The Sept. 11 commission will investigate a claim that U.S. defense intelligence officials identified ringleader Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers as a likely part of an al-Qaida cell more than a year before the hijackings but didn’t forward the information to law enforcement.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. and vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, said Tuesday the men were identified in 1999 by a classified military intelligence unit known as “Able Danger.” If true, that’s an earlier link to al-Qaida than any previously disclosed intelligence about Atta.
Sept. 11 commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton said Tuesday that Weldon’s information, which the congressman said came from multiple intelligence sources, warrants a review. He said he hoped the panel could issue a statement on its findings by the end of the week.
“The 9/11 commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell,” said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “Had we learned of it obviously it would’ve been a major focus of our investigation.”
Numerous government mistakes
The Sept. 11 commission’s final report, issued last year, recounted numerous government mistakes that allowed the hijackers to succeed. Among them was a failure to share intelligence within and among agencies.
According to Weldon, Able Danger identified Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi as members of a cell the unit code-named “Brooklyn” because of some loose connections to New York City.
Weldon said that in September 2000 Able Danger recommended that its information on the hijackers be given to the FBI “so they could bring that cell in and take out the terrorists.” However, Weldon said Pentagon lawyers rejected the recommendation because they said Atta and the others were in the country legally so information on them could not be shared with law enforcement.
Weldon did not provide details on how the intelligence officials identified the future hijackers and determined they might be part of a cell.
Team set up in 1999
Defense Department documents shown to an Associated Press reporter Tuesday said the Able Danger team was set up in 1999 to identify potential al-Qaida operatives for U.S. Special Operations Command. At some point, information provided to the team by the Army’s Information Dominance Center pointed to a possible al-Qaida cell in Brooklyn, the documents said.
However, because of concerns about pursuing information on “U.S. persons” — a legal term that includes U.S. citizens as well as foreigners admitted to the country for permanent residence — Special Operations Command did not provide the Army information to the FBI. It is unclear whether the Army provided the information to anyone else.
The command instead turned its focus to overseas threats.
The documents provided no information on whether the team identified anyone connected to the Sept. 11 attack.
If the team did identify Atta and the others, it’s unclear why the information wasn’t forwarded. The prohibition against sharing intelligence on “U.S. persons” should not have applied since they were in the country on visas — they did not have permanent resident status.
Weldon, considered something of a maverick on Capitol Hill, initially made his allegations about Atta and the others in a floor speech in June that garnered little attention. His talk came at the end of a legislative day during a period described under House rules as “special orders” — a time slot for lawmakers to get up and speak on issues of their choosing.
The issue resurfaced Monday in a story by the bimonthly Government Security News, which covers national security matters.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he was unaware of the intelligence until the latest reports surfaced.
But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the 9/11 Commission looked into the matter during its investigation into government missteps leading to the attacks and chose not to include it in the final report.
Hamilton said 9/11 Commission staff members learned of Able Danger during a meeting with military personnel in October 2003 in Afghanistan, but the staff members do not recall learning of a connection between Able Danger and any of the four terrorists Weldon mentioned.
The commission expired last year after releasing its final report, but the members now work together as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project to publicize their findings and monitor the government’s response to their recommendations.