Hijackers Were Not Identified Before 9/11, Investigation Says
Friday, September 22, 2006
The Defense Department's inspector general has concluded that a top secret intelligence-gathering program did not identify Mohamed Atta or any other hijacker before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, determining that there is no evidence to substantiate claims that Atta's name and photograph were on charts collected by military officials before the strikes.
In a 90-page report released yesterday, Pentagon officials said that the recollections of several officials involved in the "Able Danger" data-mining operation "were not accurate" and that a chart they said included a blurry image of Atta and his name never existed. The report concluded that there were no efforts to prevent contact between the Pentagon group and the FBI, a finding that challenges assertions by an officer involved in the program.
"We found no charts or other documentation created before 9/11 that contained a photograph or name of Mohamed Atta and was produced or possessed by the Able Danger team," acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble said in the report.
The investigation began after members of Congress raised concerns over reports that Navy Capt. Scott Philpott and Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer remembered seeing Atta's photograph on documents collected by the intelligence program, and that the commission investigating the attacks had ignored their assertions.
The assertions gained considerable steam when Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said in his 2005 book that, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he presented White House officials with a chart that depicted people affiliated with al-Qaeda, including lead hijacker Atta. Weldon, who said the chart was developed as part of the Able Danger program, held news conferences, appeared on television programs and prompted a congressional hearing on his statements.
But the inspector general's report determined that the program did not develop the chart and that it was instead a sample document passed to the military as an example of how to organize large amounts of data. Able Danger at the time was a small program working to develop a strategy for discovering information about suspected terrorists and terror cells in the United States. It was disbanded in January 2001.
Weldon criticized the inspector general's investigation yesterday, saying that it did not answer key questions about the importance of Able Danger and tried to minimize its historical importance. "I am appalled that the DoD IG would expect the American people to actually consider this a full and thorough investigation," Weldon said in an e-mailed statement. "I question their motives and the content of the report, and I reject the conclusions they have drawn."
Previous probes by the Sept. 11 commission, the Defense Department and others turned up no evidence to support the allegations. Dietrich Snell, a staffer on the commission, told the inspector general's investigators that the Able Danger assertions were "100 percent inconsistent with everything we knew about Mohamed Atta and his colleagues at the time."
The report concludes that Philpott may have exaggerated knowing Atta's identity because he supported using Able Danger's techniques to fight terrorism. It shows that while Shaffer has consistently asserted that he believes he saw Atta's photograph, Philpott recanted his initial recollection.
Reached at Fort Belvoir yesterday, Shaffer declined to comment. His attorney, Mark S. Zaid, said yesterday that Shaffer has consistently maintained that he believes he saw Atta's image and that the inspector general has simply not been able to substantiate it.
According to the report, Philpott initially told the inspector general's investigators that he was certain Atta's photograph was on the chart. But months later, he told them he was "convinced that Atta was not on . . . the chart that we had." He said he believes others, including Shaffer, were "relying on my recollection . . . 100 percent."
Shaffer contended that Pentagon officials prevented Able Danger personnel from sharing information about the identities of terrorists with law enforcement authorities and that he was treated unfavorably because of his assertions. The probe did not substantiate either contention.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.