Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Commission and ABLE DANGER: Beware the carefully crafted question/answer/rebuttal

As we sort through the ABLE DANGER story, we need to beware the carefully crafted statement that seems to answer more than it does or that refutes a charge that was never made. The 9-11 Commission and staff have a lot at stake here. And some members of the Commission know how to play the game. Remember the stunt over the PDB from August 2001?

But just read the PDB. You don't have to be James Bond to see there is no actionable intelligence there at all. Not a shred.

This needless declassification of a Top Secret document was the result of a stunt by Richard Ben-Veniste, a member - as unbelievable as it sounds - of the 9/11 Commission.

When it was his turn to query Condoleezza Rice during Thursday's public hearings, Ben-Veniste brought-up the PDB. He said, "Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB."

Rice replied, "I believe the title was, Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

Immediately after she finished her sentence, Ben-Veniste tried to cut her off. Clearly, his intent was not to ask a question, but simply to force Rice into publicly speaking the words of the title, thereby inflicting political damage on a war-time President.

Rice would have none of it. She verbally pushed Ben-Veniste aside, explaining the PDB piece was synthesized from historical intelligence and written in response to questions the President had asked. The article was not a threat report, said Rice.
However, it was to no avail. Ben-Veniste's words had done their work.

The next day's press was filled with reports on the 'secret warning.' The Los Angeles Times, for example, carried a front page story about "disclosures from the commission that President Bush was warned in a highly classified intelligence briefing five weeks before the attacks..."

Ben-Veniste knew what he was doing. By asking only about the title of the classified document he was determined to imply that Bush received a strong warning about 9-11 weeks before the attacks. The MSM played along.

There is a lot of soundbite wiggle room given the problems of names and known aliases. Imagine three documents. One written in December 2000 lists "Manzoor Ali" as an important Al Qaeda operative. The second, written in December 2001 suggests, based on further digging, that Ali is an alias for Atta. The third document, written in December 2003, makes a near-iron clad case that Ali is a previously unknown alias for Atta.

The skeptics can honestly say "no document written before 9-11 mentioned Atta or any of his known aliases. All they had was some dubious post-9-11 speculation that is contrary to the FBI's exhaustive investigation."

End of story, right?

Except that the FBI investigation may have been compromised in ways they did not understand in 2002-2003. The three documents, taken together, could be a serious avenue of investigation.

The larger point-that the December 2000 document might have uncovered Atta if it had been given to the INS and FBI-remains true. But that can get lost in the charge/counter-charge crossfire. Journalists and bloggers need to sift this stuff carefully.

Perhaps as a starting point right bloggers should give the Gorelick/Wall angle a rest for a few days. This is not the time to get tunnel vision.

I'll have more on that in my next post.

OTOH, I really want to know what happened between October 2003-when 9-11 Commission staffers met with Shaffer and requested a follow-up-and January 2004-when the staffers told Shaffer that they did not need to talk to him. When analyzing intelligence matters nothing beats a good chronology.

I'd also like to know how ABLE DANGER and its progeny fit into Rumsfeld's "transformation" efforts at DOD. That is a big, unseen bureaucratic war. What looks like a conscious cover-up could be routine collateral damage.

It could also be a simple case of a damaged institutional memory. This quote from Shaffer suggests some of that is going one:
Now, back to the information that DOD passed to them. DOD passed two containers, approximately briefcase-sized containers over to them in the February-March time frame of '04. That is not one-twentieth of the information which was available out there on Able Danger and the project.

And plus, they asked DIA for it. It was not a DIA project. And I think they asked the wrong questions of DOD in some cases. And I know for a fact right not DOD is trying to get to the bottom of this

UPDATE: The JunkYard Blog has a good post up that shows how well the 9-11 Commission takes criticism.

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