Sep 27 2005
Note: I had to whip out the original post in draft form with lots of typos – my apologies. I have since cleaned it up a bit (OK, a lot) since the kids are now in bed and I have a free moment again.
Mark Coffey was kind enough to alert me and others following the Able Danger saga to a Washington Post article by William Arkin. Mark is becoming convinced Able Danger was found to be performing questionable investigations on US citizens prior to 9-11. Mark’s final statement is correct:
Iâ€™m a firm believer in Occamâ€™s Razor, and Able Danger increasingly looks like a scenario where it seems to be quite applicable.
I too believe in Occam’s Razor. I also believe Able Danger ran afoul of what was considered appropriate behavior – but I am very skeptical it was really illegal verses very discomforting to a Clinton administration wracked by scandals and impeachment.
Let me address some issues regarding the Washington Post story which need some clarification. Conclusions are tough to make regarding what happened since all we have is interviews from key players and press conferences from the Pentagon and 9-11 Omission. But here we go:
Ever since Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) claimed in August that Pentagon analysts had identified 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta in early 2000, a secret intelligence operation code named Able Danger has become the latest fantasy of left and right wing conspiracy theorists.
I think Arkin has started off totally on the wrong foot here. The issues revolving around Able Danger are important. And many of us are trying to resolve a factual history of events. Many of us have been clear about speculation vs what seems to be holding up from multiple sources. And yes, some optional scenarios include possible political or partisan motives in action. Like that never happens in Washington!! But now we have the good Mr. Arkin to dispel us of our fantasies by providing his ‘theories’. Well let’s make sure he has some facts straight!
But the Pentagon declined to allow even unclassified testimony at the open hearing, arguing that the matter better rested with the Intelligence Committee.
I simply add this to note the emphasis (which I added) to direct people to the word ‘even’. Like unclassified testimony of a classified activity was somehow the norm…
Anyway. Back to the ‘facts':
As best as I can determine, having spent tens of hours talking to military sources involved with the issue, intelligence analysts did not identify anyone prior to 9/11, Mohammed Atta included, as a suspect in any upcoming terrorist attack.
I could have saved this man a lot of time. No one ever said the candidate terrorists identified under Able Danger were planning attacks. Not once was this the claim and many times the opposite was stated. These were to be targets if we decided to go after Al Qaeda. All 80 possible terrorists spanning five ‘cells’ here and abroad were potentially connected to Al Qaeda. That is all.
It is not even clear that a “Mohammed Atta” was identified, let alone that it is the same Atta who died on 9/11.
“Mohammed Atta” is clearly in quotes to make sure Arkin doesn’t go too far out on a limb and say Mohamed Atta, aka Mohamed el-Amir, was definitively not identified by Able Danger. This is such a Clinton-esque claim it begs the question of why didn’t Arkin debunk the actual, orginal claim. The original claim was that Mohamed Atta, (probably going under El-Amir), al-Shehhi, al-Hazmi, and al-Mihdar were all identified prior to 9-11. Why not come out and debunk the entire claim?
Why is Atta probably identified as el-Amir? Because two things became clear in the first senate hearing. Atta was never detected in the US by Able Danger. which meant he had to be going under the name he used in Germany prior to coming here. Also, SOCOM’s interest in meeting with the FBI regarding terrorists in the US could never be regarding Atta.
No military lawyers prevented intelligence sleuths from passing useful information to the FBI.
We have known this from early on. It was not uniformed lawyers who decided to destroy the early Able Danger data sets. And it was not uniformed lawyers who blocked the FBI meetings. It was civilian lawyers, most likely Clinton appointees. At least civilian lawyers working for Clinton Appointees. To understand the distinction between a ‘military lawyer’ and a lawyer working in the Department of Defense please refer to this post which touches on the subject.
Able Danger itself was not an intelligence program
This is also not news for those slogging through Shaffer’s GSN interview. In fact, it is this last point which blows a hole in the issue regarding ‘illegal spying’. But Arkin is very accurate in his description of the program, even though he started off with some questionable ‘c0nclusions':
Able Danger “was merely the name attributed to a 15-month planning effort” to begin building a war on terrorism.
the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, tasked U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to develop a “campaign plan” against transnational terrorism, specifically al Qaeda. The code name assigned to the planning effort, and the name of the cell of about 10 planners in SOCOM was Able Danger.
As the Able Danger cell began its work, its first questions were: What is al Qaeda? How big is it? Where is it?
I am with Mark here – this is one of the few accurate descriptions of Able Danger from a ‘charter’ perspective. Arkin also provides a good history of LIWA and how they became one of the early key elements in the Able Danger chain of organizations feeding SOCOM and Able Danger central. He also provides a good description of data mining and what it does:
One such effort immediately enlisted by the U.S. intelligence community and information targeteers was data mining, a capability to discover new patterns of indicators that identify events of interest when they cannot be directly observed. Data mining techniques applied to large “transaction” databases (travel or credit card records or telephone logs) could be used to uncover clandestine relationships or activities.
He also provides a good picture of the early Able Danger set up, the information it could have used and how it was gathered:
The project was initially focused on unclassified data mining using U.S. and foreign news databases, commercially available records of financial transactions, court records, licenses, travel records and phone books. The goal was to find links between potential or known terrorists. Analysts used “spiders” — automated robots — to go out on the Internet and collect whatever they could. “Anything we could get our hands on,” says Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the Army reserve whistle blower who was assigned to the LIWA effort.
Then Arkin jumps the shark:
Using the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and associated lists of suspect individuals as a starting point, LIWA began to compile databases of “associated” individuals, and then they began to “data mine” their mountains of collected records to find links between them. What they ended up withâ€”and what is still being hidden todayâ€”is the questionable (read: potentially illegal) collection and acquisition of information on American citizens before and after 9/11.
Questionable does not equate to illegal. If the target is AQ terrorists then detecting linkages between terrorists and US persons is not an illegal act. First off, you will get linkages between a terrorist and their preffered hotel in a city, their preferred restaurants, the nearest gas station. All these are not connections to terrorists or spying, they are simply the places visited by the potential target. And none of that information is illegal to have.
I must point out the timeline does not support this leap of logic either. The data acquisition arm of Able Danger got into trouble with the legal ‘powers that be’ in April-May 2000. That is the period of the purging of data at Orion and LIWA, and the restructuring of the program away fom LIWA. But Able Danger continued onward processing data and making connections into early 2001.
So how is it the ‘domestic’ analysis supposedly stopped, yet the SOCOM alert on US based terrorists came 3-6 months after the purge? I agree with Mark and Arkin the subject of open source data mining calls into question a lot of privacy issues. And I am not sure yet where I stand on this subject. And I am sure the US is still using open source data. The Pentagon basically said as much in their recent Able Danger press briefing. I think this is an important subject to debate and decide whether we want to allow this kind of analysis on public domain data. But that is not core issue with Able Danger.
The companion program, which was started in the same time period as Able Danger, was assessing connections within the US to China. That program did not survive the purge in the spring of 2000. It was probably the source of the reaction that started the purge and echoed forward to cause the barrier between SOCOM and the FBI.
This implies selective allowance for intel gathering on persons in the US. Able Danger was allowed to move forward and continue to walk the fine line, but the China connection study was not. This tells me it was not an issue intel gathering on people in the US, it was an issue of what subject was off limits and what was not. And that kind of differentiation leads me to conclude it was political, not legal.
Ed Morrissey has the same basic issues with the wordiing of Arkin’s ‘conclusions’ as I do. Check it out.