KWAME HOLMAN: Eighteen months before the Sept. 11 attacks a since-disbanded intelligence unit code named Able Danger identified 60 foreign terror suspects inside the United States. On that list were four of the subsequent 9/11 hijackers including Mohammed Atta, the alleged ring leader of the attacks, who flew the first plane into the World Trade Center. However, attempts by Able Danger team members to share their information with the FBI in February of 2000 were blocked by Pentagon lawyers.
The story of Able Danger first came to light in a New York Times story last month. But attempts this morning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter to find out why the information wasn't shared hit several dead ends. At the start of an investigative hearing, Specter questioned whether the federal Posse Comitatus Act might have come into play.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: That is a statute which was enacted shortly after the Civil War, which prevents the United States military from being engaged in law enforcement activities. If the Posse Comitatus Act precluded this information from being turned over by the Department of Defense to the FBI, then that is a matter which may require amendments to the Act.
KWAME HOLMAN: Specter had hoped to hear today from former Able Danger team members themselves. Army Reserve Col. Tony Schaeffer was a liaison to the Able Danger unit from the Defense Intelligence Agency. J.D. Smith was a civilian analyst on contract. Yesterday, however, the Pentagon notified Schaeffer, Smith and several others that permission to testify was denied.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: It looks to me as if it may be obstruction of the committee's activities, something we will have to determine.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Pennsylvania Congressman Kurt Weldon did testify, a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, it was Weldon who first helped members of Able Danger, Smith included, tell their story to the media.
REP. CURT WELDON: He was prepared to state as he told us that he had an Able Danger chart with Mohammed Atta identified on his office wall at Andrews Air Force Base until DOD Investigative Services removed it. He was prepared to discuss the extensive amount of data collected about al-Qaida, underscoring the fact that Able Danger was never about one chart or one photograph but rather was and is about massive data collected and assembled against what Madeleine Albright declared to be in 1999 an international terrorist organization. He too has been silenced.
KWAME HOLMAN: Speaking on behalf of Col. Schaeffer, Washington lawyer Mark Zaid said there was confusion among some in the Pentagon at the time whether the Army was compiling information about U.S. citizens.
MARK ZAID: Those within Able Danger were confident they weren't compiling information on U.S. persons. They were potentially people connected to U.S. persons. Again I said they never identified Mohammed Atta in the United States. Apparently the problem that came up was on the chart where his image was he was listed under Brooklyn, New York or something to that effect. It had Brooklyn. And those within the Army either in the legal level or some of the policy levels were apparently showing apprehension and concern that somehow that was then linking to data compilation of U.S. persons.
KWAME HOLMAN: And former Army Major Erik Kleinsmith said he later was directed by a Pentagon lawyer to destroy the information citing Army regulations prohibiting the military from compiling data about U.S. citizens.
ERIK KLEINSMITH: Both soft and hard copy was deleted or destroyed.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: And did part of that involve operations within the United States?
ERIK KLEINSMITH: No specific operation in the United States, only a presence that was known. We were unable to get to the details for the specific persons or information in the United States before we were shut down.
KWAME HOLMAN: William Dugan, assistant secretary of defense, tried to explain the delicate nature of domestic intelligence gathering.
WILLIAM DUGAN: I guess I wish to convey to the committee that U.S. person information is something that we are skittish about in the Defense Department. We follow the rules strictly on it. And we want to do the right thing and follow the attorney general guidelines.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Mr. Dugan, Mohammed Atta was not a U.S. person was he?
WILLIAM DUGAN: Based on what I've read in the press since Sept. 11, 2001, I don't believe he was.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Mr. Dugan, you're the acting assistant secretary of defense for intelligence oversight. Can't you give us a more definitive answer to a very direct and fundamental and simple question like was Mohammed Atta a U.S. person?
WILLIAM DUGAN: No, he was not.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: We're dealing with the intelligence gathering data of the Department of Defense and prima facie reason is to believe and that had that information been shared and the FBI was trying to get it, 9/11 might have been prevented. I hope you'll go back and talk to the secretary and tell him that the American people are entitled to some answers.
KWAME HOLMAN: Responding elsewhere in the capitol this afternoon, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said the Senate Intelligence Committee has jurisdiction over the Able Danger matter and that he has offered that committee a closed door briefing.