Able Danger Danger

I’ve been meaning for the last several days to do a post on the Able Danger story, expressing the view that some conservatives have pushed the story too far, in view of the great uncertainty about whether the key “fact” in the story–that Able Danger operatives identified Mohammed Atta as an al Qaeda member prior to September 11–was true. In the meantime, a number of others have beaten me to it. This morning, Jim Geraghty has more:

Just heard from a guy I trust that the Pentagon will be releasing information regarding Able Danger in the not too distant future. The short version: Don’t expect any bombshells.
Thank you, Congressman Weldon, for getting just enough of this story right (the existence of Able Danger and its mission) to get folks like myself and lot of others to take you seriously. Those others weren’t just bloggers, by the way – I’m talking about the New York Times, the AP, the Bergen Record…
And thanks a [really bad word] heap for getting more than enough wrong that we look like idiots for trusting you.
You know, like that rather key element that Able Danger had picked out four of the 9/11 hijackers and recommended they be picked up by the FBI. I can see how you could mix up that pesky little detail.
Thank you for making all of these stunning allegations without any supporting evidence. Thank you for not having any documents, memos, or anything beyond allegations from an anonymous former defense intelligence guy who is unwilling to come forward and speak on the record.

Here is the point I really want to emphasize: the Able Danger story was yet another example of the peril of anonymous sources. We have repeatedly attacked the use of anonymous sources by organs like the New York Times and Washington Post; now Congressman Weldon has done the same thing. The whole story came from an anonymous source who claimed to have been part of military intelligence, and of Able Danger.
Importantly, this is not a situation where an anonymous source supplied a tip that journalists and others could then go out and investigate. No: in this instance the anonymous source’s alleged memory of having seen Atta’s name on an Able Danger list was the whole story. No one could possibly evaluate the credibility of the claim without, as a starting point, knowing who it is who claims to have the memory.
I was also troubled by the source’s statement that Pentagon lawyers made a decision not to allow the information on Atta to be passed on to law enforcement. At best, this could only be hearsay. Again, without knowing who the source is, and without the opportunity to question him about how he purports to know what was done by Pentagon lawyers, it was hard to give much–or any–credibility to his claim. Moreover, if the claim was true, a paper trail would exist. Memos would have been written, copied and filed in multiple locations. And, while I suppose it is barely possible that such explosive documents could have remained unknown for the past four years, I think that is extremely unlikely.
In other words, there were good reasons not to trust the source–his unwillingness to go public–and good reasons to think that what he said was most probably false.
The moral, I think, is that we should be extremely skeptical of any news story predicated on the accounts of anonymous sources, no matter how we feel about the implications of the story.

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