The Republican chairman of the Senate judiciary committee accused the Pentagon on Wednesday of stonewalling an inquiry into claims that the U.S. military identified four September 11 hijackers more than a year before the 2001 attacks.
The Defense Department barred several witnesses from testifying at a judiciary committee hearing and instead sent a top-level official who could provide little information on al Qaeda-related intelligence uncovered by a secret military team code-named Able Danger.
“That looks to me like it may be obstruction of the committee’s activities, something we will have to determine,” said the panel’s chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Specter also complained that the Pentagon delivered hundreds of pages of documents related to Able Danger late on the eve of the hearing, giving his committee staff no time to review the material.
“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.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon considered Able Danger to be a classified matter and declined to participate when the judiciary committee chose to hold an open hearing.
“We have to obey the laws with respect to security classifications,” Rumsfeld told reporters.
Witnesses barred from testifying included military intelligence officers and analysts involved in Able Danger, a now defunct operation that used powerful computers to sift through public data in search of intelligence clues.
People involved with the operation have said that Able Danger identified September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers as being members of an al Qaeda cell in the early months of 2000.
A Pentagon review of the operation turned up no documents to support the assertion that Able Danger had been able to identify Atta as an al Qaeda member.
But one official, Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, has also said publicly that Able Danger members tried to pass the information along to the FBI three times in September 2000 but were forced by Pentagon lawyers to cancel the meetings.
Much of the information related to Able Danger was destroyed in 2000.
“Had that information been shared with the FBI, which was trying to get it, 9/11 might have been prevented,” Specter said.
The September 11 commission, which investigated the attacks that killed 3,000 people, has also said it found no documented evidence that Able Danger had identified Atta and other hijackers.
But former commissioner Slade Gorton acknowledged in a September 20 letter to the judiciary committee that Able Danger member, Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott, had told a commission lawyer that he saw Atta’s name and photo before the attacks.
William Dugan, acting assistant to the defense secretary for intelligence oversight, told Specter he knew little about Able Danger but said any information on Atta could have been transferred to the FBI if obtained under proper regulations.
“I understand that you were sent over in a very limited capacity, with perhaps the calculation that you didn’t have this information,” Specter told Dugan.