In January of this year, Rep. Curt Weldon made a speech to the House of Representatives a speech which no one took notice of, and which hardly anyone heard, except maybe inveterate C-SPAN watchers in which he made a number of extraordinary assertions:
“Mr. Speaker, I rise because information has come to my attention over the past several months that is very disturbing. I have learned that, in fact, one of our Federal agencies had, in fact, identified the major New York cell of Mohamed Atta prior to 9/11; and I have learned, Mr. Speaker, that in September of 2000, that Federal agency actually was prepared to bring the FBI in and prepared to work with the FBI to take down the cell that Mohamed Atta was involved in in New York City, along with two of the other terrorists.
“I have also learned, Mr. Speaker, that when that recommendation was discussed within that Federal agency, the lawyers in the administration at that time said, you cannot pursue contact with the FBI against that cell. Mohamed Atta is in the U.S. on a green card, and we are fearful of the fallout from the Waco incident. So we did not allow that Federal agency to proceed.
“Mr. Speaker, what this now means is that prior to September 11, we had employees of the Federal Government in one of our agencies who actually identified the Mohamed Atta cell and made a specific recommendation to act on that cell, but were denied the ability to go forward. Obviously, if we had taken out that cell, 9/11 would not have occurred and, certainly, taking out those three principal players in that cell would have severely crippled, if not totally stopped, the operation that killed 3,000 people in America.”
Something about this doesn’t quite ring true: none [.pdf] of the hijackers had a green card. Most came in on tourist visas: some had made easily detectable false statements on their visa applications, and might have been legally deported.
And what does Waco have to do with anything? The connection seems tenuous, at best. However, let us pass over that, for the moment, and concentrate on Rep. Weldon’s further remarks: he avers that two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, his “friends” at the Army’s Information Dominance Center “in cooperation with special ops” brought him a chart that had been created by a secret military unit known as “Able Danger“: using “data-mining” techniques, this top secret military intelligence unit had identified Mohammed Atta and three of the hijackers as being part of an Al Qaeda cell in the U.S. This chart, with a visa photo of Mohammed Atta at its center, was created a year before 9/11. Weldon says he took the chart to Stephen Hadley, at the National Security Council, who said he had never seen any such chart, and that he would bring it to “the man” i.e., the President.
Now it isn’t all that surprising that neither Hadley, nor the President, had any inkling of Operation “Able Danger.” What’s truly startling, however, is that when Weldon talked to those who made the chart, he discovered that not only had they identified the New York cell of Mohammed Atta and two of the other terrorists, but also that a recommendation had been made to take out the cell and it had been vetoed. By whom and why? As Weldon put it in his speech:
“That is a question that needs to be answered, Mr. Speaker. I have to ask, Mr. Speaker, with all the good work that the 9/11 Commission did, why is there nothing in their report about able danger? Why is there no mention of the work that able danger did against al Qaeda? Why is there no mention, Mr. Speaker, of a recommendation in September of 2000 to take out Mohammed Atta’s cell which would have detained three of the terrorists who struck us?”
A good question, one that was thoroughly ignored for months, until something called the “Government Security News” picked up the story, and this was followed by a piece in the New York Times by Douglas Jehl, and one this [Thursday] morning, that basically confirmed the outlines of Weldon’s story.
A “former defense intelligence official” involved in “Able Danger” was cited to buttress Weldon’s assertion, and he claims in the first Times story that, yes, he brought the chart produced by his team to Special Operations Command (SOC) because “We knew these were bad guys, and we wanted to do something about them.” At SOC headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, however, they draw a complete blank:
“Col. Samuel Taylor, a spokesman for the military’s Special Operations Command, said no one at the command now had any knowledge of the Able Danger program, its mission or its findings. If the program existed, Colonel Taylor said, it was probably a highly classified “special access program” on which only a few military personnel would have been briefed.”
According to Al Felzenberg, former spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, investigators on his staff had been told about the “Able Danger” program, but, he claimed, there was no mention of Atta, which is why the 9/11 Commission report never mentions the subject, even obliquely. However, the former defense intelligence official cited in Jehl’s first story begs to differ. He says that Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and three other members of the Commission staff, had been briefed, and that
“He had explicitly mentioned Mr. Atta as a member of a Qaeda cell in the United States. He said the staff encouraged him to call the commission when he returned to Washington at the end of the year. When he did so, the ex-official said, the calls were not returned.”
Jehl reported on Wednesday that, according to Felzenberg, who had talked to former staff members of the Commission,
“They all say that they were not told anything about a Brooklyn cell. They were told about the Pentagon operation. They were not told about the Brooklyn cell. They said that if the briefers had mentioned anything that startling, it would have gotten their attention.”
The next day, however, the former Commission staffers were singing a different tune. In their follow-up story, Jehl and Philip Shenon report the Commission staff was indeed briefed in a meeting held on July 12, 2004, at which Atta’s name figured prominently, and that this has been acknowledged by the same officials who were denying everything 24 hours earlier. The briefing had been discounted, these officials now claim, because the information offered didn’t “mesh” with what they thought they already knew, and, besides, the 9/11 Commission report was all ready to go to the printer. The addition of a piece of information that would have substantially altered the content was apparently not considered important enough to tell the printer to wait.
The main thrust of the 9/11 Commission’s findings was that there was a “lack of actionable intelligence”: the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center represented a gigantic “intelligence failure,” which blocked attempts to take out Bin Laden in Afghanistan. But the point is that what was needed was actionable intelligence in America, not Afghanistan. In the aftermath, many lamented the fact that, if only some version of the PATRIOT Act had been in place prior to 9/11, the attacks might have been prevented. As I wrote when the Commission first began its work, this
“Sounds superficially plausible, except when one considers that there was plenty of actionable intelligence about the 9/11 plotters: there were warnings galore, as we are beginning to discover, not only from foreign intelligence agencies but from our own agents and analysts.
“Yes, but these warnings were ‘nonspecific’: that’s the standard official excuse. Except it isn’t true: the ringleader of the 9/11 plot, Mohammed Atta, was under surveillance by authorities the year before the attacks, in Hamburg, Germany. Atta and his associates were well-known to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, U.S. and foreign, long before the 9/11 terror attacks.
“What did they know and when did they know it? That is a key question for the 9/11 Commission to ask, and answer.”
It is interesting to note that the Commission staffer who received and discounted the “Able Danger” information, Dietrich L. Snell, is the prosecutor who convicted Abdul Hakim Murad in the “Bojinka” terrorist conspiracy case, a 1995 plot to crash airplanes into several U.S. landmark buildings, including the Pentagon and the World Trade Center a scheme that later morphed into the 9/11 conspiracy. Murad offered to cooperate with investigators in return for a sentence reduction, but prosecutors, led by Snell, turned him down. Go here for the whole story.
The list of “mistakes,” glitches, and tales of staggering incompetence that preceded the worst “intelligence failure” since a certain wooden horse was brought behind the walls of Troy, is getting rather suspiciously long. Here’s another:
“The National Security Agency intercepted two messages on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon warning that something was going to happen the next day, but the messages were not translated until Sept. 12, senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
“The Arabic-language messages said, ‘The match is about to begin’ and ‘Tomorrow is zero hour.’ They were discussed Tuesday before the House-Senate intelligence committee during closed-door questioning of Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the NSA, the agency responsible for intercepting and analyzing electronic messages.”
This Washington Post story, you’ll recall and certainly Slate media columnist Jack Shafer will recall it was the occasion for a stern rebuke from the White House, and especially from Vice President Dick Cheney, whose anger was sufficient to spark an FBI investigation into who leaked the truth.
As we approach the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the official story of what happened that day, and how it happened, is beginning to unravel in a spectacular manner. The official version is that the nineteen conspirators, acting alone and without the foreknowledge or even the suspicion of any outside agency, pulled off a complex series of operations involving at least four separate airplanes, all carried out within minutes of each other, pirouetting in the sky in perfect synchronicity before barreling down on their targets nearly simultaneously. This fiery moment was the climax of years as many as five years of plotting, preparations, and a largely subterranean existence lived by the conspirators, until they emerged, on that fateful day, like avenging angels of darkness coming down from the sky.
However, the various anomalies that go unexplained by this fanciful theory have begun to accumulate until the pressure to revise what we know of the history of the 9/11 conspiracy has become irresistible. The “Able Danger” revelations merely confirm what we’ve been saying in this space for years: that revisionism in this area of historical research is essential if we’re going to begin to understand 9/11, and all that followed from it. As Condi Rice’s appearance before the 9/11 Commission showed, the administration knew a lot more than it ever told anyone.
In December, 2001, Carl Cameron did a four-part series on Fox News that detailed extensive Israeli spying in the U.S., a report that proved prescient in light of recent developments, and he started out his riveting account with a bang:
“Since September 11, more than 60 Israelis have been arrested or detained, either under the new patriot anti-terrorism law, or for immigration violations. A handful of active Israeli military were among those detained, according to investigators, who say some of the detainees also failed polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States.
“There is no indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9-11 attacks, but investigators suspect that they Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance, and not shared it. A highly placed investigator said there are ‘tie-ins.’ But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, ‘evidence linking these Israelis to 9-11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It’s classified information.'”
While the story was largely ignored in the U.S., Germany’s Die Zeit followed it up, in 2002, with an account entitled “Next Door to Mohammed Atta,” in which the respected German weekly detailed close surveillance of Atta and his crew in southern Florida by Israeli intelligence in the months leading up to 9/11.
In April, 2004, I wrote about another Die Zeit piece by the same author, Oliver Schrom, entitled “Deadly Mistakes,” a fascinating chronology of the errors, bureaucratic bungling, and seemingly deliberate obstructions that prevented U.S. authorities from taking what they knew about the hijackers, putting it together, and apprehending Atta and his gang before they could pull off their deadly deed. From Schrom we learned that the fabled Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) for August 6, 2001, whose title “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Rice famously blurted out at her appearance before the 9/11 Commission, was originally much longer than the version finally declassified and released by the White House. In the course of this account, Schrom also revealed the following:
“Langley, August 23, 2001. The Israeli Mossad intelligence agency handed its American counterpart a list of names of terrorists who were staying in the US and were presumably planning to launch an attack in the foreseeable future. According to documents obtained by Die Zeit, Mossad agents in the US were in all probability surveilling at least four of the 19 hijackers, among them [Khalid ] al-Midhar. The CIA now does what it should have done 18 months earlier. It informs the State Dept., the FBI and the INS. The names al-Midhar and [Nawaf] al-Hazmi are promptly put on an investigation list, as probable members of Al Qaeda. Al-Midhar is expressly noted as a probable accomplice in the USS Cole attack. The first acknowledgement arrives quickly. The INS writes that according to its information, both men are currently in the US.
“Now both men are pursued vigorously .”
These individuals Atta, Khalid al-Midhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Marwan al-Shehhi are the very same “Brooklyn cell” identified by the “Able Danger” data-miners. The Mossad “observed” them for nearly half a year, and then, at the very last moment, turned over their names to the Americans. Too late, as it turns out: but is that really the end of the story?
In both instances, you’ll note, we have the same sort of excuse not quite airtight for why we didn’t move to apprehend the 9/11 plotters. In the case of the “Able Danger” operation, although the authorities had the legal means at their disposal, they were supposedly restrained by the recent memory of Waco. This seems not at all credible: is there really any comparison between the figures of David Koresh and Osama bin Laden, either in terms of impact or importance? One was a marginal messiah of a homegrown mini-cult, the other an international terrorist leader of a well-financed and far-flung military organization.
In the case of the Israelis’ belated intelligence-sharing, the rationale for inaction was supposedly due to legal constraints that erected a “firewall” preventing the sharing of intelligence procured by different agencies, notably the FBI and the CIA. As critics of this excuse-making note, however, law enforcement agencies failed to make proper use of the legal tools available to them:
“On May 24, 2002, in response to an FOIA lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the FBI released a confidential memorandum sent by a Justice Department official to an FBI lawyer in April 2000. The memo voiced concern about mistakes made by the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, and in particular, by that Section’s (UBL) Osama Bin Laden Unit: ‘You have a pattern of occurrences indicating an inability on the part of the FBI to manage its FISAs [foreign intelligence surveillance operations].’ One well-publicized episode revealed that an FBI agent had prevented Minneapolis agents from obtaining a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer just a month before 9/11. This, apparently, was not an isolated incident.
“We now know that two of the 9/11 hijackers were on FBI watch lists of suspected terrorists, yet they were able to enter the country and remain undetected. In March 2002 the media reported that the INS had wrongly issued visa waivers for four Pakistanis who arrived in the US on a Russian merchant ship and quickly disappeared.”
We’re supposed to believe that, if only we’d passed the PATRIOT Act before 9/11, and subjected ourselves to a regime of total surveillance, giving up such remnants of our civil liberties as still existed, we might have escaped the wiles of Bin Laden and his fellow Islamist supermen, who single-handedly pulled off a spectacular terrorist act that changed the course of history. Now, according to this all-too-familiar refrain, we’ll just have to get used to having our email read, our phones tapped, and our every movement kept under close surveillance by our beneficent and all-knowing government. The only alternative is living at the mercy of terrorists.
As we are beginning to learn, however, that is lie, and a rather self-serving one to boot. It wasn’t the lack of information, or an inability to detect the death cultists in our midst, that prevented us from stopping the plot dead in its tracks. Rather, it was a persistent obstructionism coming from some quarters. As Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who blew the whistle on the efforts of the FBI’s Washington office to quash the investigation into Al Qaeda, put it:
“I know I shouldn’t be flippant about this, but jokes were actually made that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen, who were actually working for Osama Bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis’ effort.”
As the number of unfortunate “coincidences” and “mistakes” begins to pile up, Rowley’s quip is no longer a joke. Is it possible that Bin Laden had allies, enablers, some of them inside the U.S. government? In a September 13, 2001 New York Times column that purported to give an exclusive window on what went on inside the presidential bunker as the Twin Towers burned, William Safire wrote:
“A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that “Air Force One is next.” According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.
“(I have a second, on-the-record source about that: Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, tells me: “When the president said `I don’t want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington,’ the Secret Service informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts. In light of the specific and credible threat, it was decided to get airborne with a fighter escort.”)
The terrorists could have had knowledge of top secret U.S. security procedures only if they had moles spies inside the government. How else would Bin Laden’s boys get direct access to our code words?
No one doubts that the nineteen hijackers, and the Al Qaeda organization, financed, organized, and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But there is growing doubt that they did it without at least the passive collaboration of a silent partner, one who wielded considerable influence on our government and had ready access to its secrets. In retrospect, it appears as if Atta and his fellow mass murderers had a guardian angel or rather, a guardian devil watching over them. At every turn, just when it seemed they would be apprehended, fate or whomever intervened, obstructing the normal means of interception and keeping the conspiracy on track. It’s almost as if they traveled in a security bubble, protected by what? By whom?
I can hear the skeptics now: It’s a “conspiracy theory“! Yikes! But what explanation for how and why 9/11 happened isn’t a “conspiracy theory,” after all? Atta & Co. certainly didn’t advertise their plans. The question is, will we accept the Official Conspiracy Theory, or an alternative one that comports with all the known facts?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
My short book, The Terror Enigma: 9/11 and the Israeli Connection, compiles pretty much all we know up to this point about the “silent partner” angle on the 9/11 narrative one, I might add, that was completely ignored by the 9/11 Commission, along with the information about the “Able Danger” intelligence-gathering operation. Check it out.