Feb 23 2006
I had the honor of being on an Able Danger bloggers conference call tonight with Representative Curt Weldon. Thanks to Mike at Able Danger Blog for setting this up. The first Able Danger Conference Call was with Attorney Mark Zaid.
Bloggers on the line:
Dana from Common Sense Political Thought
Curt from Flopping Aces
Mike of Able Danger Blog
Pierre from Pink Flamingo Bar & Grill
Bluto from Jawa Report and The Dread Pundit Bluto
And of course yours truly.
This was a really fascinating opportunity to talk directly to the Congressman and finally ask questions that I have been speculating about, and which now are being confirmed more and more. The Congressman was very approachable and very open – which was interesting to say the least.
The call began by a very detailed opening statement by the Congressman going through the history and highlights of Able Danger. Since much of this is available on many sites and news articles, I will (as usual) focus on what was new or confirmed.
As is well known, the Congressman is frustrated that even after 9-11, and even though most of the damage to Able Danger’s potential was done in 2000, the current administration is still doing more CYA than hard nosed assessment. He does not feel it is the intent or wishes of the Cabinet or President to throw up road blocks. But there are enough well connected and respected people, and top level DC careerists, with serious power who could be embarrassed that the drive is to stomp this story down and hope (or assume) they have it all fixed.
Let me jump to a tidbit that came at the end of the conference call. Weldon noted that the DIA held an agency wide conference recently in Florida – pulling many of their people in from their posts – and a top level DIA person said one of the Agency’s top priorities was to shutdown the Able Danger story. Not terrorism – Able Danger.
I live and work in DC and that has got to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard. If people wanted this story to go away they would fix all the problems – none of which involve classified material or details. All the problems surrounding Able Danger are related to people misusing their positions to hide personally embarrassing information. In the Clinton years it was apparently studies regarding technology leaks to China. In the Bush administration it appears to be bad decisions, turf wars and protecting empires. But in all cases, national security is second to the DC CYA.
Weldon is surprised at the push back he is getting now. It seems the DoD has convinced themselves they have fixed the problems. In my opinion they are in denial because the excuses they give make no sense. Cambone has got to be the biggest incompetent fool if he thinks the proper response to data reaching its 90 day anniversary is armed guards taking data and SW, closing down successful intelligence efforts, and stopping successful contracts mid term. That is not how the government deals with stale data. And those orders do not typically emanate from the Pentagon or higher.
It seems Justice and DoD are aware there are problems, but instead of showing off how things have been corrected to Congress (which is normal behavior when you want to show you are worthy of more funding) they are rationalizing and resisting detailed oversight.
Weldon does have pre 9-11 data which was not found in Garland as I suspected. This is the data he had run and which surfaced a lot of Atta hits. But he speculates (and I agree 100%) SOCOM could have more copies of the original Able Danger data from 2000. The purge was only at LIWA since that is where the China Study was done. The problem was what was defended for destroying the China data ended up snagging our leads on tens of terrorists world wide.
And the intimidation of witnesses is real. There are statements by two people of threats by Cambone’s staff to lose security clearances in phone conversations. The fact information from Tony Shaffer’s security clearance were lifted and made public has caught the attention of numerous other potential whistleblowers. The administrationâ€™s reliance on bumblers like Cambone and others makes it more likely the story will stay alive as people lose their livelihoods through loss of clearances. Or even worse – personal smear campaigns.
Many who saw or had a chance to listen to the hearings will recall when Weldon confronted Cambone with testimony from a very senior, retired intelligence officer – well respected in the community – who talked on a plane to a Cambone staffer (Butch Willard I believe) who said Cambone’s team saw the Able Danger story dying.
Turns out the guy behind Cambone was the guy on the plane (who jumped in his seat when Weldon relayed the claim) and the senior intelligence agent was also in the audience a few rows back. My guess is Cambone was pretty shook up on that one.
As we know from the last conference call with Mark Zaid Zelikow’s testimony in closed session never covered any classified material. So it seems it was more an attempt to hide out from the press than anything else. Zelikow is Condi Rice’s top deputy and he may be trying to protect her from his problems – which of course will end up doing just the opposite. Never hide things in DC.
Weldon is concerned some staffers of the 9-11 commission may have taken it upon themselves, after hearing the details of how Able Danger was disrupted prior to 9-11, to keep the lid on this because it would cause too much discomfort for too many people. It’s not an unreasonable theory and could explain the disconnect with people Weldon knows and respects (e.g., 9-11 Commissioner John Lehman) and the efforts to divert rather than divulge at lower levels.
As I have been posting for a while now, the first and largest problem Able Danger ran into was the blowback on the China technology transfer study done by the same people at LIWA and Orion who did Able Danger. The data mining effort ruffled major feathers and is the reason we lost critical intelligence data on terrorists in early 2000. In the Clinton years it was political appointees cooking up alibis – like the 90 day retention angle – to destroy data, disband solid intelligence work and toss out productive contractors.
It seems in the Bush administration it was the opposite problem, with career bureaucrats taking matters into their own hands and covering their tracks.
Weldon was heavy into the China issue as a member of the Cox Committee investigation in the late 1990’s. This committee did all their work in closed session and determined, unanimously (dems and reps) serious damage had been done to our technology edge over China. Much of it came from wavers being issued by the Clinton administration for all sorts of joint business ventures. That topic is a whole series of posts in itself.
The Cox Committee had one problem – consensus. While the conclusion was unanimous, the answer to how it happened would have broken the committee along partisan lines. So Weldon went off and started to look at it himself, and I believe he eventually coordinated with General Hamre to see what the data miners at LIWA would turn up.
Well, they turned up Universities, where technology is openly discussed and a natural target for Chinese agents and front companies. Lots of universities do research work for DoD and NASA, as well as some operations (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in CA and the Applied Physics Laboratory in MD are both tied to universities – Caltech and Johns Hopkins – and do a lot of classified work). If there is a weak point in our technology security it is the openness of the University environment. So China targeted these weak points and interesting names come up associated with these universities. Like William Perry and Condi Rice.
As I have said many times, data mining SW looking at China technology connections which did NOT make these connection would be deemed seriously broken. So I doubt anyone who knew what data mining is would be surprised. That is why analysts look at it and have to detect serious connections. Connections like Johnny Chung:
During one visit to the White House, he handed a $50,000 check to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff, Margaret A. Williams.
I mean even Google can do that kind of search. So why would this cause such panic? Well, it was an election year and not too long after the impeachment hearings. Whatever, the disruption and chaos that followed was not due to any 90 day rule on data retention. Data that is exempt from that rule in 2 out of 3 allowed exemptions.
Interesting side note: Weldon had charts from other efforts that pulled together a timeline of key events and types of leaked technology. These now reside in a Bill Gertz book, and I think the book was ‘Betrayal‘.
Anyway, in 1999 the LIWA effort looked promising to expand on all the work to date and find out more on the ‘how’ we lost technology secrets to China. Then the hammer came down hard.
The news of the problems at LIWA definitely echoed throughout the intelligence community. Apparently the LIWA shutdown and purge was also meant to send a signal. Bob Johnson in Garland caught wind of this purge and took a different tact. He went to his father the Congressman, who went to Weldon and joined forces with him to go to DoD and Congressional leaders and salvage Able Danger in Garland using Raytheonn as the new contractor. It worked for a while until people were shuffled around in DIA and SOCOM and support collapsed. Apparently people like the current number two at DIA who did not have the spine to run a program that had garnered so much attention. Maybe that is why he ran from the room when Shaffer tried to brief him in 2001.
The wide raning discussion covered the USS Cole, the post 9-11 mistakes and successes, the 9-11 commission which I expect other bloggers to go into detail on. I do think the reason the Able Danger warnings about the Port of Ayden were not taken seriously is because other more established elements in the Intelligence community kept trying to dismiss this upstart technology, which did have the political black eye from the China fiasco. In a world of conflicting intel, the tried and true wins out over the new kid on the block.
After the China Study uproar I doubt anyone wanted to have Able Danger or Data Mining associated with their work.
And that is the crime here. Someone panicked, purged our national security apparatus of critical information, tools and personnel to cover their political discomfort. I asked the Congressman if the DoD can fix that problem without legislation and he said no. There are going to be more hearings and the pending report on the IG investigation into the Tony Shaffer retribution.
This story is not dead yet. And the DoD cannot convince America it has corrected these serious, dangerous flaws until it comes clean with what happened – no matter who gets embarrassed. Because, that is EXACTLY how we got into this mess in the first place. People covering up uncomfortable information. This problem cannot be fixed if this is still being practiced to this day, on the very topic which demonstrated the dangers of what could happen.
One thing to recall from the hearings is how effective Able Danger was post 9-11. The Able Danger mission was to identify Al Qaeda for possible action if the time came. The time came 9-11, and it is easy to speculate Austin Bay may have evidence of what Able Danger’s impact from what this 2002 Al Qaeda message says
STOP RUSHING INTO ACTION AND TAKE TIME OUT TO CONSIDER ALL THE FATAL AND SUCCESSIVE DISASTERS THAT HAVE AFFLICTED US DURING A PERIOD OF NO MORE THAN SIX MONTHS. THOSE OBSERVING OUR AFFAIRS WONDER WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO US. PREVIOUSLY, THEIR ERRORS WERE NOT DISCOVERED UNTIL SUCCESSFUL OPERATIONS HAD BEEN COMPLETED. BUT TODAY WE ARE EXPERIENCING ONE SETBACK AFTER ANOTHER AND HAVE GONE FROM MISFORTUNE TO DISASTER.