National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley yesterday denied receiving a Defense Department chart that allegedly identified lead terrorist Mohamed Atta before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dealing a blow to claims by a Republican congressman that have caused a political uproar in recent weeks.
Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.) wrote in his book, "Countdown to Terror," earlier this year that he provided a chart to Hadley produced in 1999 by the Pentagon's "Able Danger" program, a secret effort to identify terrorists using publicly available data. Weldon said the chart identified Atta in connection with a Brooklyn, N.Y., terrorist cell.
That claim was the start of an expanding series of allegations related to Able Danger, that culminated Wednesday with a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee where angry lawmakers accused the Pentagon of a coverup for refusing to allow some witnesses to testify.
But a spokesman for Hadley, who had previously declined to comment on Weldon's claims, said yesterday that a search of National Security Council files produced no such documents identifying Atta and that Hadley was not given such a chart by Weldon.
"Mr. Hadley does not recall any chart bearing the name or photo of Mohamed Atta," said the spokesman, Frederick L. Jones II. "NSC staff reviewed the files of Mr. Hadley, as well as of all NSC personnel" who might have received such a chart.
"That search has turned up no chart," he said.
Hadley does recall seeing a chart used as an example of "link analysis" -- the technique used by the Able Danger program as a counterterrorism tool -- but is not sure whether it happened during a Sept. 25, 2001, meeting with Weldon or at another session, Jones said.
Weldon's chief of staff, Russ Caso, said that "the congressman sticks by his account" of the meeting, adding that it is understandable Hadley may have forgotten or misplaced the chart, given the demands of his job.
"This case is not closed," Caso said. "We are still aggressively trying to track down charts and/or documents. We haven't turned over every rock yet."
The NSC findings echo the results of earlier probes into the Able Danger claims by the Sept. 11 commission and the Defense Department, neither of which found documents or other evidence that Atta had been identified by the program. Weldon and others who have made the charges have contradicted themselves or provided shifting explanations for important details at the heart of the case, according to interviews, news reports, transcripts and hearing testimony.
Investigators and counterterrorism experts also find it improbable -- if not impossible -- that an obscure Defense Department program that used open-source records could identify Atta by name and photograph in early 2000, when he was living in Germany under a different name and had yet to obtain a U.S. visa. Investigators have discovered other charts that include terrorists who are similar in name or appearance to Atta, bolstering the possibility that the entire affair is based on the false recollections of those involved.
Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, Navy Capt. Scott Philpott and three civilians affiliated with Able Danger have told Pentagon investigators that they recalled seeing either Atta's name or photograph before Sept. 11, 2001. But no other evidence has emerged to support the claims. Pentagon investigators say they interviewed about 75 others affiliated with Able Danger, none of whom recalled an identification of Atta or other hijackers.
Shaffer has conceded that he based his recollection on the memories of others, and the Pentagon says he had contact with the now defunct 18-month project for a total of 27 days. Shaffer's security clearance was formally revoked on Monday over a series of unrelated violations, including allegations that he exaggerated his past actions to obtain a service medal, according to his attorney, Mark S. Zaid.
Shaffer denies the allegations and was entitled to the medal, Zaid said yesterday.
The Bush administration has fueled the controversy through its responses to various allegations. For example, the Pentagon provided an on-the-record briefing about the issue to reporters earlier this month, but then refused to allow public testimony by Philpott and others at Wednesday's Senate committee hearing. The Pentagon has relented and will allow the witnesses to testify at a second hearing Oct. 5, the judiciary panel announced yesterday.
Weldon has alleged that documents proving his claims may have been lost as part of a record-destruction program motivated by concerns over keeping data on U.S. citizens, companies and legal residents. Yet large volumes of Able Danger documents did survive, presumably including the Atta charts that Weldon and others claim to have had in their possession as recently as last year. Weldon has also said he used original data from the Able Danger project to reconstruct charts that he has presented to reporters and to Congress.
In his unusual appearance before the judiciary panel Wednesday, Weldon criticized the Pentagon investigation and said Defense Department officials were stonewalling. "My goal now . . . is the same as it was then: the full and complete truth about the run-up to 9/11," Weldon said.
Weldon is a controversial figure who is vice chairman of the House homeland security and armed services committees and is known for carrying a replica of a suitcase nuclear bomb. His book, which devoted one paragraph to the claim about Atta, focused primarily on allegations by an Iranian intelligence source whom the CIA has dismissed as a fabricator.
The chart that Weldon said he gave to Hadley is one of the enduring mysteries of the controversy. Two others associated with Able Danger, Shaffer and defense contractor James D. Smith, have also said in interviews that they had copies of a pre-Sept. 11 chart that included Atta, but that they were destroyed in 2004 under unclear circumstances.
Zaid, who represents both Shaffer and Smith, said Smith's copy was thrown away after it was wrecked while it was being removed from an office wall. Shaffer has said that his copy was among papers destroyed by the Defense Intelligence Agency last year when his clearance was first suspended.
Although Pentagon investigators never found such a chart, they did uncover two other interesting diagrams: One from 1999 included the name and photograph of Mohammed Atef -- not Atta -- a well-known al Qaeda lieutenant. Another included the photo of a convicted terrorist named Eyad Ismoil, an Egyptian who bears a resemblance to Atta -- and who, unlike Atta, was part of the Brooklyn cell tied to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Investigators and experts say those two charts could explain how a handful of military officers and civilians may have come to mistakenly believe they had identified Atta. Atta's Florida driver's license photo from the summer of 2000 has become an icon of the attacks, and the lead hijacker has been the subject of many dubious claims and sightings.
"No evidence turns up to corroborate what people think they saw," former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. ". . . Any investigator can tell you that memories, years after the fact, are faulty."