By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005
Staff members of the Sept. 11 commission are investigating allegations by a Republican congressman that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta had been identified as a potential threat by a highly classified Defense Department program a year or more before the attacks occurred.
Commission officials confirmed a report in yesterday's New York Times that two staff members interviewed a uniformed military officer, who alleged in July 2004 that a secret program called "Able Danger" had identified Atta as a potential terrorist threat in 1999 or early 2000.
Panel investigators viewed the claim as unlikely, in part because Atta was not recruited as an al Qaeda operative until a trip to Afghanistan in 2000 and did not enter the United States until June of that year, officials said.
The interview of the military officer is among several allegations made by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. Weldon has sought to publicize the claims of a former defense intelligence official about the Able Danger program.
The former intelligence official -- according to interviews with Government Security News and other news organizations -- has offered a version of events that is similar to, but more expansive than, claims made by the military officer. The former intelligence official has said that he briefed Sept. 11 commission staffers on the Able Danger program during a trip in South Asia in October 2003.
The official said he told commission staff members during the trip that the program had identified Atta and three other future hijackers as part of an al Qaeda cell located in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Weldon and news reports. The official and Weldon have also said Pentagon lawyers blocked the sharing of information on the suspected cell with the FBI or other agencies.
Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said this week that none of the four commission staff members present during the Asia trip briefing recalls any mention of Atta or a terrorist cell. Felzenberg said the 2003 briefing focused generally on Able Danger, which officials have said relied heavily on computerized analysis of public data.
"The name 'Atta' or a terrorist cell would have gone to the top of the radar screen if it had been mentioned," he said.
Felzenberg declined to comment yesterday on the July 2004 interview with the military officer, citing a commission investigation into the allegations that could be completed as early as today. Pentagon officials have also declined to comment this week.