The military's Special Operations Command ran the high-tech dragnet that searched for terrorist linkages. The terrorist associations were mapped out on large charts, according to Shaffer and other of "Able Danger" colleagues, during the program that operated between 1999 and 2001.
However, following Shaffer's attempts to broker an arrangement that would draw the FBI into the operation, the program was shut down.
Weldon and Shaffer believe "Able Danger" intelligence may have disrupted - or even prevented - the Sept. 11 attacks if it had continued.
In August, Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott and James D. Smith, a defense contractor, corroborated Shaffer's story.
On Wednesday, Weldon again criticized the Pentagon for dragging its feet in its probe of the defense program's history, and continued his criticism of the CIA, which he said tried to protect its own intelligence turf from other government intelligence agencies.
"What we have here, I am convinced of this now, is an aggressive attempt by CIA management to cover up their own shortcomings in not being able to do what the Able Danger team did," he said.
Besides claiming to identifying Atta from a grainy photograph prior to Sept. 11, the intelligence team also tried to warn the Pentagon not to allow the USS Cole to make a refueling stop in Yemen five years ago, Weldon said.
On Oct. 12, 2000, a small boat loaded with explosives rammed into the side of the USS Cole as the ship refueled in port at Aden, killing the 17 Navy personnel.
"(Able Danger members) also identified the threat to the USS Cole two weeks before the attack, and two days before the attack were screaming not to let the (ship) come into the harbor at Yemen, because they knew something was going to happen," he said.
The "Able Danger" group operated at the Army's former Land Information Warfare Center (LIWA), in Ft. Belvoir, Va. After LIWA's intelligence gathering capability impressed Weldon, he tried to pitch the idea of a collaborative intelligence center to the CIA in 1999, but was rebuffed.
Also in his speech, Weldon accused the DIA of trying to smear Shaffer rather than come clean on why "Able Danger" was shut down.
Shaffer, who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, had his top-secret security clearance suspended in 2004 allegedly because of disputes over travel expenses and phone bills.
But his supporters suggest Shaffer is being made a scapegoat for going public with the "Able Danger" revelations in August.
Two days before he was set to testify about the program before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21, the Reserve officer's secret clearance was revoked, and the Defense Department barred him, Phillpott and Smith from testifying at the hearing.
Also in August, Pentagon officials told reporters at a press conference that "Able Danger" data had been deleted from computers. A former Army intelligence officer, Erik Kleinsmith, confirmed this at the Judiciary Committee hearing, testifying he was ordered to destroy information.
During the life of the program, the operation's team members created charts linking terrorists. However, during the recent investigation, none have been found.
The Pentagon, which claimed it is restricted from retaining intelligence on United States citizens and foreign residents living in the U.S., so-called "U.S. persons," for more than 90 days.
However, Weldon has previously said most of the program's data was open source information and not classified. According to guidelines in Army Regulation 381-10, intelligence data can be kept indefinitely if it was culled from open sources.
An unnamed "Able Danger official," Weldon said, was told by a Pentagon lawyer that it's okay to extend the time intelligence information is stored.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Chris Conway, said recently that Defense Department officials worried that any public testimony given about "Able Danger" risked revealing classified information.
"Prior to any testimony, we expressed our security concerns with Congress," Conway said. "We said in discussing Able Danger, (it) could inadvertently reveal classified information."
Defense officials said they would allow military personnel to testify about the program behind closed doors.
Previously, Shaffer said 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. Atta was not believed to be in the U.S., however, when he came to the attention of the team.
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.
Though Shaffer was not allowed to give testimony at the Sept. 21 committee hearing, his attorney, Mark Zaid, did testify.
As a sobering reminder of "Able Danger's" unfulfilled promise, Zaid said the missing charts showing terrorist links likely still contained "several dozen" individuals yet to be captured.
"There are terrorist on the chart who may still be out there and planning attacks," Zaid said.

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