Missing the About-Face on Able Danger

August 16th, 2005 10:04 PM

Credit the New York Times for getting the biggest Able Danger interview to date.

The August 16th edition of the paper reveals allegations from one of Congressman Weldon's primary sources, a man now identified as Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. Shaffer stepped forward to add weight to the story he had already told Weldon and staffers from the 9/11 Commission.

As interesting a story as it is, it's incomplete. The Times omits a very important details in the timeline.

In a statement issued last week, the leaders of the Sept. 11 commission said the panel had concluded that the intelligence program "did not turn out to be historically significant." The statement said that while the commission did learn about Able Danger in 2003 and immediately requested Pentagon files about the program, none of the documents turned over by the Defense Department referred to Mr. Atta or any of the other hijackers.

This is only partially true. While the Commission did make these statements, they did so a day after saying that they Able Danger had not even mentioned Atta.

"The Sept. 11 commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell," said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Had we learned of it obviously it would've been a major focus of our investigation."

Later, the story changed to say that the Commission did hear of Atta from Able Danger, but didn't receive anything on paper. This is a fairly remarkable rowback, from a position of utter ignorance about Able Danger to not only knowledge of the program but also its alleged surveillance of Atta and his cell.

Al Felzenberg, who served as the commission's chief spokesman, said earlier this week that staff members who were briefed about Able Danger at a first meeting, in October 2003, did not remember hearing anything about Mr. Atta or an American terrorist cell. On Wednesday, however, Mr. Felzenberg said the uniformed officer who briefed two staff members in July 2004 had indeed mentioned Mr. Atta.

The reporter, Philip Shenon, makes a similar statement later in the article, again without mentioning the earlier complete reversals by the Commission.

These omissions are important because, were they included, they would paint a picture of a group of Commissioners whose stories have changed at least three times since the initial allegations last week by Weldon, Shaffer, and the other sources. Those reversals would speak to the credibility of the Commission on this continuing story and make it slightly more than a "he said, they said" issue.

Unfortunately, the paper has slipped a few days behind the blogosphere on ths issue. Captain Ed noted the first Commission reversal in detail while other blogs such as those by The Anchoress, AJ Strata, and Dr. Sanity were providing comprehensive roundups of the story to that point. The Commission's dueling statements weren't hidden. All Shenon had to do was to check one of these blogs to find the sources.

(UPDATE: Edited the headline for clarity)