Jack Kelly: Able Danger -- now they tell us

The 9/11 commission report, once much lauded, now has an awfully big hole

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The report of the 9/11 commission, once a best seller and hailed by the news media as the definitive word on the subject, must now be moved to the fiction shelves.

   
Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).
  

The commission concluded, you'll recall, that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon couldn't have been prevented, and that if there was negligence, it was as much the fault of the Bush administration (for moving slowly on the recommendations of Clinton counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke) as of the Clinton administration.

Able Danger has changed all of that.

Able Danger was a military intelligence unit set up by Special Operations Command in 1999. A year before the 9/11 attacks, Able Danger identified hijack leader Mohamed Atta and the other members of his cell. But Clinton administration officials stopped them -- three times -- from sharing this information with the FBI.

The problem was the order Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick made forbidding intelligence operatives from sharing information with criminal investigators. (Gorelick later served as a 9/11 commission member.)

"They were stopped because the lawyers at that time in 2000 told them Mohamed Atta had a green card" -- he didn't -- "and they could not go after someone with a green card," said Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who brought the existence of Able Danger to light.

The military spooks knew only that Atta and his confederates had links to al-Qaida. They hadn't unearthed their mission. But if the FBI had kept tabs on them (a big if, given the nature of the FBI at the time), 9/11 almost certainly could have been prevented.

What may be a bigger scandal is that the staff of the 9/11 commission knew of Able Danger and what it had found, but made no mention of it in its report. This is as if the commission which investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor had written its final report without mentioning the Japanese.

Weldon unveiled Able Danger in a speech on the House floor June 27, but his remarks didn't attract attention until The New York Times reported on them Tuesday.

When the story broke, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, at first denied the commission had ever been informed of what Able Danger had found, and took a swipe at Weldon's credibility:

"The Sept. 11th commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of the surveillance of Mohamed Atta or his cell," Hamilton said. "Had we learned of it obviously it would have been a major focus of our investigation."

Hamilton changed his tune after The New York Times reported Thursday, and The Associated Press confirmed, that commission staff had been briefed on Able Danger in October 2003 and again in July 2004.

It was in October 2003 that Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger stole classified documents from the National Archives and destroyed some. Berger allegedly was studying documents in the archives to help prepare Clinton officials to testify before the 9/11 commission. Was he removing references to Able Danger? Someone should ask him before he is sentenced next month.

After having first denied that staff had been briefed on Able Danger, commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said no reference was made to it in the final report because "it was not consistent with what the commission knew about Atta's whereabouts before the attacks," the AP reported.

The only dispute over Atta's whereabouts is whether he was in Prague on April 9, 2001, to meet with Samir al Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer. Czech intelligence insists he was. Able Danger, apparently, had information supporting the Czechs.

The CIA, and the 9/11 commission, say Atta wasn't in Prague April 9, 2001, because his cell phone was used in Florida that day. But there is no evidence of who used the phone. Atta could have lent it to a confederate. (It wouldn't have worked in Europe anyway.)

But acknowledging that possibility would leave open the likelihood that Saddam's regime was involved in, or at least had foreknowledge of, the 9/11 attacks. And that would have been as uncomfortable for Democrats as the revelation that 9/11 could have been prevented if it hadn't been for the Clinton administration's wall of separation.

The 9/11 commission wrote history as it wanted it to be, not as it was. The real history of what happened that terrible September day has yet to be written.



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