Members of the Sept. 11 commission want to know whether defense intelligence officials knew four of the hijackers were part of an al-Qaida cell but failed to tell law enforcement.
Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the now-disbanded commission, said Tuesday that members of the panel could issue a statement by the end of the week after reviewing claims that officials had identified ringleader Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers.
“The 9/11 commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohamed 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.”
The commission’s report on the terrorist attacks, released last year, traced government mistakes that allowed the hijackers to succeed. Among the problems the commission cited was a lack of coordination across intelligence agencies.
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who serves as vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, said a classified military intelligence unit known as “Able Danger” identified the men in 1999.
That’s an earlier link to al-Qaida than any previously disclosed intelligence about Atta if the information, which Weldon said came from multiple intelligence sources, is true.
A group of 9/11 widows called the September 11th Advocates issued a statement Wednesday saying they were “horrified” to learn that further possible evidence exists, and they are disappointed the 9/11 Commission report is “incomplete and illusory.”
“The revelation of this information demands answers that are forthcoming, clear and concise,” the statement said. “The 9/11 attacks could have and should have been prevented.”
With the 9/11 commission disbanded for a year under provisions of the legislation that created it, some of the panel’s members have said congressional committees should investigate Weldon’s assertions.
According to Weldon, Able Danger identified Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi as members of a cell the unit code-named “Brooklyn” because of some loose connections to New York City.
Weldon said that in September 2000 Able Danger recommended that its information on the hijackers be given to the FBI “so they could bring that cell in and take out the terrorists.” However, Weldon said Pentagon lawyers rejected the recommendation because they said Atta and the others were in the country legally, so information on them could not be shared with law enforcement.
Weldon did not provide details on how the intelligence officials identified the future hijackers and determined they might be part of a terrorist cell.
Defense Department documents shown to an Associated Press reporter Tuesday said the Able Danger team was set up in 1999 to identify potential al-Qaida operatives for U.S. Special Operations Command. At some point, information provided to the team by the Army’s Information Dominance Center pointed to a possible al-Qaida cell in Brooklyn, the documents said.
However, because of concerns about pursuing information on “U.S. persons” _ a legal term that includes U.S. citizens as well as foreigners admitted to the country for permanent residence _ Special Operations Command did not provide the Army information to the FBI. It is unclear whether the Army provided the information to anyone else.
The command instead turned its focus to overseas threats.
The documents provided no information on whether the team identified anyone connected to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.
If the team did identify Atta and the others, it’s unclear why the information wasn’t forwarded. The prohibition against sharing intelligence on “U.S. persons” should not have applied since they were in the country on visas and did not have permanent resident status.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he was unaware of the intelligence until the latest reports surfaced.
Associated Press Writer John J. Lumpkin contributed to this report.