by John Crewdson and Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - Four years after the nation's deadliest terror attack, evidence is accumulating that a super-secret Pentagon intelligence unit identified the organizer of the Sept. 11 hijackings, Mohamed Atta, as an al-Qaida operative months before he entered the United States.
The many investigations of Sept. 11, 2001, have turned up a half-dozen instances in which government agencies possessed information that might have led investigators to some part of the terrorist plot, although in most cases not in time to stop it.

But none of those leads likely would have taken them directly to Atta, the Egyptian architecture student who moved to the United States from Germany to take flying lessons and later served as al-Qaida's U.S. field commander for the attacks.

Had the FBI been alerted to what the Pentagon purportedly knew in early 2000, Atta's name could have been placed on a list that would have tagged him as someone to be watched the moment he stepped off a plane in Newark, N.J., in June of that year.

Physical and electronic surveillance of Atta, who lived openly in Florida for more than a year, and who acquired a driver's license and even an FAA pilot's license in his true name, might well have made it possible for the FBI to expose the Sept. 11 plot before the fact.

Atta is presumed to have been at the controls of American Airlines Flight 11 when it struck the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI has reviewed the voluminous records of its extensive Sept. 11 investigation and can find no mention of Atta before Sept. 11, a senior FBI official said. If the Pentagon knew about Atta in 2000 and failed to tell the FBI, the official said, "It could be a problem."

Anthony Shaffer, a civilian Pentagon employee, says he was asked in the summer of 2000 by a Navy captain, Scott J. Phillpott, to arrange a meeting between the FBI and representatives of the Pentagon intelligence program, code-named Able/Danger.

But he said the meeting was canceled after Pentagon lawyers concluded that information on suspected al-Qaida operatives with ties to the United States might violate Pentagon prohibitions on retaining information on "U.S. persons," a term that includes U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.

The Washington-based FBI agent who served as Shaffer's liaison has recalled, in interviews with her superiors, that Shaffer told her his group had unearthed important information on suspected al-Qaida operatives with links to the United States, but without mentioning Atta's name.

When Shaffer, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, asked to whom at the FBI that information should be communicated, the agent gave him the name and phone number of an official at FBI headquarters, according to the senior FBI official.

Shaffer explained in a telephone interview that although Able/Danger never had knowledge of Atta's whereabouts, it had linked him and several other al-Qaida suspects to an Egyptian terrorist, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had been linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and later was convicted for conspiring to attack the United States. Atta arrived in the United States some seven years after that bombing. But Shaffer and his attorney, Mark Zaid, emphasize that Able/Danger never knew where Atta was, only that he was connected to Abdel-Rahman and al-Qaida.

"Not to say they were physically here, but the data led us to believe there was some activity related to the original World Trade Center bombing that these guys were somehow affiliated with," Shaffer said.

Asked by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a hearing last week whether Atta, who lived for 15 months in Florida under a temporary student visa, was a "U.S. person," a senior Pentagon official answered, "No, he was not."

The official, William Dugan, was asked why the Pentagon had not simply given the Able/Danger data to the FBI.

"We're a lot smarter now than we were in 1999 and 2000," replied Dugan, who testified that the Pentagon instead destroyed the huge volume of material gathered by Able/Danger, which was disbanded in late 2000.

Erik Kleinsmith, a former Army major who worked with Able/Danger, testified at the hearing that he continued to wonder whether, if Able/Danger "had not been shut down, (whether) we would have been able to assist the United States in some way" to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

Zaid, who also represents James D. Smith, a private contractor employed by the Pentagon to work on Able/Danger, said that until last summer Smith had kept on his office wall a copy of a chart of al-Qaida suspects, produced more than a year before Sept. 11, that contained Atta's name and photograph.

"He showed it to anybody who came by - `Look what we had,'" Zaid testified. "And he would just shake his head, `What if, what if, what if ...'"

Specter sharply criticized the Pentagon for refusing to allow Shaffer, Phillpott, Smith and others who recall seeing the chart to appear and answer the committee's questions.

"It looks to me as if it could be obstruction of the committee's activities," the senator said.

Specter added that he was especially "dismayed and frustrated" by the committee's inability to hear from Shaffer and Phillpott, whom he described as "two brave military officers (who) have risked their careers to come forward and tell America the truth."

Following the hearing Specter announced that the Pentagon had agreed to allow Shaffer, Phillpott and three other witnesses to testify in public next month, though a Specter aide said Tuesday that the Pentagon now insisted the hearings be closed.

The Defense Department initiated its own investigation of Able/Danger's activities several weeks ago. After more than 80 interviews with Pentagon personnel, investigators reported that two individuals in addition to Shaffer, Phillpott and Smith recalled seeing the Atta chart before Sept. 11.

Kleinsmith, who is no longer affiliated with the Pentagon, testified that he was ordered by a Defense Department lawyer to comply with Pentagon regulations by destroying the Able/Danger data. Kleinsmith said he did not remember seeing Atta's name or photo on the materials he destroyed, but that he believed Shaffer, Phillpott and the three other employees "implicitly when they say they do."

Shaffer said that, prior to Sept. 11, neither he nor anyone else associated with Able/Danger attached any special significance to Atta, or to any of the other individual al-Qaida suspects the intelligence effort had unearthed.

Nor would they have had reason to. In early 2000, when Shaffer said he first saw Able/Danger charts identifying suspected al-Qaida members with links to the United States, Atta and two other Sept. 11 hijack pilots, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, were living and studying in Hamburg, Germany.

"I was the one that carried the charts down to Tampa, to Captain Phillpott," then Able/Danger's operations officer, Shaffer said.

Able/Danger was an experiment in a new kind of warfare, known as "information warfare" or "information dominance." One of the program's missions was to see whether al-Qaida cells around the world could be identified by sifting huge quantities of publicly available data, a relatively new technique called "data mining."

The data miners used extremely complex software programs, with names like Spire, Parentage, and Starlight, that mimic the thought patterns in the human brain while parsing countless bits of information from every available source to find relationships and patterns that would otherwise be invisible.

Over its 18-month lifetime, Able/Danger was able to gather an immense amount of data, the equivalent, Specter said, of one-quarter of the entire contents of the Library of Congress.

Although data mining can be a powerful technique, there is a danger that false connections will be made along the lines of "six degrees of separation," the popular theory that any two people on Earth can be linked through their relationships to no more than six other people.

The Atta-al-Qaida connection, Shaffer said, was made by Smith, who then worked for a Pentagon contractor named Orion Scientific. Atta's photo, Shaffer said, was obtained by Smith from someone in California who had connections to "a foreign source" who monitored radical mosques in Europe.

"J.D. Smith took eight data points that were common to the original World Trade Center bombers in 1993," with whom Abdel-Rahman had been associated, Shaffer said. "From those eight data points, he matched the profile."

Atta, whose full name was Mohammed El-Amir Awad el Sayid Atta, called himself Mohamed el-Amir while living in Germany, and thus would not have been readily identifiable as "Mohamed Atta."

He switched to the surname Atta as he prepared to move to the United States, according to German police documents. A Senate aide said Specter was negotiating with the Defense Department over the conditions under which Shaffer and the other Pentagon witnesses would be permitted to appear before the Judiciary Committee and answer the senators' questions.

"I think the Department of Defense owes the American people an answer about what went on here," Specter declared.


© 2005, Chicago Tribune.