MARK ZAID has a full schedule these days, working on behalf of his beleaguered client, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer; media appearances, tilting at Department of Defense windmills, correcting poorly-written AP stories, and handling late-night interview requests. If anyone has an excuse to beg off an appointment, Zaid has a raft of them--yet last night he was happy to sit for a phone interview with THE DAILY STANDARD.
After exploding onto the scene two months ago, the Able Danger story and the revelation of its identification of Mohammed Atta as an al Qaeda operative over a year before the 9/11 attack have gone through several mutations in the press. At first, despite its launch at the New York Times, the media regarded it as a wild, unsourced conspiracy theory. The 9/11 Commission immediately dismissed it out of hand; the Pentagon took a bit more time to refute it. Eventually, key players of the SOCOM program came forward in public, first and foremost LTC Shaffer, the DIA liaison to the program.
Zaid has represented Shaffer during this public period which has seen him portrayed as a kook, a media hound, and thanks to the AP, a drunkard and a deadbeat. Zaid has taken his role as Shaffer's defender quite seriously; he recently wrote a lengthy and detailed rebuttal to the AP's report on the revocation of Shaffer's clearance:
I would like to set the record straight so that everyone knows the situation. I set up the story so that a full and balanced portrait could be drawn. Of course I knew that unfavorable information would be reported, but so long as the substantive responses would be reported alongside we had no qualms about releasing the information. The information I submitted not only from LTC Shaffer to refute the allegations but also from independent third parties would show everyone how petty, pathetic and absurd the allegations were.
Unfortunately, the AP story was terrible. Despite having the documents in her possession the reporter made numerous errors and ignored crucial information. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement. Twice I got the AP to modify the story and yet still they just couldn't get it right, which is why I am submitting this post here.
The AP reported that the DIA moved to revoke Shaffer's clearances based on an incident of drunkenness more than a decade old, a dispute over expenses that amounted to less than $250 in all, and an unpaid credit card bill during Shaffer's deployment to Afghanistan--all without noting that the Army has promoted Shaffer in his position as a reservist in defiance of this investigation. The AP also failed to report that, since Shaffer has been recleared on a regular basis, all of these incidents have already been reviewed a number of times and found irrelevant to his access. Zaid painstakingly addressed each allegation by presenting the full context left out by the AP, and presumably its sources within the DIA and DoD. As with the Able Danger program itself, the military seems to have a curious dance that it plays with Tony Shaffer and the rest of the team now that they have become potential whistleblowers.
ZAID HAD PREPARED HIS CLIENT to answer many questions at the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, the Judiciary Committee has been stalled by the Pentagon, which refuses to allow the six SOCOM witnesses who have publicly confirmed that recall the Atta identification to testify. Zaid expressed his frustration with the DoD and its dance with the congressional committee which promised public hearings on the program.
"We're presumably waiting for them to reschedule," Zaid said. "Officially, the Defense Department and the DIA are taking the position--at least with me--that Shaffer is not allowed to testify." That gag order clearly has allowed the momentum of the story to slow in the last few weeks. When asked about the gag order's origin, Shaffer's attorney cannot tell for certain who ordered it. "These guys are talking out of both sides of their mouths," he replied when asked to identify the agency responsible for blocking the testimony. "The first time around, when the hearing on the 21st was scheduled to happen," he explained, "the Defense Department was calling the shots, and DIA was continually relaying messages from DIA to me."
That seems to have changed since the cancellation of the first Judiciary hearing. After Zaid informed the DIA that Shaffer had invitations from other Congressional committees to deliver unclassified briefings, the DIA took charge of the clearance issue--and placed hurdle after hurdle in front of the career officer and his attorney, preventing them from sharing Able Danger's details with the legislators. "The DIA is calling the shots . . . First, I had Tony call that [a request for permission] in himself," Zaid said, "and they refused to act on that. Then I submitted it to Congressional Affairs, and they refused to act on that. They say I'm not specific enough."
"I said that House Judiciary wants to meet with him. Congressman Davis wants to meet with him. The House Committee on Government Reform wants to meet with him," Zaid continued. "Somehow, it's not specific enough because I didn't list the individual staff members." Zaid wonders why the DIA wants to know about the names of each staff member that may or may not be present during the presentation of an unclassified briefing. "They don't want him meeting with certain staff members that might be hostile to them? Well, sorry, that's not the way it works."
The confusion has gotten so bad that Zaid wonders whether the Judiciary Committee ever got a straight answer from the DoD on witness clearance. "I find it difficult to believe that the DoD told Judiciary that they would allow witnesses [to testify openly], and then did 180 degrees," Zaid said. Yet Zaid doubts this is a deliberate attempt to stonewall the Senate: "This town is much more geared to incompetence than sophistication."
As if to underscore that point, Zaid notes that a number of committees have expressed interest in hearing the Able Danger witnesses, including Shaffer, although not in open forums. In response to a question about the strange jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee for the public airing of the Able Danger narrative, Zaid said that he has been in contact with a number of staffers from committees and subcommittees. Curiously, the two committees seemingly most likely to want answers--the Armed Services committees--have remained on the sidelines.
"It really does raise the question about where the [Armed Services] committees are on this," Zaid said. He emphatically states that the two Armed services have "done nothing, at least with respect to contacting Able Danger team members."
Shouldn't these two panels at least have some curiosity about what information the DoD had about al Qaeda prior to 9/11? Everyone else seems to want answers--except those closest to the Pentagon. And Zaid wants Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer to be allowed to supply them.
It's extraordinary that the Armed Services committees would continue to act as wallflowers while the Pentagon they oversee tries to dance Able Danger off the floor.
Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.