What did U.S. military know before 9/11?
Congress wants to hear more about allegations that four hijackers were identified before they acted.



WASHINGTON - A top-secret military program set up six years ago to probe the Al-Qaida terrorist network is provoking fierce new debate about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Military intelligence officers and contractors who ran the clandestine mission, named Able Danger, say that more than a year before the attacks, the operation identified four of the plot's 19 hijackers and produced a chart that fingered ringleader Mohamed Atta.

Those claims contradict findings of the 9/11 commission set up by Congress. In its final report last year, the commission spread wide blame for the attacks but concluded that none of the hijackers, some of whom lived in the United States before Sept. 11, had been identified before the tragedy.

Now many in Congress want more answers.

On Friday, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 246 lawmakers demanding that the program's officers and contractors be allowed to testify in open congressional hearings.

"Further refusal ... can only lead us to conclude that the Department of Defense is uncomfortable with the prospect of members of Congress questioning these individuals about the circumstances surrounding Able Danger," the letter said. "This would suggest not a concern for national security, but rather an attempt to prevent potentially embarrassing facts from coming to light."

But others in Washington are scoffing at the request for an inquiry.

"By the way he talks about Able Danger these days, you'd think it would have prevented Pearl Harbor," said Timothy Roemer, a former Indiana Republican congressman and member of the 9/11 commission.

Kristin Breitweiser, a New Jersey woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center during the attacks, said she and other relatives of some of the 2,986 Sept. 11 victims have met with the military officers who worked on Able Danger. The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency ended the computer-data-mining operation in early 2001.

"It's very upsetting to hear people tell you that your husband and the father of your children didn't have to die, because we had information to stop the attacks," Breitweiser said in an interview.

Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a Bronze Star recipient and former Able Danger operative who first came forward with details of the program earlier this year, says Pentagon lawyers thwarted the team's attempts to pass on their findings to the FBI before the attacks. He claims that after the attacks, staff members of the 9/11 panel met with him and other Able Danger officers, but then failed to adequately pursue the details they presented.

Navy Capt. Scott Philpott, who led the Able Danger mission, said in a statement made before the Pentagon forbade former Able Danger officers from discussing the program publicly, "My story is consistent. Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000."

After initially refusing to comment, Pentagon officials have confirmed that Able Danger existed.

Meanwhile, Army Maj. Eric Kleinsmith told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21 that he had complied with orders to destroy reams of computer data produced by Able Danger. Kleinsmith and other Pentagon officials have cited privacy laws, which they say prohibit the government from maintaining secret files on U.S. citizens or noncitizens who are in the country on legal visas.

Pentagon accused of smear
In a speech on the House floor last month, Weldon suggested that information is being covered up. "I am not a conspiracy theorist," he said, "but there is something desperately wrong."

Weldon also accuses the Pentagon of engaging in a smear campaign against Shaffer, 42, since the colonel went public -- by revoking his security clearance, suspending him and leaking alleged details from his personnel file to reporters and congressional aides.

Among the slurs, Weldon says, are claims that Shaffer was having an affair with a Weldon aide, which Shaffer's lawyer vehemently denies.

In response to a request by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense Department's inspector general is investigating the alleged smear campaign against Shaffer.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused the Pentagon of possible "obstruction of the committee's activities" after the Defense Department forbade Shaffer, Philpott and other Able Danger analysts from testifying before the panel. Specter and Pentagon officials are negotiating conditions for an open hearing.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, has heard closed-door testimony from Able Danger members and Pentagon employees and is nearing completion of a report.

Weldon is an unlikely Pentagon antagonist. Since he joined the House in 1986 he has been a defense hawk, consistently pushing for larger Pentagon budgets. He speaks Russian and has led dozens of congressional delegations to Russia.

But Weldon's concerns about Able Danger is puzzling some current and former lawmakers.

Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana Democrat in the House who was cochairman of the 9/11 panel, said he worked closely with and respects Weldon because they share interests in defense and intelligence matters. But he said the commission investigated the Able Danger officers' claims exhaustively and could not find evidence to support them.

"We've asked for that chart repeatedly," Hamilton said in an interview. "The Pentagon cannot produce it, the White House cannot produce it, and Weldon cannot produce it."