Investigators for the Sept. 11 commission have found no evidence to support allegations by a House Republican that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta was identified by a classified Pentagon program before the 2001 attacks, according to a commission statement issued last night.
Commission leaders Thomas H. Kean (R) and Lee H. Hamilton (D) said in the joint statement that panel staff members have found no documents or other witnesses to back up claims made by a U.S. Navy officer, who told the commission staff in July 2004 that he recalled seeing Atta's name and photograph on a chart prepared by another officer. Panel officials also said they have found no evidence to support similar claims made to reporters by a second person, a former defense intelligence official.
"None of the documents turned over to the commission mention Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers," the commission statement said. "Nor do any of the staff notes on documents reviewed in the [Defense Department] reading room indicate that Mohamed Atta or any of the other future hijackers were mentioned in any of those documents."
The statement marks the latest development in several days of public skirmishing between the commission and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who accused the panel of ignoring allegations that Atta and other hijackers had been identified by Pentagon analysts before the Sept. 11 attacks but that the information had not been shared with other agencies.
Weldon said in a statement last night that the commission's findings still leave key questions unanswered and complained that the Sept. 11 panel had given varied responses to the allegations over the last week.
"I will continue to push for a full accounting of the historical record so that we may preclude these types of failures from happening again," Weldon said.
The dispute centers on a now-defunct Pentagon effort called "Able Danger," which the commission statement describes as a "link analysis" program that mapped connections among terrorist suspects and produced diagrams of terrorist networks. Weldon said the program was a planning effort assigned to the Special Operations Command by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to help the military "manipulate, degrade or destroy the global al Qaeda infrastructure."
The commission statement raises significant doubts about the likelihood that Able Danger could have identified Atta or other Sept. 11 hijackers as al Qaeda operatives and placed them in Brooklyn in 1999 or early 2000. Atta never lived in New York and did not enter the United States until June 2000, and two other key hijackers mentioned by the intelligence officer in media interviews were not in the country until 2001, the statement said.
But Weldon said Able Danger was "not about dates and times" but "was about linkages and associations of individuals identified with direct links to al Qaeda."
Two sources are at the heart of Weldon's allegations. One, a former defense intelligence official, has told media outlets and Weldon that he briefed the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, and three other staff members about Able Danger's identification of Atta during an overseas meeting in October 2003. The commission said in its statement that its records of the briefing, held in Bagram, Afghanistan, include no mention of Atta and that none of the staff members who attended recalls such a claim.
The second person, described by the commission as a U.S. Navy officer employed at the Defense Department, was interviewed by senior panel investigator Dieter Snell and another staff member on July 12, 2004, 10 days before the release of the commission's best-selling report.
According to the commission, the officer said he briefly saw the name and photo of Atta on an "analyst notebook chart." The material identified Atta as part of a Brooklyn al Qaeda cell and was dated from February through April 2000, the officer said.
"The officer complained that this information and information about other alleged members of a Brooklyn cell had been soon afterward deleted from the document," the statement says, because Pentagon lawyers were worried about violating restrictions on military intelligence gathering in the United States.
But the commission statement said that because no documents or other evidence had emerged to support the claim, "the commission staff concluded that the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation."
The Able Danger program is also not mentioned in the final report because "the operation itself did not turn out to be historically significant," the statement said.