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Able Danger Mystery Solved: How Atta Was Linked in Early 2000

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leveymg Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-28-05 12:21 PM
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Able Danger Mystery Solved: How Atta Was Linked in Early 2000
Able Danger Open Thread at WashPost - Cover-up & Response
by leveymg
Wed Sep 28th, 2005 at 09:10:22 PDT

Washington Post national security writer, William M. Arkin, downplays the Able Danger story. His anonymous Pentagon sources are saying, in effect, "There's nothing to see here, move along."

Don't believe them. Their version of the story makes no sense, as is explained below. It depends on the widespread misimpression that the Able Danger project relied on "open source" data, such as Internet files and drivers license records. Arkin's story, however, references a little-reported Pentagon news conference which reveals that the project, in fact, had access to CLASSIFIED DoD data banks. As will be explained below, that means the DIA could have, and should have, connected the dots between Atta and the other principal 9/11 hijackers in early 2000 based on classified NSA intercepts outside the US.

This removes one of the central mysteries -- and much of the confusion -- about the Able Danger story: How did AD link Atta to the others before he entered the US?

Arkin's column, nonetheless, obscures what the Pentagon actually knew months in advance about the al-Qaeda cells planning to attack the United States. It appears to advance the cover story now being offered the public that AD was closed down by Pentagon brass because it didn't really discover anything important. The column is on-line and has a open string that follows.

Here's the column and my response at the WashPost's on-line site. In response to that post, another reader informs us that the project DID NOT merely work with "open source" data. This confirms that the AD analysts had access to classified DoD files, and they could have, and should have, been able to connect the dots between Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers.


Washington Post on-line

William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security

Disabling Able Danger

In April 2000, Able Danger, only months old, was abruptly shut down. Caught violating Reagan administration Executive Orders and Defense Department and Army regulations restricting intelligence agencies from collecting information on United States "persons," the highly compartmented cell within the Army's Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) was halted in its effort to use data mining and link analysis to characterize the worldwide nature of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Anthony Shaffer, the whistle blower who went public in August, claims lawyers shut down the operation just at the point that it named and identified 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
As I wrote yesterday, Shaffer is pretty lonely in his recollections. Of some 80 people interviewed by the Defense Department as part of its Able Danger internal investigation, the Pentagon says that three additional workers remember seeing either a chart with a photo or a reference to Mohamed Atta.

The general in charge of the Special Operations Command, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, also went on the record this weekend telling the St. Petersburg Times that he was "pretty sure" Able Danger did not identify Mohamed Atta before 9/11.

Two Defense Department lawyers familiar with the case told me that there is no evidence that lawyers directed the destruction of information nor restricted any sharing of useful intelligence with the FBI, as Shaffer claims.

The real story here is how another renegade intelligence effort subsisting on hyper secrecy ran afoul of regulations first implemented in the Ford administration when U.S. intelligence agencies were caught collecting information on community, religious and labor leaders, civil rights protestors, and anti-Vietnam war demonstrators.

"What began as a force protection mission for DOD organizations, evolved, through mission creep, lack of clear rules, and the lack of meaningful oversight, into an abuse of ... Constitutional rights...," William Dugan, Pentagon chief of intelligence oversight, said last week. He was describing the experiences of the 1960s and 1970s.

Shaffer and others use words like "out-of-the-box" and "entrepreneurial" to describe the LIWA intelligence collection. The buzz words suggest, of course, that other intelligence efforts were in-the-box and boring, that only the LIWA and other compartmented workers were motivated and insightful enough to take chances, that if the lawyers and the bureaucrats and the Clintonistas and the other villains had just gotten out of the way, there would have been no 9/11. If only...
But in 2000, the problem was also a pretty simple one: An off-the-books intelligence effort once again abused the "force protection" justification to collect information on Americans. Military commanders, mindful of the law and regulations, shut down the operation.

When Able Danger approached LIWA in 1999 to help with the al Qaeda campaign plan, the organization was already involved in a number of highly classified counter-terrorism data mining efforts. LIWA's al Qaeda project collected 2.5 terabytes of "open source" information, Shaffer says, a ridiculously immense amount of data equivalent to 500 million pages of text or a pile of paper 30,000 miles high if it were all printed out -- court records, news databases, credit card and telephone records. "Anything we could get our hands on," says Shaffer.

"Open source" here means unclassified information, that is, information that has not been collected and compiled by U.S. intelligence, for example, intelligence information derived from electronic eavesdropping or human agents that the United States classifies at birth.

LIWA purchased an open-source, six-month data run, Shaffer says, and analysts developed a set of eight data points common to 1993 World Trade Center bombers and associates. With advanced software, including facial recognition software able to track individuals from the collected photographs, Shaffer says contractors "made the link between Atta and Rahman, the first World Trade Center bomber."

Thomas Gandy, Army Director of Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence, said at the September 1 Pentagon briefing that the problem with LIWA's work was that "it was a gobbling up of a lot of data from a lot of sources and put (it) in one pile." Thus there was a "commingling of U.S. person data" with other data. The contractors and software specialists did not take precautions to tag data from different sources or to segregate information about wholly innocent Americans of Islamic faith from others who were not US persons.


but the truth seems to be that while LIWA workers and contractor might have seen what there were doing as actual detective work to uncover terrorists, Able Danger and SOCOM saw the project mostly as an experiment to prove the usefulness of the technology.

So just months after LIWA began its seat-of-the-pants effort, it was directed to destroy its 2.5 terabytes.


Tracked on Sep 28, 2005 10:38:26 AM



In numerous reports, Able Danger has been portrayed as being an open-source project. Thank you for the cite that states that it, in fact, operated with both classified and open sources. That only reinforces the bigger point that is being made here:

NSA intercepts led US intelligence to the Kuala Lumpur planning summit in early January 2000. That meeting was monitored by the CIA and other agencies, and the attendees were then followed as they departed. Ramzi bin al Shehhi, Atta's roommate, returned to Hamburg.

Think about the timeframe here. Why does everyone profess such puzzlement about how AD could have linked Atta and the others in early 2000?

Posted by: leveymg | Sep 28, 2005 12:20:49 PM


Posted by: topdog08 | Sep 28, 2005 11:35:28 AM

Re leveymg's comment " Why would an Above Top-Secret DoD program, such as Able Danger (AD), be restricted to gathering and analyzing non-classified "open source" data " --------

WHO said Able Danger was restricted to unclassified material?

In the DOD press conference cited by Arkin ,

Cmdr. Christopher Chope, Center for Special Operations, U.S. Special Operations Command, explicitly says the opposite:

" Chope: In Able Danger it was mixed, both open source and classified. "

Posted by: Don Williams | Sep 28, 2005 11:16:23 AM

leveymg posted

Has anyone explained -- and, has anyone even asked -- the obvious question here? Why would an Above Top-Secret DoD program, such as Able Danger (AD), be restricted to gathering and analyzing non-classified "open source" data, such as Internet postings and purchased private surveillance archives? That makes absolutely no sense, for several good reasons:

the DIA analysts attached to the project, including Col. Shaffer, would most certainly have had access to a wide variety of classified files. That would include the finished intelligence derived from the NSA's SIGINT intercepts and other classified sources, such as US intelligence counter-terrorism files.

the reported scale of the AD databank, 2.5 terabytes (TB), is far too small to store and analyze wide swaths of the open web, which in 2003 was an estimated 167 TB. Closed internet sites --the "deep web" -- is some 100 times that size. Anthony Bamford's "Body of Secrets" (2001) states that the NSA's internal data banks (exclusive of SIGINT intercepts) amounted to some 12TB, much more in scale with the AD project computers.

by early 2000, the NSA and DIA had acquired extensive data on all four of the principal 9/11 hijackers. The classified data potentially available to AD analysts about the UBL cell consisted of the following -

Mohamed Atta was linked to the others through the Kuala Lumpur meeting in January 2000. That Al-Qaeda planning summit was attended by the flight 77 (Pentagon) hijackers -- Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar -- and Atta's roommate, Ramzi bin al Shehhi. The 9/11 and Cole attacks were planned there, afterwards the Flt. 77 hijackers entered the US and Atta's roommate went back to Hamburg.

the NSA tracked al-Hazmi and al-Midhar to the Kuala Lumpur planning summit (US and British intelligence had known about the al-Hazmi family's operation of an al Qaeda communications center in Yemen since 1995). Once they got there, the CIA and half a dozen American and allied intel agencies monitored the meeting, and followed everyone as they left.

All the information above came out during the September 2002 Congressional Joint Intelligence hearings into 9/11. That's no secret. For more info, see,

It is thus clear that the public story about AD doesn't really make much sense in light of the information that was available to DOD from its own files. What DoD actually knew about al-Qaeda -- and what the picture that it had put together of al-Qaeda plans to attack the US -- is being obscured by the central myth that AD was strictly an open source collection tool.

I don't buy that, nor should anyone else until we get a plausible explanation as to why the AD program was entirely cut-off from the DIA and NSA's files. Even if the AD computers exclusively scanned open sources (and why should that restriction be in place), the project's analysts would have had access to sufficient information from the Kuala Lumpur intercepts to put together the "Brooklyn cell" matrix.

Finally, since the Flt. 77 hijackers were planning to crash into the Pentagon, and the Kuala Lumpur plotters were planning to attack US Navy ships, the "force protection" justification was well-founded and, in fact, more than justifiable.

We still haven't heard any good reason why Able Danger was shut down by the Bush Administration in April or May 2001.

Posted by: leveymg | Sep 28, 2005 11:05:55 AM

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stillcool Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-28-05 12:31 PM
Response to Original message
1. thank you for this...
book-marked for a later...more thorough read.
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