By John Crewdson and Andrew Zajac -- Washington Bureau
Wed Sep 28, 9:40 AM ET
Four years after the nation's deadliest terror attack, evidence is accumulating that a super- secret Pentagon intelligence unit identified the organizer of the Sept. 11 hijackings, Mohamed Atta, as an Al Qaeda operative months before he entered the U.S. The many investigations of Sept. 11, 2001, have turned up a half-dozen instances in which government agencies possessed information that might have led investigators to some part of the terrorist plot, although in most cases not in time to stop it.
But none of those leads likely would have taken them directly to Atta, the Egyptian architecture student who moved to the U.S. from Germany to take flying lessons and later served as Al Qaeda's U.S. field commander for the attacks.
Had the FBI been alerted to what the Pentagon purportedly knew in early 2000, Atta's name could have been put on a list that would have tagged him as someone to be watched the moment he stepped off a plane in Newark, N.J., in June of that year.
Physical and electronic surveillance of Atta, who lived openly in Florida for more than a year, and who acquired a driver's license and even an FAA pilot's license in his true name, might well have made it possible for the FBI to expose the Sept. 11 plot before the fact.
Atta is presumed to have been at the controls of American Airlines Flight 11 when it struck the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The FBI has reviewed the voluminous records of its extensive Sept. 11 investigation and can find no mention of Atta before Sept. 11, a senior FBI official said. If the Pentagon knew about Atta in 2000 and failed to tell the FBI, the official said, "It could be a problem."
Anthony Shaffer, a civilian Pentagon employee, says he was asked in the summer of 2000 by a Navy captain, Scott Phillpott, to arrange a meeting between the FBI and representatives of the Pentagon intelligence program, code-named Able/Danger.
But he said the meeting was canceled after Pentagon lawyers concluded that information on suspected Al Qaeda operatives with ties to the U.S. might violate Pentagon prohibitions on retaining information on "U.S. persons," a term that includes U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.
The Washington-based FBI agent who was Shaffer's liaison has recalled, in interviews with her superiors, that Shaffer told her his group had unearthed important information on suspected Al Qaeda operatives with links to the U.S., but without mentioning Atta's name.
When Shaffer, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, asked to whom at the FBI that information should be communicated, the agent gave him the name and phone number of an official at FBI headquarters, according to the senior FBI official.
Shaffer explained in a telephone interview that although Able/Danger never had knowledge of Atta's whereabouts, it had linked him and several other Al Qaeda suspects to an Egyptian terrorist, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had been linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and later was convicted for conspiring to attack the U.S. Atta arrived in the U.S. some seven years after that bombing. But Shaffer and his attorney, Mark Zaid, emphasize that Able/Danger never knew where Atta was, only that he was connected to Abdel-Rahman and Al Qaeda.
"Not to say they were physically here, but the data led us to believe there was some activity related to the original World Trade Center bombing that these guys were somehow affiliated with," Shaffer said.
Asked by Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record) (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a hearing last week whether Atta, who lived for 15 months in Florida under a temporary student visa, was a "U.S. person," a senior Pentagon official answered, "No, he was not."
The official, William Dugan, was asked why the Pentagon had not given the Able/Danger data to the FBI.
"We're a lot smarter now than we were in 1999 and 2000," replied Dugan, who testified that the Pentagon instead destroyed the huge volume of material gathered by Able/Danger, which was disbanded in late 2000.
Erik Kleinsmith, a former Army major who worked with Able/Danger, testified at the hearing that he continued to wonder whether, if Able/Danger "had not been shut down, [whether] we would have been able to assist the United States in some way" to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
Zaid, who also represents James D. Smith, a private contractor employed by the Pentagon to work on Able/Danger, said that until last summer Smith had on his office wall a copy of a chart of Al Qaeda suspects, produced more than a year before Sept. 11, that had Atta's name and photograph.
"He showed it to anybody who came by--`Look what we had,'" Zaid testified. "And he would just shake his head, `What if, what if, what if....'"
Specter sharply criticized the Pentagon for refusing to allow Shaffer, Phillpott, Smith and others who recall seeing the chart to appear and answer the committee's questions.
"It looks to me as if it could be obstruction of the committee's activities," the senator said.
Specter added that he was especially "dismayed and frustrated" by the committee's inability to hear from Shaffer and Phillpott, whom he described as "two brave military officers [who] have risked their careers to come forward and tell America the truth."
Pentagon to permit testimony
Following the hearing, Specter announced that the Pentagon had agreed to allow Shaffer, Phillpott and three other witnesses to testify in public next month, though a Specter aide said Tuesday that the Pentagon now insisted the hearings be closed.
The Defense Department initiated its own investigation of Able/Danger's activities several weeks ago. After more than 80 interviews with Pentagon personnel, investigators reported that two individuals in addition to Shaffer, Phillpott and Smith recalled seeing the Atta chart before Sept. 11.
Kleinsmith, who is no longer affiliated with the Pentagon, testified that he was ordered by a Defense Department lawyer to comply with Pentagon regulations by destroying the Able/Danger data. He said he did not remember seeing Atta's name or photo on the materials he destroyed, but that he believed Shaffer, Phillpott and the three other employees "implicitly when they say they do."
Shaffer said that before Sept. 11 neither he nor anyone else associated with Able/Danger attached any special significance to Atta, or to any of the other Al Qaeda suspects the intelligence effort had unearthed.
Nor would they have had reason to. In early 2000, when Shaffer said he first saw Able/Danger charts identifying suspected Al Qaeda members with links to the U.S., Atta and two other Sept. 11 hijack pilots, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, were living and studying in Hamburg, Germany.
"I was the one that carried the charts down to Tampa, to Capt. Phillpott," then Able/Danger's operations officer, Shaffer said.
Able/Danger was an experiment in a new kind of warfare, known as "information warfare" or "information dominance." One of the program's missions was to see whether Al Qaeda cells around the world could be identified by sifting huge quantities of publicly available data, a relatively new technique called "data mining."
The data miners used complex software programs, with names like Spire, Parentage and Starlight, that mimic the thought patterns in the human brain while parsing countless bits of information from every available source to find relationships and patterns that otherwise would be invisible.
Over its 18-month lifetime, Able/Danger gathered an immense amount of data, the equivalent, Specter said, of one-quarter of the contents of the Library of Congress.
Although data mining can be a powerful technique, there is a danger that false connections will be made along the lines of "six degrees of separation," the popular theory that any two people on Earth can be linked through their relationships to no more than six other people.
Data points matched
The Atta-Al Qaeda connection, Shaffer said, was made by Smith, who then worked for a Pentagon contractor named Orion Scientific. Atta's photo, Shaffer said, was obtained by Smith from someone in California who had connections to "a foreign source" who monitored radical mosques in Europe.
"J.D. Smith took eight data points that were common to the original World Trade Center bombers in 1993," with whom Abdel-Rahman had been associated, Shaffer said. "From those eight data points, he matched the profile."
Atta, whose full name was Mohammed El-Amir Awad el Sayid Atta, called himself Mohamed el-Amir while living in Germany, and thus would not have been readily identifiable as "Mohamed Atta."
He switched to the surname Atta as he prepared to move to the U.S., according to German police documents. A Senate aide said Specter was negotiating with the Defense Department over the conditions under which Shaffer and the other Pentagon witnesses would be permitted to appear before the Judiciary Committee and answer the senators' questions.
"I think the Department of Defense owes the American people an answer about what went on here," Specter declared.
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Clues pieced together in years following attacks
Post-Sept. 11 investigations have revealed instances that seem, in hindsight, to have been chances for the CIA or FBI to thwart the attacks.
1. MAY 1998
- In September 2005 it was revealed that the independent
commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks found that the
Federal Aviation Administration had been warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda "might try to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark." The FAA viewed this possibility as "unlikely" and a "last resort," the report said.
2. JAN. 15, 2000
THE CIA AND FBI
- Investigations into Sept. 11 paid much attention to the CIA's failure to tell the FBI that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had apparently moved to the U.S., where he was taking flying lessons with another hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, in San Diego.
3. JAN. 31, 2000
- One of the most promising leads came from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where in January 2000 authorities detained Sept. 11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah as he was returning to Hamburg from a twomonth sojourn with Mohamed Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi in Osama bin Laden's Afghan training camps.
It was during those two months that bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed decided that Atta and his friends were the ideal candidates to conduct the operation, according to the Sept. 11 commission report.
As Jarrah was questioned by the Dubai airport police, he knew the general outlines of the plot, though the date and targets would not be decided for more than a year.
According to a senior UAE official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, while Jarrah was in custody the Dubai police informed the American Embassy that a young Lebanese student had been detained on his way back to Europe from Afghanistan. The embassy contact, the official said, asked that Jarrah be arrested.
When the Dubai police explained they had no grounds for an arrest, the embassy contact replied that the police should let Jarrah go.
Jarrah flew from Dubai to Amsterdam and then to Hamburg, where he reconnected with Atta, al-Shehhi and Ramzi Binalshibh.
U.S. officials dispute the UAE official's account, saying they never learned of the Jarrah airport stop until Sept. 18, 2001.
4. JULY 5, 2001
THE "PHOENIX MEMO"
- What has become known as "the Phoenix memo" was written in July 2001 by an FBI agent in that city who took notice of the number of Middle Eastern students enrolling in Arizona flight schools and wondered whether some of them might be terrorists.
The agent suggested the FBI compile visa information on foreigners applying to flight schools, although such an effort would have missed the Sept. 11 hijackers, who had graduated from flight school months before.
5. AUG. 15, 2001
- Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges in Minneapolis three weeks before Sept. 11 after he raised the suspicions of a flight school instructor by paying for his lessons in cash and demanding to learn to fly a Boeing 747.
When Minneapolis FBI agents asked FBI headquarters in Washington for permission to see what was on Moussaoui's laptop, they were denied. In fact, Moussaoui had been sent to the U.S. by Al Qaeda to undergo flight training, and aides to bin Laden had arranged for Moussaoui to receive at least $15,000, according to the Sept. 11 commission report.
When the laptop was finally searched in the wake of Sept. 11, it contained nothing linking Moussaoui to the plot.
6. SEPT. 10, 2001
- Investigators have made much of two satellite telephone calls between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, monitored and recorded the day before the hijackings by the U.S. National Security Agency.
In one conversation, a party in Afghanistan announces that "The match begins tomorrow." In the second conversation, a different person warns that "Tomorrow is zero hour."
The conversations, in Arabic, weren't translated by the NSA until Sept. 12, but were probably too general to have led investigators to the plot.