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Pentagon Pushes to Hide 9/11 Mistakes

The military hopes to keep the press and public from this week's long-awaited Congressional hearings about intelligence failures before the attacks.
 
 
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Will the press and the public be excluded from this week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings concerning a once-secret military intelligence unit called "Able Danger" that identified four of the 9/11 hijackers in 2000?

Yes, if the Pentagon has its way. According to Fox News, military officials have been exerting pressure to close the hearings for at least a week. But Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., is said to be resisting their request to classify the "intelligence information sharing" hearings, expected to feature testimony from several Pentagon sources.

Why should you care? In addition to the fact that members of the once clandestine intelligence unit say they identified Mohammed Atta and three other 9/11 hijackers as threats a year before the attacks, former Able Danger analysts also claim that they tried to turn the information over to the FBI -- but were repeatedly ignored.

Although Pentagon officials originally cast doubt on Able Danger's very existence, they now confirm that five former members of the unit remember Atta's picture or name being on a chart in 2000.

Rep. Curt Weldon -- a Republican from Pennsylvania -- has been pushing the issue for weeks. Now he appears to have succeeded in persuading Congress to look into what the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, (informally known as the Sept. 11 Commission) knew about the Able Danger intelligence group, and whether the Commission ignored evidence about the hijackers' presence in the United States.

Weldon has also been critical of the Commission for not including the Able Danger project in its report on the attacks. But Commission Chairman Thomas Kean maintains the panel acquired no evidence indicating that anyone in the government knew about Atta in advance of the attacks.

"The Sept. 11 commission's statement that it does not believe a secret military intelligence unit discovered a group of future hijackers more than a year before the terrorist attacks is a total denial of the facts," Weldon says. "For the 9/11 commission to say that this did not exist is just absolutely outrageous."

Members of Able Danger say their group identified Atta and three other hijackers as potential members of a terrorist cell in New York City. Able Danger analysts Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott add that Pentagon lawyers rejected a recommendation that the information be turned over to the FBI in 2000. Shaffer and Phillpott also say they met with staff members on the Sept. 11 Commission about their findings. But commission members say Atta was never mentioned by name at those meetings.

No one questions the credibility of Shaffer and Phillpott, but Defense Department officials can find no documents to back up the claims, have not found the chart and don't even know if it exists, despite having reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents. Since the Pentagon confirmed this month that documents associated with Able Danger were destroyed (because of strict regulations governing the collection of data on foreign visitors in the United States) this is not surprising. Nor, given the volatile subject matter, is the Pentagon pressure to close the judiciary hearings to the press and public.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that former members of the Sept. 11 commission roundly reject the claim that the Able Danger group identified the hijackers so early. Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, for example, dismissed it out of hand. "Bluntly, it just didn't happen and that's the conclusion of all 10 of us," Gorton said.

Senator Specter's Communications Director says that no decision on whether to classify the hearings or not has been made and that discussions with the Defense Department continue. Speaking on behalf of Rep. Weldon, Communications Director John Tomaszewski said the Congressman "would be disappointed" if Pentagon pressure led to the closing of the hearings. "We all want to get to the bottom of this," Tomaszewski told me. "We need to bring these issues before the public, not to hide them."

Maybe it will all be sorted out in front of Arlen Specter and his committee this week. But if the hearings are in fact closed, we the people may never know the truth.

This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.