Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Fresh Look at Able Danger

About a week ago, I opined that we would all be better off if the 9-11 Commission didn't examine the Able Danger issue. At the time, I noted that the revelations regarding Able Danger merely confirmed what we already knew: coordination between intelligence agencies was terrible before 9-11, and there was virtually no information exchanged between the intel community and law enforcement.

I still stand by my original assessment, but let me add an important caveat: an inquiry should be made into why the 9-11 Commission failed to follow-up on the Able Danger information it received, and incorporate it into the panel's final report.

We've learned more about the special operations intelligence unit in recent days, thanks to one of its members, Lt Col Anthony Shaffer. A veteran Army intelligence officer, Lt Col Shaffer has decided to risk his career by talking publicly about Able Danger, and efforts to pass information to the FBI in the days before 9-11.

According to Colonel Shaffer, members of Able Danger tried to contact the FBI several times about information they had gleaned about suspected Al Qaida operatives, including Mohammed Atta, ring-leader of the 9-11 hijackings, and three of his associates. Their requests for meetings with the FBI were rejected by Pentagon lawyers, who feared the military would be criticized if leads developed by Able Danger failed to pan out. There were also concerns about a military intelligence agency gathering information on individuals who were in the country legally.

Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, in his morally superior Watergate mode, believes the Pentagon should tell the commission why they didn't receive all information available on Able Danger.

Wait just a second. Mr. Ben-Veniste needs to ask the commission staff why they didn't bother to follow-up on the intelligence unit and its information. Commission staffers flew to Afghanistan in 2003 to interview Lt Col Shaffer, who provided detailed information on the unit, what it learned before 9-11 and obstacles that prevented that information from reaching law enforcment. He also told the staffers that they had received only about "one twentieth" of the information that Able Danger developed; the complete database, he told CBS' The Early Show, represented about 2.5 terabytes of information. That's terabye with a "T."

But the staff reportedly never discussed Able Danger with their superiors, and there is no mention of the unit in the commission's final report. And that's a matter that begs further inquiry. Tasked with uncovering the truth about our intel failures behind 9-11, the commission deliberately omits a key piece of the puzzle, one that might prove embarassing to certain members (namely Jamie Gorelick, who created that wall between intelligence and law enforcement in the mid-1990s), or prove embarassing to the Clinton Administration.

The breakdown between intel and law enforcement before 9-11 is old news. But potential chicanery by a Presidential commission is another matter, and requires an independent inquiry. The nation would be well-served by asking what the panel knew, what it knew (but didn't report) and who prevented the commission from taking a full and honest look at the intel failures of 9-11.

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