Thursday, February 16, 2006
In the first open hearing about the existence of an intelligence cell that may have identified the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 attacks a year before they happened, lawmakers sat back and let Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) run the show.
As the hearing unfolded into a complex web of he-said, she-said accusations, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) could have spoken for all her colleagues present: "I feel like I am in a deposition for a very bad divorce."
Only a handful of lawmakers attended the hearing, which was chaired by Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities. And many of those present deferred all their question time to Weldon.
Weldon, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has been involved in a heated months-long crusade to shed light on a Pentagon intelligence cell called Able Danger that he says identified the now-infamous Mohamed Atta a year before the attacks. He said the cell tried to warn other government agencies about Atta's plans, but other government agencies either never received those communications or failed to act on them.
The Pennsylvania congressman grew visibly frustrated with the Pentagon officials at the hearing when he believed the information he received from Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, did not jibe with information he had received from participants in the program.
Weldon also alleged that certain whistle-blowers had been intimidated and that their careers were threatened. Cambone denied the allegation, saying: "I can assure you that no one is being subject to threats that I'm aware of."
"How can we trivialize what these people have said?" Weldon asked Cambone. "It's about just giving the story. I am not a conspiracy theorist."
"I do not understand - it is frustrating to me," he added. "I am not going to stop here. President Nixon had to resign over a third-rate burglary," while 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Maybe neither administration [Clinton or Bush] wants to know what happened," Weldon said. "Maybe I am offending everyone."
He charged that people are afraid to come into the open for fear of retaliation from the Pentagon.
Weldon has accused the Defense Intelligence Agency, a unit of the Pentagon, of trying to keep the information that the intelligence unit discovered under wraps.
The military since has revoked the security clearance of one of the officers, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. The Pentagon said his clearance was revoked for a series of alleged violations of military rules, none of them related to whistle-blowing.
The Pentagon has initiated an inspector-general investigation into Able Danger and Shaffer's clearance revocation. That investigation is expected to be completed in May.
Saxton tried to balance the testimony with a moderating view.
"The Able Danger story is complex. No single individual has firsthand knowledge of all the relevant events," Saxton said.
"Members must decide for themselves what to believe from the testimony presented today. There will be inconsistencies," he added.
However, he said that after reviewing the evidence he did not believe that the failure to pass on the information gathered by Able Danger is another example of a communication failure between the agencies and does not "represents a major blunder by the special operations command, the Army or any presidential administration."
Karissa Marcum contributed to this report.