As predicted in this space a few months ago, the real Able Danger scandal isn't what the military intelligence team knew, but rather, why their efforts share information with law enforcement were blocked by Pentagon lawyers; why the 9-11 Commission ignored their work, and why members of Able Danger are now being muzzled by the Defense Department.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter held hearings on Able Danger yesterday, but the event produced little in the way of new information. And for good reason. The Pentagon has barred five key witnesses from testifying before Congress, including Lt Col Anthony Shaffer, the Army intelligence officer who was the first to go public with information about the unit and its activities. According to Lt Col Shaffer and other Able Danger members, the team identified four of the 9-11 hijackers as members of Al Qaeda--months before the attacks occurred. However, they were barred from sharing that information from law enforcement officials.
Now, the Pentagon is preventing Shaffer and his colleagues from testifying before the Senate committee, citing security concerns. DOD spokesman Bryan Whitman noted that the Pentagon had a representative at the hearing, and had provided "sufficient" information to the committee.
Hogwash. First of all, as NRO's Andrew McCarthy points out, the DOD's security concerns are overstated, particularly for a unit that's been out of business for several years. Additionally, the Pentagon has yet to fully explain its over-arching legal concerns about the "investigation of U.S. persons" that prevented Able Danger from passing its findings to the FBI. True, Mohammed Atta and the other identified terrorists met a broad definition of "U.S. persons," who cannot be the subject of military intelligence gathering on American soil. However, these concerns could have been easily allayed by contacting the FBI, and allowing federal law enforcement to conduct its own surveillance, and (quite possibly) disrupt the 9-11 plot.
Finally, there's the issue of Able Danger's rapidly vanishing paper trail. A former Army Major told Senators yesterday that some of the team's records were "routinely" destroyed in 2000, due to the afore-stated concerns about intelligence collection against U.S. persons. However, other reports suggest that some of the team's records and reports weren't destroyed until last year. Of course, we still don't know what was actually destroyed, who gave the order, and other potential rationales for that activity.
I don't often agree with Senator Specter, but he is right about this. DOD owes the American people some answers about Able Danger, what they learned through their data-mining activities, and why this information was never shared with law enforcement. Allowing Colonel Shaffer and his colleagues to testify before the Specter committee should be the first step in that process, allowing for a full examination of past mistakes, while ensuring that the same thing doesn't happen again. That's why we need answers about Able Danger now, not later.
P.S.--The low level of media interest in this story is stunning, to say the least. Aside from Fox, few broadcast outlets even bothered to cover yesterday's hearing, and there are only a handful of print stories to boot. Because much of Able Danger's work took place in the latter days of the Clinton Administration, news executives and reporters are quite willing to ignore the story, avoiding futher damage to the reputation of "their" President.
If the Pentagon is covering up Able Danger (and, increasingly, that seems to be the case), then the MSM has become a willing accomplice in that cause.