Yes, Virginia, there was a hunt for al Qaeda

Retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was the military’s top commander during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, confirmed that four years before the tragedy he authorized a secret computer data-mining initiative to track down Osama bin Laden and operatives in the fugitive terrorist’s al Qaeda network.

In his first public comments on the initiative, which some former intelligence officers now say was code-named Able Danger, Shelton also confirmed that he received two briefings on the clandestine mission _ both well before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Right after I left SOCOM (Special Operations Command), I asked my successor to put together a small team, if he could, to try to use the Internet and start trying to see if there was any way that we could track down Osama bin Laden or where he was getting his money from or anything of that nature,” Shelton said in an interview.

“It was just kind of an experiment,” Shelton said. “What can we do? So, he pulled together a bunch of really bright, computer-literate guys from across the services.”

Shelton’s assertions are significant because they raise new questions about the government’s knowledge of the al Qaeda network before the Sept. 11 attacks, and about the subsequent findings of the 9/11 commission, set up by Congress to probe the attacks.

Shelton was responding to claims by former Pentagon intelligence officers, who say that they used a data-mining program code-named Able Danger to identify 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers in early 2000, but that Pentagon lawyers blocked them from relaying their findings to the FBI.

Before the Defense Department issued a gag order preventing them from testifying to Congress in September, the former intelligence officers said they were assigned to use sophisticated software to perform complex computer searches of “open-source” data in a bid to locate links among al Qaeda operatives.

Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott said he led the program that identified Atta in January or February 2000. Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer said that Shelton had issued a directive establishing Able Danger, and that he and other intelligence officers on the top-secret program briefed Shelton on its findings in early 2001.

The Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. Richard Myers to replace Shelton as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff three days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Shelton said he never heard the program referred to as “Able Danger” until news reports on it first emerged in the summer, he said he authorized a computer data-mining effort to target bin Laden and his associates.

“I dealt with a million damn acronyms and different kinds of code names for operations,” Shelton said. “Able Danger was not one that jumped out at me when it first surfaced” in news reports.

But under his direction, Shelton said, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, now Army chief of staff, set up a team of five to seven intelligence officers after Shelton was promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997 and Schoomaker succeeded him as Special Operations commander.

The program began at Special Operations headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Shelton said, but it was expanded and moved to Fort Belvoir, Va., outside Washington. Schoomaker briefed Shelton on the program’s progress in late 1997 when Shelton made a return visit to his old command post in Florida.

In Washington, sometime between 1999 and 2001, Shelton received a more extensive briefing from Defense Intelligence Agency officers involved in the program.

Shelton said he doesn’t recall hearing or seeing Atta’s name in those briefings or at any time before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“To be candid, there were not many specifics in it,” Shelton said of the later briefing. “There were no names that surfaced that had not surfaced before through normal intelligence channels. There was no identification of any new players, or anything of that type.”

Shelton, though, said that a CIA representative and an FBI representative were present at the second briefing. And he said, “I know for a fact that I was told that they had been a part of the effort” to track al Qaeda through computer data-mining.

That assertion is important because some of the former intelligence officers who say they were involved with Able Danger have also said the Pentagon prevented them from relaying their data to the FBI for possible pursuit or prosecution.

Shelton, a North Carolina native who is now heading a leadership-training program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said he doesn’t recall seeing the large chart that the former Able Danger officers claim to have produced, displaying as many as 60 al Qaeda operatives, including Atta and other hijackers.

“Unless they had a big star by their names saying ‘potential 9/11 guy,’ then they (the names) wouldn’t jump out at you,” Shelton said.

“Only in retrospect, when you go back and start saying, ‘Well, we had this guy all along,’ does it sound like we (the intelligence officers) were brilliant.”