REPRESENTATIVE CURT WELDON dropped a delayed political bombshell with a special-orders speech last June in which he revealed the existence of a data-mining program at the Pentagon named Able Danger, which he claimed had identified Mohammed Atta and three of the other 9/11 hijackers as al Qaeda operatives over a year before the attacks. Almost two months later, an intelligence-community periodical, Government Security News, noted the speech. This caught the attention of New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl, who informed the nation that far from missing the terrorist cell before the 9/11 attacks, military intelligence had identified them with plenty of time to act.
Questions immediately arose about why no law-enforcement agency took action with the information, and why the 9/11 Commission made no mention of Able Danger or the identification of Atta's cell in its final report. The sources for Weldon's revelations insist that the political atmosphere and the attorneys at the Pentagon would not allow the military to share the information with the FBI, believing (1) the existence of the data-mining project would create a political backlash against the Defense Department, and (2) it would violate the policies of the Department of Justice to have coordination between military intelligence and the FBI involving a legal resident in the United States, as they believed Atta to be.
As for why the 9/11 Commission made no mention of Able Danger, the Commission itself seemed completely unable to provide an answer. Weldon's sources claimed that they had briefed the Commission on two separate occasions, in October 2003 and July 2004, just before the release of their final report. The Commission's spokesman, Al Felzenberg, initially scoffed at that claim. He acknowledged that the Commission had learned of the Able Danger program during the October 2003 briefing, but that Atta's name had not come up at all. "They all say that they were not told anything about a Brooklyn cell," Felzenberg said. "They were told about the Pentagon operation. They were not told about the Brooklyn cell. They said that if the briefers had mentioned anything that startling, it would have gotten their attention."
A competing series of revelations--from Time magazine, Curt Weldon's book, the Bergen Record, and even from the Commission itself (just four days after stating that they had no recollection at all of the July 2004 briefing)--has cast a shroud of doubt over everyone's credibility, including Weldon. Moreover, it has given momentum for those who felt that the Commission's final report left a significant part of the story untold. Noting that Able Danger, or any other data-mining program, gets no mention at all but that the Commission recommendations include expanding existing data-mining efforts and providing better coordination among them (pages 388-389), critics have begun searching for other data points left out of the Commission's analysis.
THEY MIGHT START with a few cryptic media reports from March 2001 regarding two arrests made in Germany. The BBC and Reuters both noted the capture of Iraqi intelligence agents in Heidelberg. Both reports gave essentially the same minimal data on March 1:
German state prosecutors said on Thursday federal police had arrested two Iraqis on suspicion of spying.
The two men were detained in Heidelberg, according to a German television report. German officials declined to comment on the report. . . . "They are suspected of carrying out missions for an Iraqi intelligence service in a number of German towns since the beginning of 2001,'' said a spokeswoman for state prosecutor Kay Nehm in Karlsruhe.
The Germans did not arrest these Iraqi operatives on a whim. Their counterintelligence operations had tracked them for some time before closing in and capturing the two. At the time, American and British forces had launched air raids on radar stations in Iraq's no-fly zones and the assumption was that the Iraqis may have wanted to hit American forces stationed in Heidelberg in retaliation. However, by March 16, a Paris-based Arabic newspaper had developed more information on the arrests. The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin summarized the report from al-Watan al-Arabi:
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.
The most serious report contained information that Iraq and Osama bin Ladin were working together. German authorities were surprised by the arrest of the two Iraqi agents and the discovery of Iraqi intelligence activities in several German cities. German authorities, acting on CIA recommendations, had been focused on monitoring the activities of Islamic groups linked to bin Ladin. They discovered the two Iraqi agents by chance and uncovered what they considered to be serious indications of cooperation between Iraq and bin Ladin. The matter was considered so important that a special team of CIA and FBI agents was sent to Germany to interrogate the two Iraqi spies.
Interestingly, journalists such as Amir Taheri considered al-Watan al-Arabi to be a pro-Saddam publication--not surprising given its Parisian readership. Despite its reporting against its presumed interests, the al-Watan al-Arabi article generated no interest either at the time or afterwards. A scan of the Commission report finds no mention of these arrests in Heidelberg, nor any of the CIA or FBI interviews reported by al-Watan al-Arabi.
Why should any of this have mattered to the 9/11 Commission? Their report provides the most important reason: The 9/11 plot began its practical planning in Hamburg, beginning in 1999 and assisting Mohammed Atta and the other 9/11 plotters through the summer of 2001. Having discovered two Iraqi intelligence agents conducting "missions . . . in a number of German towns since the beginning of 2001" indicates at least the possibility of more than just a sabotage assignment. Even apart from the al-Watan al-Arabi reporting, the strange coincidence of discovering Iraqi intelligence operations in such close conjunction to known al Qaeda operations should have raised some eyebrows.
If the 9/11 report is any indication, no one on the Commission considered this connection. In fact, no one knows whether or not the Commission even knew about these arrests. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, there has been much argument about the nature of Saddam Hussein's connections to terror. How could the U.S. government and the 9/11 Commission fail to consider this, given the other activity occurring in Germany during this period:
* Mohammed Atta and Ramzi Binalshibh meet in Berlin in January 2001 for a progress meeting, around the same time German counterintelligence claimed that they picked up the Iraqi trail.
* Ziad Jarrah, another of the crucial al Qaeda pilots, transits between Beirut and Florida through Germany twice during the 2000-2001 holiday season, flying back to the United States at the end of February.
* Marwan al-Shehhi disappears in Casablanca, then constructs a cover story about living in Hamburg.
In fact, the Commission report notes that three of the four al Qaeda team leaders (excepting Hani Hanjour, who had at that time just begun his pilot training) interrupted their planning to take foreign trips (page 244). Why would these men interrupt their preparations in this manner? Traveling in and out of the United States presented a risk--a manageable risk, as events proved--but having three of the four team leaders outside of their established cells at the same time looks unnecessarily foolhardy from al Qaeda's point of view. It also appears to be the only time after their first entry into the United States that this travel occurred. All three had some German connection to their trips. In fact, Jarrah left Germany the same week that the Germans captured the Iraqi agents.
All of this activity in Germany could, of course, just be a coincidence. However, we have no explanation from the 9/11 Commission about why the al Qaeda team leaders who all hailed from the Hamburg cell felt it necessary to travel separately to Germany at the same time that German counterintelligence discovered the Iraqi espionage operation. We have no mention at all of even a coincidental, parallel hostile operation in the vicinity of the al Qaeda team leaders. Just as in the case of Mohammed Afroze, the Commission never bothers even to supply the dots that might connect outside their preferred narrative.
Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.