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"Able Danger" Colonel: We had Atta and did nothing!
[B]COLONEL TELLS OF SICKENING SPY BLUNDER: 'WE HAD' ATTA & DID NOTHING
By DEBORAH ORIN Washington Bureau Chief [/B]
STUNNER: Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, in D.C. yesterday, told The Post that his old Able Danger unit ID'd 9/11 lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in 2000 as a likely al Qaeda operative. He tried three times to alert the FBI, but was turned down by Pentagon lawyers.
August 18, 2005 -- A veteran Army intelligence officer said yesterday the elite military intelligence unit known as Able Danger might have been able to prevent the 9/11 attacks — if it had been allowed to alert the FBI that Mohamed Atta was living in the country.
"My first reaction was, 'We had him.' It was a sinking feeling in my stomach," Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer told The Post in an interview yesterday, describing how he felt after learning that Atta was one of the hijackers.
Shaffer said that before the attacks, in 2000, Able Danger used complex computer analysis to identify two of the 9/11 terror cells, including one centered around the mastermind, Atta.
But Pentagon lawyers wouldn't let them sound the alarm with law enforcement agencies, he said.
"I believe there was a potential — had the information been passed from Special Operations Command to the FBI — that our information may have been one of the keys, if not the key, to pull together and make sense of the data they already had," Shaffer said.
"The FBI kind of knew that some of these guys by name were going through flight training . . . so if you mix that, then, with them being essentially, in our judgment, confirmed to be al Qaeda guys, that may have prompted someone to do something."
Shaffer said Atta's name didn't ring a bell when he learned the hijackers' names after 9/11. But he got "a sinking feeling in my stomach" when the woman Ph.D. in charge of Able Danger's data analysis told him Atta was one of those who had been identified as a likely al Qaeda terrorist by Able Danger.
"My friend the doctor [Ph.D.] who did all the charts and ran the technology showed me the chart and said, 'Look, we had this, we knew them, we knew this.' And it was a sinking feeling, it was like, 'Oh my God, you know. We could have done something.' "
Shaffer has touched off a firestorm as the first person associated with the Able Danger military intelligence operation to go public.
He said the unit tried three times to alert the FBI that it had identified al Qaeda cells in the United States — but military lawyers nixed it. Shaffer also says he alerted the 9/11 commission in October 2003 about how Able Danger identified Atta — but commission staffers blew him off and failed to properly follow up.
His stunning remarks have sparked a storm of questions about whether the Sept. 11 atrocities could have been prevented and why the 9/11 commission ignored claims that Clinton administration lawyers blocked Able Danger from alerting the FBI to al Qaeda cells on U.S. soil.
A naval officer has also told reporters that he alerted the 9/11 commission about Able Danger but was ignored.
He hasn't gone public, but The Associated Press yesterday identified him as Capt. Scott Philpott, an expert in futuristic naval warfare.
Shaffer told The Post that at least two other members of the Able Danger team plan on going public "as soon as they get basically some guarantees from their own organizations that they can talk without being retaliated against."
Both still work for the U.S. government, he said, adding that he also hopes the person who "ran the technology" for the program — whom he identified only as a Ph.D. and a woman — will go public.
Shaffer said he showed Able Danger files to other intelligence experts in the past and they agreed that "we really did have the goods on these guys before 9/11."
But he said that so far, the Pentagon has been unable to locate the files.
"I know where I left them and they're not there now," he said, adding it was at a Defense Intelligence Agency facility in northern Virginia.
Shaffer lost access to the files last year when his DIA security clearance was suspended in what his lawyer calls "petty" disputes over mileage reimbursement and $67 in personal calls on a military phone.
Despite that flap, the Army promoted him to lieutenant colonel.
The Pentagon is investigating Able Danger — which was disbanded in early 2001 — and has no immediate comment, said spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Conway.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), an advocate of data-mining programs like Able Danger, is calling for congressional hearings and says he also prodded the 9/11 commission repeatedly — to no avail.
Shaffer said both he and his deputy tried to set up meetings with the FBI but were barred by Pentagon lawyers. The legal team felt that since Atta and his co-plotters were legal visitors with visas, they had the same rights as U.S. citizens and this would invade their privacy.
"We felt that even if they did have that status, that status was negated by the fact that they were associated with a known terrorist organization, al Qaeda . . . Unfortunately the lawyers didn't see it that way," Shaffer said.
He declined to name those lawyers but also said that later, in early 2001, a "risk-averse" commanding general at DIA ordered him to halt any role in programs like Able Danger even though it was supporting "a major counter-terrorism targeting effort."
"It came to the point [of the general saying] 'Tony, I'm the general here, I'm telling you it's not your job, don't do it,"' Shaffer said. He declined to name the general.
Shaffer said he didn't do the data analysis for Able Danger but worked for DIA providing support for the program, which used computer analysis of data mined under a program so complicated that it took four to six months to get it "up and running."
Able Danger accumulated 2.5 terabytes of data drawing from public databases. It sent "smart bots" out to search the Internet and followed trails that terrorists like Atta left behind.
"He lived in the real world like you and me. Every time we go somewhere, there's a trail. We use our credit card, we buy something, our name gets jotted down somewhere," he said.
The furor over Able Danger comes at the same time that The Post revealed that the lead terrorism prosecutor, then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, bitterly opposed the Clinton-era decision to limit prosecutors' access to intelligence on terrorists.
That decision was made by Clinton's deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 commission. The commission's report never mentioned White's scathing warning that the policy was a disaster waiting to happen and could prove "deadly."