Along the Tracks

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

'Able Danger' story grows up

The New York Times has a blockbuster overview of how the military data-mining program called 'Able Danger' attempted to alert the FBI to the presence of Mohammed Atta and other conspirators on U.S. soil. There are more details, yes, but the crucial piece missing from past stories - the piece that makes the story impossible to dismiss with lame "not historically significant" mumbo-jumbo - is a name.

That name is Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer.

Shaffer was a liason officer between Able Danger and Defense Department intelligence. He pressed for meetings with the FBI to identify Atta and other terrorists, including three other members of the 9/11 conspiracy. He saw it as an opportunity to stop a terrorist attack.

He was blocked by lawyers who feared negative repurcussions concerning the "civil rights" of these wonderful young jihadis who were visiting. He says he nearly resigned in frustration.

Again, more details, which are certainly helpful. The crucial factor here, however, is having an identified source, which allows one to judge much more accurately the source's quality. Shaffer is uniquely placed to provide precisely the information needed to understand both what Able Danger uncovered and what the unit attempted to do with the information. We also now have a witness against the quality of the 9/11 Commission's research on this subject, which looks shamefully shoddy or deliberately uninquisitive. The commission statement on Able Danger claimed the Pentagon's documents never mention Atta - and more importantly, that the military source (who we now know is Shaffer) did not mention Atta. Shaffer unequivocally says he did state Atta's name as well as three other future hijackers. Someone is lying.

My first observation is that all those accusations about a "politicized" 9/11 Commission have gained a great deal of strength. Regardless of whether or not Atta's name was included in either the interview of Shaffer or the Pentagon documents, the Able Danger program was clearly as "historically significant" as any of the other vague references and dropped leads the Commission so carefully reconstructed. Leaving it out was a dereliction of its solemn duty.

One can only guess the reason: Either some members (or perhaps powerful staffers) were so against the data-mining concept they suppressed any inclusion of program in the 9/11 report; or the legalistic blockade against sharing intelligence information with law enforcement was damned by the Able Danger story, something which would impugn former Clinton official and 9/11 member Jamie Gorelick (who created the "wall of separation" between intelligence and law enforcement) as well as indict the Clinton administration for failing to follow up on what clearly was the best of all the potential tip-offs prior to 9/11. For God's sake, they had Atta's name!

Finally, the "coming out" of Lt. Col. Shaffer once again demonstrates the difference of value between anonymous sources and named sources. One good named source is worth at least three or four anonymous sources. One good named source takes the burden of credibility away from the journalist and sets it within the story itself, where it belongs. One good named source can lay the foundation for a story which goes to the heart of the issue, rather than the accusations involved.

By coming forward, Lt. Col. Shaffer has done a great service to his country. By working to get his anonymous label removed, the New York Times (and Rep. Curt Weldon, who helped convince Shaffer to allow his name to be used) and reporter Philip Shenon have done a great service to the free press.

Hat tip: Instapundit.

UPDATE: The NY Post has a related column on the "wall of separation" and more evidence conveniently ignored by the 9/11 Commission. (Hat tip: The Corner.)

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