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Rethinking Prague

There are two timelines for Mohammed Atta's whereabouts in April 2001. One is provided by American intelligence officers, the other by terrorists.

12:00 AM, Aug 24, 2005 • By EDWARD MORRISSEY
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THE ONGOING CONTROVERSY over the Able Danger project deepened this week when two more sources from the U.S. Army data-mining project came forward. Navy Captain Scott Phillpott and civilian contractor James Smith joined Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer in claiming that Able Danger identified Mohammed Atta and three other 9/11 hijackers as potential al Qaeda operatives well before the attacks. Phillpott specifically told the New York Times when he went public that Able Danger made that connection between January and February of 2000, 19 months before the attack.

However, that puts the Able Danger scenario in conflict, again, with the 9/11 Commission's final report--this time on the Atta travel timeline. On pages 167-168 of the report, the Commission provides a narrative of the Hamburg cell movements during this period:

After leaving Afghanistan, the four began researching flight schools and aviation training. In early January 2000, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali--a nephew of KSM living in the UAE who would become an important facilitator in the plot--used Shehhi's credit card to order a Boeing 747-400 flight simulator program and a Boeing 767 flight deck video, together with attendant literature; Ali had all these items shipped to his employer's address. Jarrah soon decided that the schools in Germany were not acceptable and that he would have to learn to fly in the United States. Binalshibh also researched flight schools in Europe, and in the Netherlands he met a flight school director who recommended flight schools in the United States because they were less expensive and required shorter training periods.

In March 2000, Atta emailed 31 different U.S. flight schools on behalf of a small group of men from various Arab countries studying in Germany who, while lacking prior training, were interested in learning to fly in the United States. Atta requested information about the cost of the training, potential financing, and accommodations.

The Able Danger team has insisted it made the identification of Atta while he lived inside the United States, however. This created the problem that kept them from coordinating with the FBI when their analysis pointed out this potential terrorist cell. Had they identified Atta and his cohorts while in Hamburg, Able Danger could easily have notified the State Department of their suspicions and kept cell members from getting visas.

IF ATTA HAD ALREADY MADE IT to the United States, how did the Commission establish this timeline? They deduced it from FBI interrogations of three sources: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, two of the plotters who helped create the 9/11 attacks, and Mohammed's nephew Ali Abdul Aziz Ali. The footnotes in the Report to the Atta timeline paragraphs give almost no corroborative evidence besides that of the testimony of these men--who have little motivation to cooperate honestly with American investigators.

Could the "intelligence" gleaned from the interrogations of these al Qaeda plotters and high-level terrorists have been an attempt at disinformation?

SO WITH THESE FACTS BEHIND US, let us move to some informed speculation. Recall the strange and unremarked coincidence of the arrests of two Iraqi intelligence agents in Germany at the end of February 2001. These arrests never made it into the Commission's final report, despite the fact that German authorities described an elaborate Iraqi network involving several German cities at the same time that three of the four 9/11 team leaders all traveled to or through Germany. One of these team leaders, Ziad Jarrah, left Germany just as the Germans captured the Iraqi spies.

The only media reports about these arrests came immediately afterwards, brief dispatches from the BBC and Reuters. Two weeks later, however, a Parisian Arabic newspaper, Al-Watan al-Arabi, published a more detailed analysis of the capture on March 16:

Al-Watan al-Arabi (Paris) reports that two Iraqis were arrested in Germany, charged with spying for Baghdad. The arrests came in the wake of reports that Iraq was reorganizing the external branches of its intelligence service and that it had drawn up a plan to strike at US interests around the world through a network of alliances with extremist fundamentalist parties.