December 7, 2005 | National Review Online

It’s Time to Investigate Able Danger and the 9/11 Commission

Crucial questions have gone unanswered too long.

’Tis the season when annual performance awards are handed out. If there is one for chutzpah, could there possibly be a more worthy candidate than the 9/11 commission?

It appears that this panel, an astronomically overrated study in self-absorption, is finally going away. You can never be too sure, of course. Clinging to the last fading glimmers of limelight, the august commissioners have already once overcome statutory death. Resurrecting themselves as an ombudsman through the miracle of private financing, they've been keen to morph from our high-profile raconteurs to our high-profile conscience. What they are, though, is a high-profile debacle.

How fitting that in its last not-so-official act of self-promotion, the commission has seen fit to grade out a report card on everybody else in government — even as it continues to tap dance around its own inexplicable derelictions of duty. These are most recently, but by no means exclusively, illustrated by the scandal over “Able Danger,” the Defense Department's circa 1999-2001 data-mining intelligence project.

Though consciously ignored by the commission, whose key conclusions it contradicts, Able Danger appears to have identified Mohamed Atta and perhaps three other hijackers long before 9/11. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) continues to press urgently for answers about what Able Danger found, why that intelligence was purged rather than acted on, and why the commission's purportedly comprehensive investigation omitted even a single mention of it. But while the commission has a lot to say about the performance of the Bush administration, Congress, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies, introspection is not, shall we say, its strong suit.


Commissioner Tim Roemer, a Democrat, figures he can make Able Danger go away with oh-so-clever snipes like: “By the way [Weldon] talks about Able Danger these days, you'd think it would have prevented Pearl Harbor.” If Roemer thinks Able Danger is funny, he must have thought it a laugh-riot when the commission managed, similarly, to whitewash “the wall” — the intelligence-processing barrier dramatically raised by Commissioner Jamie Gorelick, another Democrat, when she was deputy attorney general in 1995.

The wall was the single greatest institutional impediment to competent intelligence analysis in the pre-9/11 era. Nevertheless, transparently striving to avoid embarrassment to both themselves and Gorelick, who had no business steering a probe into intelligence failures in the run-up to 9/11, the commissioners portrayed the wall as a virtual irrelevancy. They buried it in two pages (pp. 78-80) of their 567-page tome of a final report.

Two pages, though, is a lot more than zero — which is what the commissioners decided Able Danger rated.

Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton is another commission Democrat who obviously has a sense of humor. When the Able Danger findings first surfaced, he announced that the information had been withheld from the panel. Once it was clear that trial balloon wouldn't fly because the commission staff had actually interviewed two Able Danger officials — Hamilton quickly reversed course and claimed, straight-faced, that that the commission had actually beamed in on these startling allegations, conducted a thorough investigation, and found insufficient evidence to support them.

Do you tend to forget exhaustively looking into bombshells that unravel the most crucial representations you've ever made in your life? Probably not. But that's the commissioners' story, and they're sticking to it. Hamilton repeated it, yet again, in a recent interview.


Well, what's the evidence supporting Hamilton's claim? He is relying on the failure by the Pentagon to produce a chart, arrayed before 9/11, which is said by several Able Danger officials to have depicted Atta. Hamilton says: “We've asked for that chart repeatedly. The Pentagon cannot produce it, the White House cannot produce it and Weldon cannot produce it.” Hocus-pocus: No chart, so no Atta … on to the next thing.

Not so fast. As Hamilton well knows, the chart jive is the reddest of red herrings. First, the Pentagon ordered mountains of Able Danger data and charts to be destroyed. That is not supposition. It is a fact established in sworn, unchallenged testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by one of the people who carried out the purge.

Second, while the chart would obviously be nice to have, focusing on it is a classic misdirection strategy. A chart is what we call “demonstrative evidence” — though it shouldn't really be referred to as “evidence” at all. It is merely a visual aid to help people understand underlying information, which often consists of voluminous data through which the public doesn't have time to sift themselves.

Whether you bother to make a chart or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether the underlying information which formed the basis for the chart was known and accurate. There would, for example, be ten top selling books even if the New York Times did not bother to list them on a chart every week. I no longer have the charts from a decade ago outlining the jihad organization that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 — but I can still tell you with confidence: the complex was bombed, and we know who did it.

Third, by any objective measure, the 9/11 commission conducted an incomplete and incompetent investigation of Able Danger. It interviewed about one percent of the witnesses with relevant information. And it ignored what little testimony it did gather — from U.S. military intelligence officials with long records of distinguished service to this country.

The version of events proffered by these witnesses differed starkly from the commission's, and would have called into question not only much of the commission's investigation but also the Clinton administration legacy of subordinating national security to concerns about hypothetical privacy violations — a topic that should have been squarely in the commission's cross-hairs, but which it avoided like the Plague. So the commission unconscionably omitted Able Danger entirely. Not a single mention — not even once in its hundreds upon hundreds of footnotes.

Consider for a moment the dimensions of this omission by reference to another current controversy. The Bush administration is being accused by Democrats of lying about intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. One of the key allegations involves the purported suppression of State Department dissent from the conclusion that Iraq was seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

But the objections lodged by State's intelligence shop were not suppressed. They are set forth in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, although relegated to the footnotes. Essentially, the administration is said by Democrats to have “lied” because, even though it did acknowledge the dissenting information, it purportedly minimized the dissent's significance.

The 9/11 Commission, by contrast, did not do even that with Able Danger. It didn't report the dissent at all. Not in the text, not in the footnotes, not anywhere. It tried, Pravda-like, to erase completely from historical memory any version of events but its own.

Think about that. The commission's mandate was to conduct a thorough investigation and tell us exactly what it found. Its job was not to produce a carefully marketed narrative so media-starved commissioners would have a best-selling launch-pad from which to score sugary interviews. This panel was not supposed to have a vested interest in a single, definitive, air-brushed version of events. It was supposed to give us the facts as it found them, including on disputed issues it could not resolve. Why on earth did it decide to kill Able Danger?


Unlike Hamilton and Roemer, former FBI Director Louis Freeh has spent a lifetime conducting investigations. [Full disclosure: I worked for Freeh nearly 20 years ago, he is a friend and mentor of mine, and he is a distinguished adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where I am a senior fellow. I have not discussed Able Danger with him, and I have been writing about it since the story broke this summer — long before Freeh had anything publicly to say about it.] Here, from a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, is Freeh's take on what Hamilton has the temerity to portray as the commission's exhaustive inquiry:

[T]his is also a good time for the country to make some assessments of the 9/11 Commission itself. Recent revelations from the military intelligence operation code-named “Able Danger” have cast light on a missed opportunity that could have potentially prevented 9/11. Specifically, Able Danger concluded in February 2000 that military experts had identified Mohamed Atta by name (and maybe photograph) as an al Qaeda agent operating in the U.S. Subsequently, military officers assigned to Able Danger were prevented from sharing this critical information with FBI agents, even though appointments had been made to do so. Why?

There are other questions that need answers. Was Able Danger intelligence provided to the 9/11 Commission prior to the finalization of its report, and, if so, why was it not explored? In sum, what did the 9/11 commissioners and their staff know about Able Danger and when did they know it?

The Able Danger intelligence, if confirmed, is undoubtedly the most relevant fact of the entire post-9/11 inquiry. Even the most junior investigator would immediately know that the name and photo ID of Atta in 2000 is precisely the kind of tactical intelligence the FBI has many times employed to prevent attacks and arrest terrorists. Yet the 9/11 Commission inexplicably concluded that it “was not historically significant.” This astounding conclusion — in combination with the failure to investigate Able Danger and incorporate it into its findings — raises serious challenges to the commission's credibility and, if the facts prove out, might just render the commission historically insignificant itself.

Freeh further observed that, throughout the three-ring circus that passed for their “investigation,” the preening commissioners “routinely appeared in public espousing [their] own conclusions about 9/11 long before the commission's inquiry was completed and long before all the facts were in[.]” All the while, he adds in a patent reference to Gorelick's participation, the panel “dismiss[ed] out of hand the major conflicts of interest on the commission itself about obstructions to information-sharing within the intelligence community[.]”

It's time to get answers to elementary questions:

  • What did Able Danger uncover?
  • Why did the Pentagon purge the information known potentially to identify non-U.S. persons as terrorists when its regulations (as I've noted, here) expressly allow for the preservation of such critical information and for its communication to relevant government agencies?
  • Did the Defense Intelligence Agency, as has been alleged in sworn testimony by counsel for one Able Danger official, destroy copies of Able Danger data in Spring 2004 — long after the 9/11 Commission began its investigation and requested relevant documents?
  • Given that Able Danger mined data primarily from public sources, why won't the Pentagon allow public testimony from the witnesses who claim Atta was identified before 9/11? (I note that numerous uniform and civilian Defense officials testified before the 9/11 Commission regarding highly classified matters, and that the Bush administration not only declassified an extremely sensitive presidential daily briefing so the public could scrutinize it, but even waived privilege to allow its national-security adviser to testify publicly.)
  • If the Able Danger information was so sensitive and classified as to justify muzzling those witnesses, where are the certificates that are required to be generated when classified information is destroyed?
  • Is there a connection between the Pentagon's recent firing of Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer — in addition to the removal of his security clearance and what disturbingly appears to be a smear campaign against him — and the happenstance that Shaffer was the first Able Danger official to go public?
  • Why did the 9/11 Commission withhold from the public information in its possession that directly contradicted its conclusion that the intelligence community was unaware of Atta until after the 9/11 attacks, a conclusion that, as Freeh observes, “now looks to be embarrassingly wrong”?
  • What follow-up investigation did the 9/11 Commission do of the assertions made by the two Able Danger witnesses its staff interviewed?
  • Why did the 9/11 Commission fail to interview other Able Danger officials, including the three (at least) who have now come forward to corroborate Atta's pre-9/11 identification?

The entire American intelligence community has been restructured in accordance with the 9/11 Commission's conclusion that, as previously configured, it was incapable of ferreting out a suicide-hijacking plot two years in the making. It now appears that the community may have been quite capable of sniffing out the plot (or, at the very least, identifying the plotters) but was unable to get the information into the right hands because of a government ethos predominant throughout the 1990s — an ethos that elevated the supposed civil rights of aliens, even alien terrorists, over the national-security needs of the American people.

If it was worth having a 9/11 commission at all, is it not worth getting to the bottom of Able Danger?

And if we've massively rearranged the $40-plus-billion-a-year intelligence community on the basis of a mistake, is that not something we ought to know?

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.