Able Danger: Looks Like It’s True

The most interesting thing I’ve read in a long time is this lengthy interview of Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer in Government Security News. When I’ve heard Col. Shaffer interviewed before about Able Danger, on either television or radio, I’ve felt that he was a little vague and that his account lacked concrete detail. Those concerns vanish with this full length interview. I would urge you to read it in its entirety; a summary can’t really do it justice. But here are a few of the highlights:
1) Given the accounts we now have from at least three people who worked on Able Danger, I don’t think there is any significant doubt that they identified al Qaeda cells in the U.S. during the summer or fall of 2000, and that Mohammed Atta was found to be linked in some way to those cells. Shaffer says that Able Danger’s data mining technique identified two of the three domestic cells that carried out the September 11 attacks.
2) For a number of reasons, the question whether Mohammed Atta was inside the United States at that time is significant. The interview, while generally excellent, contains one major omission: Shaffer never says whether the data showed Atta to be in the U.S., or only that domestic cells were linked to Atta–who may, himself, have been overseas.
3) I’ve never had a very clear idea what sources of information were used by Able Danger; they have been referred to as “publicly available.” That turns out to be true in only a limited sense. Apparently one of the key data sources consisted of lists of who attended what mosques in foreign countries. Evidently mosques keep a careful record of the people who enter them to worship, and someone–not just at one mosque, but apparently at many mosques–was willing to sell that information. The intelligence officers who participated in Able Danger bought it from an internet “information broker.” It’s easy to understand why the use of this information would have been considered explosive had it become public, especially in the pre-September 11 environment.
4) The role of the Defense Department’s lawyers is much more fully explained in the interview. Apparently quite a few lawyers were involved, up to the General Counsel of the DoD. The issue that was of concern was the domestic use of the information that the data mining turned up. Apparently the way the issue was framed was, if the data constituted “intelligence,” even though it came from internet sources, could it be used against American citizens, or others who were in the U.S. legally? The answer that the lawyers gave, in essence, was that anything that winds up in an intelligence officer’s file (electronic or otherwise) is intelligence, and can’t be communicated to domestic law enforcement agencies. However, the information generated by Able Danger was used abroad, apparently with some success.
5) Apart from legal issues, the lack of cooperation among agencies was appalling. The CIA, in particular, comes off looking bad. One of the heroes of the story is General Schoomaker, who retired briefly but has now been brought back by Donald Rumsfeld as Chief of Staff. Shaffer describes a meeting with Schoomaker and his staff in which Schoomaker explained to the staff what Able Danger was all about, and said that “what we’re doing…is essentially trying to recreate the old OSS capability. The idea of having operationalized information that can actually enable us to do things more rapidly, in a more agile fashion.” Which leaves the obvious question: isn’t that precisely what the CIA, the successor to OSS, supposed to be doing? It speaks volumes that Schoomaker, at that time the head of Special Operations, thought that he had to start new working groups like Able Danger in order to recreate the spirit of the World War II-era OSS. Apparently, once Schoomaker retired the political support for Able Danger–and, I would guess, a number of other innovative programs that we don’t know about–was gone.
6) I can see no benign explanation for why the September 11 commission did not follow up on the information that Shaffer gave Philip Zelikow, who was in charge of the commission’s staff. It is simply inconceivable that the fact that an intelligence group had concluded that there were al Qaeda cells operating within the U.S., but that information had never been communicated to law enforcement, was anything other than vital to the Commission’s inquiry. (That would be true even if the Able Danger group’s conclusion had turned out to be wrong.) Someone has some explaining to do.
That’s enough for now–read the whole thing.
Via Captain’s Quarters.


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