Able Danger: The ultimate government cover-up?

It’s either the grandest conspiracy since the JFK assassination and the grassy knoll or much ado about nothing.

Able Danger, a top-secret military program set up in 1999 to probe the al Qaeda terrorist network, is rekindling fierce debate about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Military intelligence officers and contractors who ran the clandestine mission, a computer data-mining operation within the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, claim that more than a year before the attacks, Able Danger identified four of the plot’s 19 hijackers and produced a chart that fingered ringleader Mohammed Atta, displayed a photo of him and contained the names of up to 60 al Qaeda operatives around the globe.

Those claims contradict the findings of the 9/11 commission set up by Congress, which in its final report last year spread blame for the attacks across the government but concluded that none of the 19 hijackers, some of whom had lived in the United States for months before Sept. 11, were identified until after the tragedy.

Kristin Breitweiser, a New Jersey woman whose husband died in World Trade Center’s south tower, said she and other relatives of some of the 2,986 Sept. 11 victims have met with the military officers who worked on Able Danger, which the Pentagon ended in early 2001.

“It’s very upsetting to hear people tell you that your husband and the father of your children didn’t have to die because we had information to stop the attacks,” Breitweiser said in an interview.

Part of the problem in untangling the Able Danger web is that the computer-based program was designed to search “open source” documents _ everything in the public domain _ for patterns and links among al Qaeda terrorists, but the program as a whole was classified. So, while at least some of its original material was public, it became secret after entering an Able Danger database.

Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a Bronze Star recipient and former Able Danger operative who first came forward with details of the program, says Pentagon lawyers thwarted the team’s attempts to pass on their findings to the FBI before the attacks. And he claims that after the attacks, staff members of the 9/11 panel met with him and other Able Danger officers, but then failed to adequately pursue their leads.

“The 9/11 commission may not have ‘connected the dots’ as completely as they could and should have _ and that is my concern and the concern of others working this issue,” Shaffer said in an e-mail to Sept. 11 family members before the Pentagon issued a gag order two months ago, forbidding him and other former Able Danger officers from discussing the program publicly.

Navy Capt. Scott Philpott, who led the Able Danger mission, said in a statement before the Pentagon gag order: “My story is consistent. Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000.”

After initial refusals to comment, Pentagon officials have acknowledged that Able Danger existed. Army Maj. Eric Kleinsmith told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21 that he had complied with orders to destroy 2.4 terabytes of computer data produced by Able Danger _ 2,400 gigabytes, or about one-quarter the size of all the books in the Library of Congress.

Kleinsmith and other Pentagon officials have cited privacy laws, which they say prohibit the government from maintaining secret files on U.S. citizens or non-citizens in the country on legal visas.

Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican with extensive foreign-affairs experience, has taken up the Able Danger officers’ cause. Calling Able Danger “the most important story of my lifetime,” Weldon last week sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter signed by 246 lawmakers, split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, demanding that the program’s officers and contractors be allowed to testify in open congressional hearings.

“Further refusal … can only lead us to conclude that the Department of Defense is uncomfortable with the prospect of members of Congress questioning these individuals about the circumstances surrounding Able Danger,” the letter said. “This would suggest not a concern for national security, but rather an attempt to prevent potentially embarrassing facts from coming to light.”

In a speech on the House floor last month, Weldon said the Able Danger saga is more important than the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.

“I am not a conspiracy theorist, but there is something desperately wrong,” he said. “There is something outrageous at work here. This is not a third-rate burglary of a political campaign headquarters. This involved what is right now the covering-up of information that led to the deaths of 3,000 people, changed the course of history, led to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and has disrupted our country, our economy and people’s lives.”

Weldon also accuses the Pentagon of engaging in a smear campaign against Shaffer, 42, since the colonel went public, by revoking his security clearance, suspending him, and leaking alleged details from his personnel file to reporters and congressional aides. Among the slurs, Weldon says, are claims that Shaffer was having an affair with a Weldon aide _ which Shaffer’s lawyer vehemently denies _ that he sought reimbursement for personal cell phone calls, and even that he stole pens from a U.S. embassy where his father was based when Shaffer was 15 years old.

“There is something desperately wrong when a military officer (Shaffer) risks his life in Afghanistan time and again, embedded with our troops under an assumed name with a false beard and a false identity … gets castigated, gets ridiculed, gets some low-life scum at the Pentagon spreading malicious lies about this individual,” Weldon told fellow lawmakers.

In response to a request by Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense Department’s inspector general is investigating the alleged smear campaign against Shaffer.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused the Pentagon of possible “obstruction of the committee’s activities” after the Defense Department forbade Shaffer, Philpott and other Able Danger analysts from testifying before the panel. Specter and Pentagon officials are negotiating conditions for an open hearing.

“The American people are entitled to some answers,” Specter said. “It is not a matter of attaching blame. It is a matter of correcting errors so that we don’t have a repetition of 9/11.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, has heard closed-door testimony from Able Danger members and Pentagon employees, and it is nearing completion of a report.

Weldon is an unlikely Pentagon antagonist. Since first being elected to the House in 1986, he has been a defense hawk, consistently pushing for larger Pentagon budgets and new programs. Weldon speaks Russian, has led dozens of congressional delegations to Russia and the former Soviet Union, and has traveled to Libya, North Korea and other countries to deliver stern messages to dictators.

Weldon’s crusade on Able Danger, though, has drawn derision in some quarters, even from some current or former lawmakers who have known him for years.

“By the way he talks about Able Danger these days, you’d think it would have prevented Pearl Harbor,” said Timothy Roemer, a former Indiana Republican congressman and member of the 9/11 commission.

Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana Democratic lawmaker who co-chaired the 9/11 panel, said he worked closely with and respects Weldon because the two shared interests in defense and intelligence matters. But he said the commission investigated the Able Danger officers’ claims exhaustively and could not find evidence to support them.

“We’ve asked for that chart repeatedly,” Hamilton said in an interview. “The Pentagon cannot produce it, the White House cannot produce it and Weldon cannot produce it.”

Breitweiser said she is confident additional facts about Able Danger will emerge.

“As more and more information is coming out, more and more Americans are questioning how this attack could have happened,” Breitweiser said. “We’re finding out we are not being told the truth. A lot of information was known, and the attacks could have been prevented.”