Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Pentagon accused of hijack cover-up
By Philip Shenon and Douglas Jehl in Washington
August 11, 2005
Members of the independent investigation into the September 11 strikes have called on Congress to determine whether the Pentagon withheld intelligence showing a secret US military unit had identified Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers as threats more than a year before the attacks.
The former commission members said the information, if true, could rewrite an important chapter of the history of the intelligence failures before September 11, 2001.
"I think this is a big deal," said John Lehman, a Republican member of the commission who was navy secretary in the Reagan administration. "The issue is whether there was in fact surveillance before 9/11 of Atta and, if so, why weren't we told about it? Who made the decision not to brief the commission's staff or the commissioners?"
Mr Lehman and other commissioners said that as the panel had been formally disbanded for a year, the investigation would need to be taken up by Congress, possibly by the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Detailed accounts about the findings of the secret operation, known as Able Danger, were offered this week by Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who is vice-chairman of the House armed services committee, and by a former defence intelligence official. Their comments are the first assertion by officials that Atta, an Egyptian who was the lead hijacker, was identified as a potential terrorist before the attacks.
Spokesmen for the commission members said this week that although the staff was informed by the Pentagon in late 2003 about the existence of a so-called data-mining operation called Able Danger, the panel was never told it had identified Atta and the others as threats.
In its final report released last year, the five Democrats and five Republicans made no mention of the secret program or the possibility that a government agency had detected Atta's terrorist activities before September 11.
The Pentagon had no comment on the credibility of the claims. The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he had "never heard of it until this morning. I understand our folks are trying to look into it."
Mr Weldon went public with his information after having talked with members of the unit in his research for a book on terrorism. He said he had spoken with three team members, all still working in the Government, including two in the military, and that they were consistent in claiming that Atta's affiliation with an al-Qaeda terrorism cell in the US was known in the Pentagon by mid-2000 and was not acted on.
The former military intelligence official said the Able Danger team was created in 1999 to assemble information about al-Qaeda networks around the world and by the middle of 2000 had identified Atta and three of the other future hijackers as members of a US-based cell. The official said the information was presented that northern summer in a chart to the Pentagon's Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
The New York Times www.nytimes.com