Military linked four of 9/11 hijackers to al-Qaida in 2000

Failure to follow up apparently because men were in U.S. on valid visas

August 09, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - More than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, a small, highly classified military intelligence unit identified Mohammed Atta and three other future hijackers as likely members of an al-Qaida cell operating in the United States, according to a former defense intelligence official and a Republican member of Congress.

In the summer of 2000, the team, known as "Able Danger," prepared a chart that included visa photographs of the four men and recommended to the military's Special Operations Command that the information be shared with the FBI, Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and the former intelligence official said yesterday.

The recommendation was rejected and the information was not shared, they said, apparently in part because Atta and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, U.S. citizens and green-card holders may not be investigated in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies.

That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.

A former spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, Al Felzenberg, confirmed that members of its staff, including Philip Zelikow, the executive director, were told about the program during an overseas trip in October 2003 that included stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Felzenberg said the briefers did not mention Atta's name. The report produced by the commission last year does not mention the episode.

Weldon first spoke publicly about the episode in June, in a little-noticed speech on the House floor and in an interview with The Times-Herald newspaper in Norristown, Pa.

The matter resurfaced yesterday in a report by GSN: Government Security News, which is published every two weeks and covers issues related to homeland security. That report was also based on accounts by Weldon and the same former intelligence official that were made available to The New York Times yesterday in Weldon's office.

In a telephone interview from his home in Pennsylvania, Weldon said he based his assertions on similar ones made by at least three other former intelligence officers with direct knowledge of the project. He said some had first called the episode to his attention shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Early identification

The account is the first assertion that Atta, an Egyptian who became the lead hijacker in the plot, was identified by any U.S. government agency as a potential threat before the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the 19 hijackers, only Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi had been identified as potential threats by the CIA before summer 2000, and data about them were not provided to the FBI until 2001.

Weldon has long been a champion of the kind of data-mining analysis that was the basis for the work done by the Able Danger team. The former intelligence official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that he did not want to jeopardize political support and the possible financing for future data-mining operations by speaking publicly. He said the Able Danger unit was established by the Special Operations Command in 1999, under a classified directive issued by Gen. Henry H. Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to assemble information about al-Qaida networks around the world.

"Ultimately, Able Danger was going to give decision-makers options for taking out al-Qaida targets," the former defense intelligence official said. He said that he himself had delivered the chart in the summer of 2000 to the Special Operations Command headquarters, in Tampa, Fla., and said it had been based on information drawn from unclassified sources and government records, including those of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We knew these were bad guys, and we wanted to do something about them," the former intelligence official said. The unit, which relied heavily on data-mining techniques, was modeled after those first established by Army intelligence at the Land Information Warfare Assessment Center, now known as the Information Dominance Center, at Fort Belvoir, Va., the official said.

Recognition

Weldon, a Republican, is an outspoken figure who is a vice chairman of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee. He said he had recognized the significance of the episode only recently, when he contacted members of the military intelligence team as part of research for his book, Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information That Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the CIA Has Ignored It. Weldon's book prompted a veteran CIA member to strongly dispute the reliability of one Iranian source cited in the book, saying the Iranian "was a waste of my time and resources."

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