Weldon 9/11 tale unravels, but wait
Congressman has more allegations, one on bin Laden.


By Chris Mondics and Steve Goldstein
Inquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Late one night in June, Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) stood up in a largely empty House chamber and made an incendiary charge.

With dramatic rhetorical flourish, he said that a secret military intelligence program called Able Danger fingered Mohamed Atta and two other al-Qaeda hijackers before the 9/11 attacks - and that the government had failed to act.

"Not only did our military identify the Mohamed Atta cell, our military made a recommendation in September of 2000 to bring in the FBI to take out the cell of Mohamed Atta," he said.

Within days of the attacks, he said, he gave the same information - a pre-9/11 chart with Atta's name - to Stephen Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, to show how the government dropped the ball.

But Weldon's story, which unleashed a wave of national media attention as well as probes and congressional hearings, is unraveling.

He now says that he's not sure the chart had a picture of Atta, as he has sometimes maintained, and that he has been relying on the memory of an intelligence analyst who helped produce it.

Meanwhile, other key players in the story, including Hadley, contradict Weldon, saying they never saw Atta's picture. Moreover, several government investigations have failed to find any documentation so far that the program had identified hijackers before the attacks, and Weldon has begun to allow that there are parts of his story that may not be proven.

Yet even as his story triggers more and more questions, Weldon is making explosive new allegations. He says a high-level source has told him that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has died in Iran, where he has been in hiding.

He also maintains that the Bush administration suppressed information about the Able Danger program out of concern it might be embarrassed by disclosures that it failed to follow up leads that might have helped avert the plot.

"Am I going to take on something that is a challenge? Absolutely," Weldon said in a lengthy interview last week. "I'm not here to kiss people's butts. I'm here to do what's right. And if sometimes that means I have to push someone, well what are we here for?"

Weldon's allegations are the latest in a long skein of alarming scenarios that the Delaware County congressman has unspooled as he has sought to draw attention to what he seems to fervently believe are the nation's military and intelligence vulnerabilities.

On occasion, Weldon has turned out to be well ahead of the curve, as he was in the mid-1980s when he contended that the Soviet Union was violating an antiballistic-missile treaty by deploying a radar system that could be used as part of a defense to shoot down enemy rockets. And he appeared prescient with a prediction that the Russians would threaten to cut off access to their vast energy supplies as a way of pressuring neighboring states to toe their strategic political and policy lines.

He made the prediction in 2004, nearly two years before the explosions in January that disrupted gas supplies to Georgia, sabotage for which the Russians were prime suspects.

But often Weldon's nightmare scenarios seem little more than daydreams.

That was the case last year when he said a source told him that the Iranian government had set in motion a plot to crash hijacked planes into the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire. The CIA quickly debunked the story, saying Weldon's source was unreliable.

It was also the case in the mid-1990s when Weldon, working off information he obtained from a former Russian general, said the United States was potentially under threat from suitcase-size nuclear weapons that had been pilfered from the Soviet military. No proof has ever been found of the claim.

But Weldon's allegations regarding Able Danger have been particularly explosive. They are fuel to conspiracy theorists who believe that the 9/11 commission and the government suppressed information about the plot.

"I think it will embarrass the administration," Weldon said of the Able Danger revelations.

His allegations have triggered congressional hearings and even prompted attorneys for convicted al-Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui to request that Weldon testify at his sentencing trial. The defense has argued that Moussaoui should not be put to death for failing to inform the government of the 9/11 plot if the government itself had information that could have helped avert the attack.

Weldon's allegations also have engendered heated reaction from 9/11 commission members.

Bucks County resident John Lehman, a former commission member who was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said: "To believe the conspiracy theory that people are pushing on Able Danger, you have to believe that all of us, conservative Republicans and Democrats on the 9/11 commission, are in league with the Defense Department and the secretary of defense and the National Security Agency in a vast right- and left-wing conspiracy to cover this up. It is absurd to think that within our vast bureaucratic system, the conspirators were able to make disappear every piece of paper that ever existed on this."

The controversy began June 27 when Weldon gave his speech on the House floor. A few weeks later, the New York Times weighed in with a front-page article, giving credence to the account and setting off a wave of national attention.

Underlying Weldon's allegations was the implication that because the government was overly concerned with protecting civil liberties, even of non-U.S. citizens, it failed to follow up leads that might have helped halt the plot.

Eventually, Weldon brought forward two military officials, Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott, who had been involved in the Able Danger program, as well as a civilian employee of the program named J.D. Smith. They testified that they had identified Atta and other 9/11 hijackers in 1999 or 2000. Using sophisticated data-mining techniques, they employed powerful software and computers to sift through huge amounts of publicly available information to create a portrait of the al-Qaeda presence in the United States and around the world.

The fact that Phillpott and Shaffer were of relatively high rank and held responsible positions added weight to the allegations.

But problems soon began to develop with the story.

The 9/11 commission said its executive director, Philip Zelikow, and three others had met with Shaffer at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he was on assignment, in October 2003 as part of its probe. Contradicting Shaffer, the 9/11 commission said that during this meeting, he never mentioned that Able Danger had identified Atta and other hijackers before the plot, the commission said.

Commission members now believe it is a case of mistaken identity, because military data-mining programs before 9/11 produced charts with the names and pictures of other al-Qaeda members who were not part of the plot, but whose names and pictures resemble Atta's.

Other senior government officials and key players in the 9/11 aftermath also have raised questions about Weldon's account. A source familiar with a Senate Intelligence Committee probe of the issue said that committee had turned up no documentation to support Weldon's story.

Weldon has said Rep. Dan Burton (R., Ind.) went with him to Hadley's office to discuss the Able Danger program and to deliver the chart produced by the Able Danger team.

But a spokesman for Burton said that while he was at the meeting, he does not recall seeing Atta's name or picture on the chart.

Even so, the story has survived, reflecting the adage that it is impossible to prove that something didn't happen.

"How do you prove that pink elephants did not dance along your backyard last night?" said one frustrated former member of the 9/11 commission staff. "It would seem to me that if you are making an allegation, the burden of proof is on the person making the charges."

Said Weldon: "I don't know what the bottom-line answer is for Able Danger. All I want is the truth."