Deadly tale of incompetence
Sunday, August 14, 2005
By MIKE KELLY
IT STILL SEEMS all so close.
Here, on Route 23, bathed in the August morning sun and only a short drive from Route 80 and the Willowbrook Mall, a roadside motel bears silent witness to a police bust that might have been.
For a year before the 9/11 attacks, the Wayne Inn was home to Mohammed Atta, the al-Qaida mastermind behind the hijacking plot that killed almost 3,000 people.
In those horrific weeks after the attacks, the official story line was that U.S. counterterror officials had no idea who Atta was before that murderous plot unfolded - or where he was before 9/11. Only after the attacks could authorities track Atta's movements.
Now that story seems to be false.
Federal officials confirmed last week that a year before the attacks, a top-secret military intelligence team was following Atta and three suspected terrorists who turned out to be hijackers. The intelligence operatives tried to sound an alarm but were rebuffed by government lawyers who feared possible legal complications of using military spying techniques to keep tabs on foreign visitors in the United States with legal visas even though they might be terrorists.
A former member of the military intelligence team told me in an interview that it had enough data to raise suspicions. "But we were blocked from passing it to the FBI."
The connect-the-dots tracking by the team was so good that it even knew Atta conducted meetings with the three future hijackers. One of those meetings took place at the Wayne Inn. That's how close all this was - to us and to being solved, if only the information had been passed up the line to FBI agents or even to local cops.
This new piece of 9/11 history, revealed only last week by a Pennsylvania congressman and confirmed by two former members of the intelligence team, could turn out to be one of the most explosive revelations since the publication last summer of the 9/11 commission report.
The information not only undermines key commission findings that Atta and others were undetected, but it again raises a question that continues to haunt the 9/11 tragedy:
Why is our government so incompetent?
To understand that question, it's important to understand how close counter-terror officials came to finding Mohammed Atta. And once you understand the closeness, you have to wonder how anyone could mess up so badly with information that was so tangible?
The story begins a year before the attacks. A top-secret team of Pentagon military counter-terror computer sleuths, who worked for a special operations commando group, was well into a project to monitor al-Qaida operations.
The 11-person group called itself "Project Able Danger." Think of them as a super-secret Delta Force or SEAL team. But instead of guns, they relied on advanced math training as their key weapons. And instead of traditional spying methods or bust-down-the-door commando tactics, the Able Danger group booted up a set of high-speed, super-computers and collected vast amounts of data.
The technique is called "data mining." The Able Danger team swept together information from al-Qaida chat rooms, news accounts, Web sites and financial records. Then they connected the dots, comparing the information with visa applications by foreign tourists and other government records.
From there, the computer sleuths noticed four names - Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
All four turned out to be hijackers. Atta and al-Shehhi took a room at the Wayne Inn. They rented a Wayne mail drop, too, and even went to Willowbrook Mall. Al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi took rooms at a motel on Route 46 in South Hackensack.
What is interesting about this information now is that a CIA team, working separately from the Able Danger Team, had set its sights on al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi. The two were already on a CIA terror watch list and still had managed to obtain U.S. visas.
The CIA feared al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi might try to slip into the United States. But the CIA lost track of them after they left a terror meeting in Malaysia in early 2000 for Bangkok. Worse, the CIA waited until the summer of 2001 to tell the FBI that two suspected terrorists had visas to enter the United States - and might be here.
The story of the lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI is well-known - and well-documented by the 9/11 commission. But the story is even more troublesome with the revelation that even before the CIA knew of suspected terrorists trying to enter the United States that the Able Danger team had its own set of information.
Imagine what might have happened if Able Danger was cooperating with the CIA and the FBI.
On the phone last week, the former Able Team member I interviewed told a depressing story of that cooperation that never took place.
His story, he says, tells us just how close U.S. officials could have come to breaking up the 9/11 plot before it unfolded. But there was one problem: The U.S. government did not want to hear what this sleuth and his 10 teammates had to say - before and even after the 9/11 plot.
By mid-2000, the Able Danger team knew it had important information about a possible terrorist plot. Because of a peculiar series of computer links that went through Brooklyn, the team began referring to the four future hijackers as the "Brooklyn cell." Their movements and communications were raising too many suspicions.
The Able Danger sleuth, whose interview with me was arranged by the staff of Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., asked that his name not be revealed so he could maintain his top-secret counter-terror role. He emerged from the shadows of spying and intelligence analysis last week because he wanted to set the record straight.
One of his targets is the 9/11 commission. The commission's staff, he says, ignored him when he approached them on two occasions to spell out Able Danger's work.
Another target are Pentagon lawyers. The sleuth says he and other Able Danger team members became so concerned during the summer of 2000 that they asked their superiors in the Pentagon's special operations command for permission to approach the FBI. Their superiors approached Pentagon legal experts. Those experts turned down the request.
Sticking to his partisan, Republican roots, Rep. Weldon singles out the Clinton administration for being too lax. He also blames the 9/11 commission for a possible coverup.
The bipartisan 9/11 commission denies any coverup. But it also went out of its way to avoid pointing fingers at the Clinton or Bush administrations. The deeper question is whether this desire to avoid blame also led the commission to ignore important facts.
"They definitely blew it," Weldon said of the commission's failure to look into the Able Danger's work and the legal issues it raises. "The question is whether it was deliberate."
We may never know. The commission says it may be a victim of the very same problem it sought to expose - that there is not enough sharing of information among federal counterterror officials.
Perhaps just as alarming, even the Able Danger team understood its limits. When lawyers blocked Able Danger's request to approach the FBI, the team simply went back to its work and kept quiet - even after the 9/11 attacks occurred.
Why? If the Able Danger team was so concerned about U.S. security, why didn't it approach Congress or even the press to sound an alarm?
When I posed that question in my interview with the Able Danger team member, he fell silent. Listening on a speaker phone, a congressional staffer interrupted: "Have you ever seen what happens to whistleblowers?"
Again, the Able Danger member had no answer.
Which brings us to this haunting question:
Is silence a form of incompetence or it is just the way things are?
I read this the other day and was surprised the commission didnt include ANY of it in its report. I lost any faith in the commissions report to give the best picture possible of the events leading upto 9/11
Seems like the same kind of break down can and will happen again.
Just another part of the Clinton legacy
Too easy to blame him.
This goes ALOT deeper into the different levels of trust between the military and FBI/CIA etc. By law the mil. shouldnt be spying on US soil unless it involved outside interests against the US. This is the fine line that needs to be explored and agreed on when to turn over info to the FBI so this doesnt happen again. The commision was supposed to explore this and didnt do it.
Clinton sucks but this isnt his fault.
Top heavy bureaucracy, staffed by way to many layers, of tunnel visioned lawyers, whose intrest are not so much national security, as protecting their own little GS-23 job.
Wow. That is disconcerting.
There are reports out there that Jamie Gorelick and other Clinton appointees were directly responsible for preventing the transfer of thisspecific information to the FBI. At least one of the spooks has supposedly said that an appointee (maybe Gorelick herself, but I don't remember) prohibited the transfer of the information because Atta had a green card and should therefore be treated as a US citizen. I believe that this will turn out to be Clinton's fault.
To blame him is the easy answer. It cant stop there.
I am not laying blame on anyone person the problem is too wide spread. The problem is way too deep for just one person to take blame for decades of mistrust and interservice animosity. Clinton may have set the green card guide lines but he was long gone and this info still didnt get into the 9/11 report.
Bush seems to be making some head way with merging some of the sercurity departments. The creation of the cabinet post for Homeland security was needed badly. Its just a start and will take a lot of work to get all the dept to share.
If the issue of sharing info is not addressed it WILL happen again.
The alleged screwup has nothing to do with interagency mistrust or rivalry. Supposedly, DoD intelligence attempted to share the information with the FBI, but executive agency appointees prevented them from doing so. If the story is true, it isn't the classic turf war, but an executive branch third party blocking voluntary information transfer between agencies.