Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
Teaser Image

Able Danger

Able Danger was a highly secret military intelligence program whose leaders have claimed to have identified Mohamed Atta and three other members of the September 11 plot well before September 11, 2001. General Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), issued a directive in early October 1999 to establish an intelligence program under the command of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to be directed specifically against Al Qaeda and its operatives. The commander of Able Danger was U.S. Navy captain Scott Philpott, who commanded a unit of 20 military intelligence specialists and a support staff. The chief analyst of Able Danger was Dr. Eileen Priesser.

The purpose of Able Danger was to identify Al Qaeda members and neutralize them before they could initiate operations against the United States, much like a military version of the CIA's Alec Station. The data-mining center was at the Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA)/Information Dominance Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In the summer of 2000, the LIWA was transferred to Garland, Texas.

Members of this unit began intelligence operations seeking to identify Al Qaeda operatives both in the United States and abroad. Its computer analysts set up a complex computer analysis system that searched public databases and the Internet for possible terrorist cells. One of the terrorist cells so identified contained the name of Mohamed Atta and three others who were later implicated in the September 11 plot. Atta's name and the names of others were supposedly placed on a chart of Al Qaeda operatives.

Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer, a reserve officer attached to the Pentagon, and Able Danger's liaison with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), as well as others, decided to inform the FBI about the threat posed by the Al Qaeda operatives. Three potential meetings with the FBI were postponed because of opposition from military lawyers in the Pentagon. The apparent reason for the opposition from the U.S. Special Operations Command of the Department of Defense (DOD) was fear of controversy that might arise if it was made public that a military intelligence unit had violated the privacy of civilians legally residing in the United States. Another possible reason was that the lawyers believed the program might be violating the Posse Comitatus Act of using the military against civilians.

The leaders of Able Danger then decided to work their way up the military chain of command. In January 2001, the leadership of Able Danger briefed General Hugh Shelton, still the chairman of the JCS, on its findings. Shortly afterward, the Able Danger unit was disbanded, its operations ceasing in April 2001. DOD lawyers had determined that the activities of Able Danger violated President Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12333, intended to prevent the Pentagon from storing data about U.S. citizens. A direct order came from the DOD to destroy the database; 2.4 terabytes of information about possible Al Qaeda terrorist activities were destroyed in the summer of 2001. A chart identifying four hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, was produced by Able Danger and presented to the deputy national security adviser, Jim Steinberg, but nothing came of it.

Able Danger was a military secret until its story surfaced shortly after the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 Commission, issued its report, which stated categorically that the U.S. government had no prior knowledge about the conspiracy that led to the September 11 attacks. Keith Phucas, a reporter for the Times Herald (Norristown, Pennsylvania), broke the story of Able Danger on June 19, 2005, in an article titled "Missed Chance on Way to 9/11."

When the story about Able Danger became public, it erupted into a political controversy. On June 27, 2005, Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and the vice chairman of the House Armed Services and House Homeland Security committees brought the Able Danger issue to the national limelight. In a speech before the House of Representatives, Weldon accused the U.S. government of negligence in its failure to heed the information gathered by Able Danger.

Despite some lapses of information (and a tendency to blame the Bill Clinton administration for the lapse), Weldon summarized many of the features of Able Danger without disclosing its nature as a secret military intelligence initiative run from within the Department of Defense. Weldon also disclosed that the information about Able Danger had been reported to the staff of the 9/11 Commission.

Members of the 9/11 Commission responded to these charges with a series of denials. Lee H. Hamilton, former Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, admitted learning about the Able Danger program but denied hearing anything credible about a possible identification of Atta or other hijackers in the 9/11 plot. This argument contradicted the testimony of Shaffer that he had communicated Able Danger's findings about Atta in a meeting with the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikov, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in late 2003. Leaders of the commission then requested and obtained information about Able Danger from the DOD, but there had been nothing about Atta in the information provided. They also admitted that U.S. Navy captain Philpott had mentioned something about Atta only days before the final report came out.

This denial of prior knowledge by members of the 9/11 Commission drew the attention of Lieutenant Colonel Shaffer. In an interview on August 15, 2005, Shaffer told the story of Able Danger, and he indicated that he had been at the "point of near insubordination" over the refusal to pursue the information about Atta. Furthermore, Shaffer insisted that he had talked to the staff of the 9/11 investigation in October 2003, in Afghanistan, where his next tour of duty had taken him. Captain Philpott and civilian contractor J. D. Smith confirmed Shaffer's claim about Able Danger's knowing about Atta. In September 2010, Shaffer released the book Operation Dark Heart, which includes numerous descriptions of reports about Able Danger made to the 9/11 Commission.

In September 2006 the DOD's inspector general issued a report denying that Able Danger had identified Atta by calling the testimony of witnesses inconsistent. Weldon criticized the report and investigation as incomplete. In December 2006, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded a six-month investigation that found no supporting evidence that Able Danger had identified Atta or any other hijackers prior to the 9/11 attacks.

The controversy, however, has continued because the participants have felt left out of the investigation of the events surrounding September 11. Many of them have placed their careers in jeopardy by countering the government's version. Colonel Shaffer had his security clearance pulled by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and his personal records of Able Danger destroyed. Although Weldon was an effective spokesperson in Congress who kept the story alive, his loss of office in the 2006 election deprived him of that important forum. Nevertheless, the last word has not been said about Able Danger and about whether information about Atta and others was stored in a government database.

Stephen E. Atkins

Further Reading
Lance, Peter. Triple Cross: How Bin Laden's Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets, and the FBI—and Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him. New York: ReganBooks, 2006; McCarthy, Andrew C. "It's Time to Investigate Able Danger and the 9/11 Commission." National Review, December 8, 2005, 1; Rosen, James. "Able Danger Operatives Sue Pentagon." News Tribune [Tacoma, WA], March 4, 2006, 6; Rosen, James. "A 9/11 Tip-Off: Fact or Fancy? Debate Still Swirls around Claim That Secret Military Program ID'd Hijackers a Year before Attacks." Sacramento Bee, November 24, 2005, A1; Shenon, Philip. "Officer Says Military Blocked Sharing of Files on Terrorists." New York Times, August 17, 2005, 12; Shenon, Philip. "Report Rejects Claim That 9/11 Terrorists Were Identified before Attacks." New York Times, September 22, 2006, A15.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

ABC-cLIO Footer