When I last posted on the Able Danger situation, only one person, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer (USA), had come forward to confirm that Able Danger, a small military intelligence task force, had, in 2000, informed the DOD of the suspicion that Egyptian immigrant Mohammed Atta was a terrorist. That suspicion was born out by the events of 9/11/2001. Nothing about these findings was mentioned in the 9/11 Commission’s report, however.
The number of persons backing LTC Shaffer’s story has grown to include several other military members and at least two civilians.
"You could touch the picture and literally drill down and it would give you all the facts that we had from whatever source we had, we identified our sources and then why we had made a link," says [civilian] defense contractor J.D. Smith, describing how Able Danger's computer software program worked.The team collected and analyzed information gathered by the "deep" data mining operation. As most following this story know, data mining is gathering information from open, unclassified sources to analyze intelligence matters and come to conclusions about those matters. There have been several new twists to the story while our eyes were focused on the Gulf Coast.
A couple of aspects of this unfolding story, however, are being distorted, IMO, because of lack of knowledge.
Able Danger's surveillance activities were stopped because, allegedly, names of many ‘US persons’ were showing up in the reports. The Defense Department follows laws forbidding the surveillance of US Persons, called Intelligence Oversight. Here is the appropriate definitional blurb:
The term "U.S. persons" includes U.S. citizens, but is broader. It also includes permanent resident aliens, unincorporated associations substantially composed of U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens, and corporations incorporated in the U.S. and not directed and controlled by a foreign government.Conducting surveillance on US persons on purpose is strictly forbidden to American military intelligence assets. When it happens incidentally, the intelligence asset has only 90 days to determine whether the information is relevant to national security or not. If nothing has been determined in the time allotted, the information must be destroyed BY LAW.
Present Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense William Dugan for Intelligence Oversight testified yesterday, however, that Mohamed Atta did not fall under the heading of US Person (he was here on a student visa), but I’m betting that this fine distinction wasn’t clear to the military and/or civilian leadership of the time. I’m not finding fault (in this case), but merely stating the probabilities. Many--myself included--thought that the phrase US Person meant anyone who was in the country legally.
Why the Pentagon Blocked Witness Testimony
Several people--military members and DOD civilian contractors--who were involved in the Able Danger program, have expressed their willingness to come forward and testify on the program’s findings.
The Pentagon, however, has blocked the testimony of these people with this explanation from the SECDEF, Donald Rumsfeld: "We have to obey the laws with respect to security classifications." Anyone with any military intelligence experience can figure out that this is true and what it means: the Pentagon wants to know beforehand what these witnesses are going to say. Does the word ‘intelligence’ ring conjure any other words like ‘security’ or ‘secrecy’ in any minds? The witnesses want to testify on possibly classified matters. They could inadvertently expose information and/or sources while telling what they know. Is it likely? No. It would be ridiculous, however, to take that chance on several different witnesses without debriefing them first. That’s just the way these guys operate, Captain Ed. These military persons and civilians signed papers stipulating that they would protect any classified material and we onlookers simply don’t necessarily know what’s classified and what isn’t, appearances notwithstanding.
The fact that this testimony is before the Senate Judiciary Committee and not the Senate Intelligence Committee or the Senate Armed Forces Committee probably has a great deal to do with the Pentagon’s decision also.
In past posts on this subject, I have attributed the Able Danger SNAFUs to the wall of separation between Foreign and domestic intelligence agencies created by Clinton Administration Assistant Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. That attribution was probably an error on my part. Looking at this situation again, I think that the civilian leadership personnel in the Defense Department of that time were unclear on certain aspects of the Able Danger program that fell under the Intelligence Oversight Laws and chose to err on the safe side of those laws. Had 9/11 not happened, it would have been a reasonably good decision. (Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m no Clinton apologist.)
The Defense Department has been between a rock and a hard place for about forty years. It implemented Intelligence Oversight to curb the government excesses of the 60’s and 70’s* and now that decision has turned around to bite all of us in the butt. The decisions of thirty years ago, of five years ago and of today are not—for the most part--being criticized fairly because sometimes consequences are unforeseen—unless people are accusing the DOD of the inability to tell the future with pinpoint accuracy. That’s what people like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA; who is real getting on my nerves) and certain members of the right side of the blogophere seem to be doing. The Pentagon is doing its job when it seeks to protect potentially classified information and shouldn’t been castigated for excessive secrecy and caution because of it; there no such thing as transparent intelligence. It’s also doing its job when it seeks to protect the rights of citizens and guests in this country. Which one do you want the most? You can't have both to the nth degree.
We are sure to see, however, whether the rather honest—if detrimental—mistake of letting Mohamed Atta be is related to the reason(s) 9/11 Commission left all references to Able Danger out of its report.
Continuous updates at The Strata-Sphere, though his conclusions are different than mine.
*Here is the reason for the implementation of Intelligence Oversight.
The perceived need for a Department of Defense (DoD) Intelligence Oversight (IO) program came about as a result of certain activities conducted by DoD intelligence and counter-intelligence units against U.S. persons involved in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States experienced significant civil demonstrations from protesters associated with these movements. Some of these demonstrations were believed to be beyond the ability of civilian authorities to control, and military forces were used to assist in the restoration of order. Units deploying for this purpose discovered they needed basic pre-deployment intelligence to perform their missions. The Army, designated as executive agent for providing aid to civilian authorities, requested assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). When the FBI was unable to provide the information needed, the Army began collecting it. Over time, this collection mushroomed and led to abuse of the Constitutional rights of our citizens.