Ex-top general disputes claim that 9/11 boss Atta was identified in 2000
Gen. Shelton was responding to claims this summer that the Pentagon ordered the information kept from the FBI.


(Gold9472: Good little General.)

James Rosen, Star Tribune Washington Bureau
Last update: December 7, 2005 at 12:04 AM

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's top military commander at the time confirmed this week that he authorized a secret computer data-mining project to find Osama bin Laden and operatives in his Al-Qaida network four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In his first public comments on the project, which some former intelligence officers said was code-named Able Danger, retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton also confirmed Monday that he received two briefings on the clandestine mission well before the attacks.

"Right after I left SOCOM [the Special Operations Command in 1997], I asked my successor to put together a small team, if he could, to try to use the Internet and start trying to see if there was any way that we could track down Osama bin Laden or where he was getting his money from or anything of that nature," Shelton said in an interview.

His assertion is significant because it raises new questions about the government's knowledge of the Al-Qaida network before Sept. 11 and about the subsequent findings of a commission that Congress established to investigate the attacks.

Shelton was responding to claims by former Pentagon intelligence officers that they used a data-mining program code-named Able Danger to identify 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers in early 2000, but that Pentagon lawyers blocked them from relaying their findings to the FBI.

Before the Defense Department issued a gag order that prevented them from testifying to Congress in September, the officers said they were assigned to use sophisticated software to perform complex computer searches of "open-source" data in a bid to locate links among Al-Qaida operatives.

Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott said he led the program that identified Atta in January or February 2000. Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer said Shelton had issued a directive establishing Able Danger, and that he and other intelligence officers on the program briefed Shelton on its findings in early 2001.

The Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. Richard Myers to replace Shelton as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff three days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Shelton said he never heard the program referred to as "Able Danger" until news reports emerged this summer, he said he authorized a computer data-mining effort to target Bin Laden and his associates.

"I dealt with a million damn acronyms and different kinds of code names for operations," Shelton said. "Able Danger was not one that jumped out at me when it first surfaced" in news reports. But under his direction, he said, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, now Army chief of staff, set up a team of five to seven intelligence officers after Shelton was promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997 and Schoomaker succeeded him at Special Operations Command.

Schoomaker briefed him on the program's progress in late 1997 when Shelton visited his old command post in Florida. And back in Washington, sometime between 1999 and 2001, he said, he received a more extensive briefing from Defense Intelligence Agency officers involved in the program.

Shelton said he doesn't recall hearing or seeing Atta's name in those briefings or at any time before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who was vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission that went out of business this week, said its staff interviewed the intelligence officers at the center of the Able Danger saga.

"They claim to have information about Mohammed Atta, and they clam to have this chart, but they cannot produce it," he said. "If these folks have documentary evidence, let's bring it forward."