The former intelligence officer who says that a Defense Department program identified Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said yesterday that many of his allegations are not based on his memory but on the recollections of others.
Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who has been on paid administrative leave from the Defense Intelligence Agency since his security clearance was suspended in March 2004, said in a telephone interview that a Navy officer and a civilian official affiliated with the Able Danger program told him after the attacks that Atta and other hijackers had been included on a chart more than a year earlier.
But because he was not intimately familiar with the names and photographs of suspected terrorists, he did not realize that hijackers were listed until it was alleged to him after the attacks, Shaffer said. All of the charts that could support his claims have disappeared, he said.
"I did see the charts and I did handle the charts, but my understanding of them was like a layman," Shaffer said. "We had identified them as terrorists. . . . But even now I do not remember all the names."
The comments add to the uncertainty surrounding assertions by Shaffer and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who have said the Able Danger group identified Atta and other hijackers as early as 1999 but was stymied by Defense Department lawyers from sharing information with the FBI. The allegations set off a wave of media reports and have prompted investigations by the former Sept. 11 commission and the Defense Department.
The Sept. 11 panel said last week that it did not find evidence to support the allegations in its files and that the Able Danger program was not "historically significant." A Pentagon official said yesterday that although the investigation into the allegations is still ongoing, "we're not finding information that substantiates these claims."
Shaffer said yesterday that his overall allegations were based on his recollections and those of two others -- Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott and a civilian employee of the former Land Information Warfare Activity at Fort Belvoir, whom he declined to identify. Phillpott did not respond to telephone messages left yesterday with the Navy and at his home.
Shaffer said that Able Danger, by analyzing publicly available databases, produced charts in "the late spring or summer of 2000" showing ties between suspected terrorists. Shaffer said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the civilian employee showed him a chart allegedly from 2000 that purportedly identified Atta and three other hijackers.
Shaffer, who briefed the Senate Judiciary Committee on his allegations yesterday, said he recognized the charts from his work as a liaison between the DIA and Able Danger. But he said he is relying on the word of Phillpott and the civilian employee, who pointed to one of the charts and said, "We had them."
Phillpott told the Sept. 11 panel in July 2004 that he recalled seeing Atta's name briefly on an Able Danger chart in spring 2000, which was before Atta obtained a visa and entered the United States. The commission, noting a lack of supporting evidence, said Phillpott's account "was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation."
The furor over Atta began earlier this summer with a little-noticed paragraph in Weldon's book, "Countdown to Terror," which focuses on the claims of an Iranian informant that the CIA has deemed a fabricator. Weldon writes that during a meeting with Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, he presented a chart "developed in 1999" by the Able Danger program that "diagrammed the affiliations of al Qaeda and showed Mohammed [sic] Atta and the infamous Brooklyn Cell."
Time magazine reported last week that Weldon said he is no longer sure that Atta was included on the chart he gave Hadley. But Weldon's chief of staff said yesterday that Atta was on the chart and that it was produced in 1999. Representatives for Hadley, who is now President Bush's national security adviser, have declined to comment on Weldon's claims.
Weldondid not respond to a request for an interview yesterday.