The Senate Intelligence Committee has rejected as untrue one of the most disturbing claims about the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes -- a congressman’s contention that a team of military analysts identified Mohamed Atta or other hijackers before the attacks -- according to a summary of the panel’s investigation obtained by The Times.
The conclusion contradicts assertions by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and a few military officers that U.S. national security officials ignored startling intelligence available in early 2001 that might have helped to prevent the attacks.
In particular, Weldon and other officials have repeatedly claimed that the military analysts’ effort, known as Able Danger, produced a chart that included a picture of Atta and identified him as being tied to an Al Qaeda cell in Brooklyn, N.Y. Weldon has also said that the chart was shared with White House officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, then deputy national security advisor.
But after a 16-month investigation, the Intelligence Committee has concluded that those assertions are unfounded.
“Able Danger did not identify Mohammed Atta or any other 9/11 hijacker at any time prior to Sept. 11, 2001,” the committee determined, according to an eight-page letter sent last week to panel members by the top Republican and Democrat on the committee.
Weldon, the focus of an unrelated Justice Department corruption probe, was defeated last month in his campaign for an 11th term in a suburban Philadelphia district that has a large GOP majority in voter registration. Attempts were unsuccessful Sunday to reach a Weldon spokesman and an attorney representing Weldon in the Justice Department investigation.
The Senate panel began investigating Able Danger in August 2005, after Weldon and people close to the program went public with their claims. At the time, Weldon was the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.
The recently completed probe also dismissed other assertions that have fueled conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.
The panel said it found “no evidence” to support claims by military officers connected to Able Danger that Defense Department lawyers prevented the team’s analysts from sharing their findings with FBI counter-terrorism officials before the attacks.
Nor was the alleged chart or any information developed by Able Danger improperly destroyed at the direction of Pentagon lawyers, the panel concluded -- a charge that had stoked claims of a cover-up.
Though the committee concluded that claims about Able Danger were unfounded, two of the hijackers were known to the U.S. intelligence community before the Sept. 11 attacks. The two had been observed by the CIA attending a meeting with Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia, but that information was not shared with other agencies in time to locate them after they had entered the United States and moved to San Diego.
Able Danger was the unclassified name given to a program launched in 1999 by the U.S. Special Operations Command as part of an effort to develop military plans targeting the leadership ranks of Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
Military analysts assigned to the effort did create charts with pictures of Al Qaeda operatives whose identities were known publicly at the time, the committee found. But the committee concluded that none of those charts depicted Atta, and that the claims of Weldon and others may have been caused by confusion.
One of the charts, titled “The Al Qaeda Network: Snapshots of Typical Operational Cells Associated With UBL [Usama bin Laden],” was attached to the letter sent to committee members last week by Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the panel’s leaders.
“One of these individuals depicted on the chart arguably looked like Mohammed Atta,” the committee concluded. “In addition, the chart contained names of Al Qaeda associates that sound like Atta, as well as numerous variations of the common Arab name Mohammed.”
The committee also suggested that officials’ memories may have been clouded by the flurry of charts and photographs of Atta that surfaced after the attacks. The panel noted that a defense contractor that produced the chart at the center of the controversy subsequently created a follow-up chart, after the attacks, that did include Atta.
Atta, an Egyptian-born Islamic radical, was the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks and pilot of one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.
In June 2005, Weldon generated controversy when he declared in a speech on the House floor and in a book released that month that he had met with Hadley at the White House shortly after the attacks and had given the national security official a copy of a chart showing that Atta had been identified by Able Danger.
But the committee concluded that the chart “was not a pre-9/11 chart” and that “at no time did Mr. Hadley ever see a chart with pre-9/11 data bearing Atta’s picture or name as described by Congressman Weldon.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee noted in its report that its findings were consistent with those of a similar investigation of Able Danger by the Defense Department inspector general’s office, released in September.
Weldon has relished the role of calling attention to national security threats he believes are being ignored by others in government. At times he has carried around a replica of a suitcase-size nuclear bomb to highlight terrorist nuclear dangers. He has also accused Iran of hiding Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Weldon’s rising legal troubles played a role in his reelection loss last month. It was disclosed last week that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed congressional records from Weldon’s office as part of an FBI probe aimed at determining whether he traded his influence to get lobbying business for his daughter Karen and others.
The House seat was won by Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral.