Errors of Commission

The hijacking of the probe into the 9-11 hijackers

Whether or not U.S. military intelligence was prevented by Pentagon superiors from alerting the FBI to the presence of Mohammed Atta in 1998, there is little doubt the U.S. was well aware of the infamous hijacker by then. The Republican right wing is raising the Atta issue at a time when Bush is sinking in the polls, people are fed up with Iraq, and there are continuing questions about the administration's handling of 9-11 and the war on terror. One way to take some of the heat off is to shift the blame to Bill Clinton.

In his book Countdown to Terror, Republican Congressman Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, lays the blame for our lousy intelligence on Clinton: "Given the intelligence community's poor track record and the political corruption of the intelligence process during the Clinton administration, the intelligence community's failure to detect and stop the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington seems inevitable. "

By 1998, Atta was living in a Hamburg apartment (later found to be an Al Qaeda cell) and under surveillance by German intelligence. The Germans were passing along what they knew to the CIA. There are suggestions that Atta may have been known to U.S. intelligence as far back as 1993 and, according to the German press, the CIA itself had other people in the apartment under surveillance. This raises the question of whether this cell might not have been taken out well before 9-11.

In 2004, the German prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation was scheduled to testify about this Hamburg cell to the 9-11 Commission. But his testimony was unexpectedly canceled. The documents from the investigation are reported to be missing.

Last week, Mounir al-Motassadek, one of Atta's associates, was convicted of belonging to a terrorist organization in a German court and sentenced to seven years in prison. He had been acquitted in another court on charges related to whether he knew anything about the 9-11 attacks. The Germans had him under surveillance and had been tapping his phones since August 1998. He was an associate of Atta's in the Hamburg apartment. He witnessed Atta's will and had power of attorney over the hijackers' bank accounts, shifting money to them while they took flying lessons in the U.S. He trained with them in Afghanistan.

What Weldon and Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer are claiming is that the Army Intelligence and Special Operations Command in 1998-1999 launched a secret program, Able Danger, to map out the international Al Qaeda network. One Defense official has said the project was approved by General Henry H. Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shelton said recently that he does not remember the project but that "we had lots of initiatives to find out where Al Qaeda was."

By September 2000, so the story goes—and much of it depends on Shaffer's shaky memory—Able Danger had discovered Atta and other hijackers working out of a "Brooklyn cell." They wanted to tell the FBI about their findings in hopes the Bureau would take out the cell. But military lawyers blocked them from doing so on grounds it would reveal the existence of illegal military intelligence operations within the U.S., and that would cause controversy for Clinton—and perhaps damage Al Gore's campaign against George W. Bush.

In July 2004, a naval officer testified to the 9-11 Commission that he saw an Able Danger document in 2000 that linked Atta to the Al Qaeda cell. Commission chair Thomas Kean and vice-chair Lee Hamilton later said that one piece of testimony had not been "sufficiently reliable" to merit further investigation.

This month Weldon asked the commission how come it had not pursued Able Danger, and Hamilton replied, "The 9-11 Commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9-11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell. Had we learned of it, obviously it would've been a major focus of our investigation." Later both said Able Danger "did not turn out to be historically significant."


Even if the Pentagon's supposed discovery of Atta before 9-11 succeeds in shifting some of the political blame from Bush to Clinton, it also raises new questions about the role of the Pentagon and especially that of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 9-11 and the war on terror. And this comes at a time when the military is clamoring for a greater role in intelligence gathering.

At 9:53 on the morning of 9-11, the National Security Agency intercepted a call from an Osama bin Laden operative in Afghanistan to a person in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, as noted in the 9-11 Timeline compiled by Paul Thompson at cooperativeresearch.org. The caller said he had "heard good news" and another target was still to be hit (apparently by the plane that was brought down in the Pennsylvania countryside). This was the first firm indication the government had that bin Laden was behind the attack. Two hours later, at 12:05, CIA director George Tenet told Rumsfeld about the NSA intercept.

As reported by CBS News, based on leaked notes from a National Military Command Center teleconference, the Secretary of Defense was surprisingly reluctant to make much of the call: "Rumsfeld felt it was 'vague,' that it 'might not mean something,' and that there was 'no good basis for hanging hat.' In other words, the evidence was not clear-cut enough to justify military action against Bin Laden. But later that afternoon, the CIA reported the passenger manifests for the hijacked airliners showed three of the hijackers were suspected Al Qaeda operatives."

According to the notes, Rumsfeld learned that "one guy is associate of bomber"—the Al Qaeda suicide bomber who attacked the U.S. warship in Yemen in 2000.

At 2:40, the notes report, Rumsfeld was beginning to take aim at the target close to his heart: He wants the "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama Bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." This was the first indication that Rumsfeld was disregarding specific intelligence clearly linking the attack to Al Qaeda and instead had begun to fantasize about getting Saddam Hussein.

Hours later, White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke went to the White House for meetings that Clarke believed would concern U.S. vulnerabilities, possible future attacks, and what might be done to prevent them. As he writes in one of the most famous passages from his book, Clarke "instead walked into a series of discussions about Iraq."

"At first," Clarke writes, "I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting Al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq. My friends in the Pentagon had been telling me that the word was we would be invading Iraq sometime in 2002."

Rumsfeld's breezy dismissal of Al Qaeda's involvement in the attacks in the face of specific intelligence is hard to fathom. And if there is buried somewhere in the Pentagon a military intelligence operation—its existence approved at the highest levels—that knew all about Atta and Al Qaeda, then Rumsfeld's behavior is indefensible.


The 9-11 Commission was established to get to the bottom of the attacks that day. However, it often skipped over key issues:

*Bush and Cheney were interviewed together, in secret, with no record of the meeting.

*Florida senator Bob Graham's joint congressional inquiry had unearthed the outlines of what may have been a Saudi spy operation linked to Al Qaeda and operating in the U.S. But the commission dismissed Saudi involvement and cleared the royal family.

*The commission never seriously inquired into the activities of Pakistan, whose secret intelligence agency had created the Taliban and subsequently backed Al Qaeda.

*The commission had no time for FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who came up with one tale after another of fishy operations in the FBI translations section, including the mind-boggling information that FBI interpreters were being sent to Guantánamo to translate languages they could not speak.

*The congressional joint inquiry discovered that an FBI informant on the West Coast, unbeknownst to the Bureau, rented an apartment to two hijackers. When Graham tried to interview the landlord, the FBI refused. Later a top FBI official told Graham that the White House had blocked the informant's testimony. The commission dismissed all this.

*The commission skipped over the scandalous mess at the FAA, suppressing a staff study saying that the agency had ignored numerous warnings issued in the months before the attack. After the election, the commission released parts of this study, leaving some of it classified.

*The commission never seriously inquired into intelligence failures at the Hamburg cell where Atta lived off and on and which was a key center for planning the attacks.

Every day it looks as if the government's main probe of 9-11 has turned into a political fix.


Additional reporting: Halley Bondy

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