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Talk:Able Danger

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September 21, 2010 3:50 PM MDT

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"A small group of intelligence employees ran 'Able Danger' from the fall of 1999 until February 2001 - just seven months before the terrorist attacks - when the operation was axed." [1]

Anne Landman, CMD Editor


Kick ass analysis - WashPost's new blog Early Warning

William M. Arkin, "The Secret History of Able Danger", Washington Post - Early Warning blog, September 27, 2005

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.

The matter was to have come to a head last week when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a special Able Danger hearing. But the Pentagon declined to allow even unclassified testimony at the open hearing, arguing that the matter better rested with the Intelligence Committee.

Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) accused the Pentagon of "stonewalling," and all of a sudden, Weldon seemed vindicated in his claims that the Defense Department, and the 9/11 Commission, had something to hide.

The Pentagon is hiding something. But it’s not what Weldon thinks.

First, to debunk the myths:

  • 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.
  • It is not even clear that a "Mohammed Atta" was identified, let alone that it is the same Atta who died on 9/11.
  • No military lawyers prevented intelligence sleuths from passing useful information to the FBI.
  • Able Danger itself was not an intelligence program.

As a representative of U.S. Special Operations Command said at a special Pentagon briefing arranged on September 1, Able Danger "was merely the name attributed to a 15-month planning effort" to begin building a war on terrorism. This is the real story.

In early October 1999, three months after Osama bin Laden was added to the U.S. “ten most wanted” list as the mastermind behind the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and more than a year after President Clinton signed a Presidential Directive laying out a renewed counter-terrorism program, 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.

Like most government activity associated with counter-terrorism in the late 1990's, Able Danger was a "compartmented" effort. After the 1998 embassy bombings, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger directed that a tightly compartmented process be put in place to keep all counter-terrorism military planning secret. Under “this” Polo Step compartment, the Navy was required to station a force of Tomahawk cruise missile-shooting submarines off the Pakistani coast at all times, and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), regionally responsible for Afghanistan, worked with the Joint Chiefs to develop a set of 13 military options against Al Qaeda under a war plan called Infinite Resolve.

As the Able Danger cell began its work, its first questions were: What is al Qaeda? How big is it? Where is it?

As the 9/11 Commission said in its final report: "Despite the availability of information that al Qaeda was a global network … policymakers knew little about the organization. The reams of new information that the CIA’s Bin Laden unit had been developing since 1996 had not been pulled together and synthesized for the rest of the government."

Able Danger reached out to intelligence organizations that were not only involved in monitoring al Qaeda, but also those that were specialists in synthesizing new information.

One such organization was the new Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA), a part of the Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). LIWA was organized in March 1995 to integrate "information warfare" into Army operations. On paper, that meant everything from manning new command centers in order to protect Army Internet connections from hackers to providing support for battlefield "psychological operations."

But LIWA, along with other information warfare organizations, was also developing offensive information warfare capabilities, including computer network attack and other cyber-related covert operations. And for that, there was a widespread recognition of the need for intelligence of much higher "granularity," or specificity, particularly about people, than had ever before been compiled on a large scale.

Starting in 1996, LIWA deployed teams to Bosnia. They were part of a new vanguard of information warriors. They required detailed information on factions and individuals: decision-maker identities, biases and inter-relationships, identification of critical communications and information links and nodes, demographic data, populace biases and pre-dispositions. The goal was to harness this information to determine potential pressure points to leverage decision-maker/populace behaviors.

Liwa_bosnia2_1(Illustration: An information warfare "matrix" used by LIWA in Bosnia. The field support team employed data mining and link analysis to build a picture of pressure points associated with the Bosnian leadership, the same kind of modeling it would later employ on al Qaeda for Able Danger.)

Back at Ft. Belvoir, VA, the LIWA Advanced Concepts and Analysis division, and later the Army's Information Dominance Center (IDC) was employing new means for achieving "information dominance." With the explosion of electronic information and the ability to move vast quantities of data quickly, analysts were increasingly facing the same problem confronting forensic accountants, insurance fraud investigators, and bank examiners: Large amounts of data was increasingly available, but it needed to be put in relational form in order to develop patterns, and then sense needed to be made of the patterns to reveal what had already happened or was about to happen.

In academia, in government, in the information industry, even in marketing, hundreds of different technical approaches were being pursued, both classified and unclassified. 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.

Another method being developed was social network analysis. This analyzes the types and frequencies of interactions among people to determine formal and informal leadership hierarchies.

In the intelligence community, most of the early data mining and link analysis efforts involved monitoring terrorist financial transactions. For example, after Somalia disintegrated in 1991 and many Somalis migrated to the U.S. and Europe, they began to send money home via the "al-Barakaat" network of money remitters. In October 1996, the FBI began to track connections between the al-Barakaat system and terrorist groups, and in the late 1990's, the intelligence community, using similar analysis to track money transfers, began to draw links between al-Barakaat and Osama bin Laden.

Inside the intelligence community, at LIWA and other organizations, data mining and link analysis was being conducted on elite and so-called “crony” networks in Bosnia (and later in Serbia during Kosovo operations), on international drug cartels, on corruption and contract killings in Russia, on weapons proliferation and sensitive trade with China, and on terrorist linkages in the Far East.

In December 1999, LIWA was approached by SOCOM to support Able Danger by conducting data mining and link analysis of the al Qaeda network. 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.

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 with-and what is still being hidden today-is the questionable (read: potentially illegal) collection and acquisition of information on American citizens before and after 9/11.


William Arkin, "Disabling Able Danger", Washington Post - Early Warning blog, September 28, 2005

In April 2000, Able Danger, only months old, was abruptly shut down. Caught violating Reagan administration Executive Orders and Defense Department and Army regulations restricting intelligence agencies from collecting information on United States "persons," the highly compartmented cell within the Army's Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) was halted in its effort to use data mining and link analysis to characterize the worldwide nature of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Anthony Shaffer, the whistle blower who went public in August, claims lawyers shut down the operation just at the point that it named and identified 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.

As I wrote yesterday, Shaffer is pretty lonely in his recollections. Of some 80 people interviewed by the Defense Department as part of its Able Danger internal investigation, the Pentagon says that three additional workers remember seeing either a chart with a photo or a reference to Mohamed Atta.

The general in charge of the Special Operations Command, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, also went on the record this weekend telling the St. Petersburg Times that he was "pretty sure" Able Danger did not identify Mohamed Atta before 9/11.

Two Defense Department lawyers familiar with the case told me that there is no evidence that lawyers directed the destruction of information nor restricted any sharing of useful intelligence with the FBI, as Shaffer claims.

The real story here is how another renegade intelligence effort subsisting on hyper secrecy ran afoul of regulations first implemented in the Ford administration when U.S. intelligence agencies were caught collecting information on community, religious and labor leaders, civil rights protestors, and anti-Vietnam war demonstrators.

"What began as a force protection mission for DOD organizations, evolved, through mission creep, lack of clear rules, and the lack of meaningful oversight, into an abuse of … Constitutional rights…," William Dugan, Pentagon chief of intelligence oversight, said last week. He was describing the experiences of the 1960s and 1970s.

Shaffer and others use words like "out-of-the-box" and "entrepreneurial" to describe the LIWA intelligence collection. The buzz words suggest, of course, that other intelligence efforts were in-the-box and boring, that only the LIWA and other compartmented workers were motivated and insightful enough to take chances, that if the lawyers and the bureaucrats and the Clintonistas and the other villains had just gotten out of the way, there would have been no 9/11. If only…

But in 2000, the problem was also a pretty simple one: An off-the-books intelligence effort once again abused the "force protection" justification to collect information on Americans. Military commanders, mindful of the law and regulations, shut down the operation.

When Able Danger approached LIWA in 1999 to help with the al Qaeda campaign plan, the organization was already involved in a number of highly classified counter-terrorism data mining efforts. LIWA's al Qaeda project collected 2.5 terabytes of "open source" information, Shaffer says, a ridiculously immense amount of data equivalent to 500 million pages of text or a pile of paper 30,000 miles high if it were all printed out -- court records, news databases, credit card and telephone records. "Anything we could get our hands on," says Shaffer.

"Open source" here means unclassified information, that is, information that has not been collected and compiled by U.S. intelligence, for example, intelligence information derived from electronic eavesdropping or human agents that the United States classifies at birth.

However, the open source label tends to hide the real problem the Able Danger sponsored effort ran into.

"They were not only using advanced data mining technology, they were also looking at data that no one else was looking at," Shaffer says.

According to military sources familiar with the Able Danger legal side, the effort stepped over the line when LIWA contractors purchased photographic collections of people entering and exiting mosques in the United States and overseas. One source says that LIWA contractors dealt with a questionable source of photographs in California, either a white supremacy group or some other anti-Islamic organization.

"There are records of who goes where regarding visits to mosques," Shaffer told Government Security News. "That was the data that LIWA was buying off the Internet from information brokers." It was stuff no one else bothered to look at, says Shaffer.

LIWA purchased an open-source, six-month data run, Shaffer says, and analysts developed a set of eight data points common to 1993 World Trade Center bombers and associates. With advanced software, including facial recognition software able to track individuals from the collected photographs, Shaffer says contractors "made the link between [Mohammed] Atta and [Sheik Omar Abdel] Rahman, the first World Trade Center bomber."

Thomas Gandy, Army Director of Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence, said at the September 1 Pentagon briefing that the problem with LIWA’s work was that "it was a gobbling up of a lot of data from a lot of sources and put (it) in one pile." Thus there was a "commingling of U.S. person data" with other data. The contractors and software specialists did not take precautions to tag data from different sources or to segregate information about wholly innocent Americans of Islamic faith from others who were not US persons.

Gandy says "there was no perceived imminent threat" or "imminent crime going to occur" that might have justified retention of the gigantic database. Under the regulations, LIWA could have argued that it indeed was on to something and sought justification to continue, but the truth seems to be that while LIWA workers and contractor might have seen what there were doing as actual detective work to uncover terrorists, Able Danger and SOCOM saw the project mostly as an experiment to prove the usefulness of the technology.

So just months after LIWA began its seat-of-the-pants effort, it was directed to destroy its 2.5 terabytes.

(Tomorrow: The Law Takes Hold)

Note to readers: In my original posting, I used the spelling "Mohammed" that readers latched onto as some perhaps some kind of conspiracy on my part. It was an error to spell Atta's name different than he did in his visa applications and on his Florida drivers license. Though I hesitate to quote the 911 Commission's spelling as so many readers think that is a conspiracy as well. According to the Wikipedia entry, Atta used "several aliases and alternate spellings, including Mehan Atta, Mohammed Atta, Mohammad El Amir, Mohamed El Sayed, Muhammad Muhammad Al Amir Awag Al Sayyid Atta, and Muhammad Muhammad Al-Amir Awad Al Sayad. The will that he allegedly wrote in 1996 gives his name as 'Mohamed Mohamed Elamir Awad Elsayed.'"

I did a LexisNexis search of the last 90 days of news to check the prevailing spelling. There were 482 hits for "Mohammed Atta" and 528 for "Mohamed Atta." The Washington Post convention is Mohamed Atta.

By William M. Arkin



William Arkin, "Another Law Under Assault", Washington Post - Early Warning blog, September 29, 2005

Ever since the Able Danger debate began in August, whistle blower Army reserve intelligence officer Anthony Shaffer and his patron Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) have been suggesting that military lawyers protect terrorists under some archaic pre-9/11 rule.

Shaffer told Government Security News that the problem his data mining intelligence effort ran into "was where do you draw that line regarding protection of U.S. persons -- between U.S. citizens… and these other folks who are here legally, but not technically deserving of the same protections?"

The line is drawn perfectly.

Nothing restricts U.S. military intelligence from collecting information on real terrorists, and nothing even stops U.S. intelligence from passing information indicating terrorist involvement on the part of a U.S. citizen from being passed to the FBI.

These were the rules before 9/11 and despite passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and the creation of new intelligence-law enforcement sharing arrangements, these same rules apply today.

Shaffer and other shadow warriors just don't like lines. They think that they can conduct surveillance, analyze intelligence, enforce the law, and fight the war on terrorism all by themselves. As a result, they see the rules segregating intelligence from law enforcement, let alone intelligence from war fighting and policy (remember Iraq) as niceties that the global war on terrorism can no longer afford.


William Arkin, "Myers, Uzbekistan, Nukes Bye Bye" Washington Post - Early Warning blog, October 3, 2005


There's so much more WE need to know. News this weekend that Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer's security clearance has been permanently been revoked makes the Pentagon look petty, but doesn't tell the entire story. Shaffer became famous this summer as the whistleblower who revealed the compartmented Able Danger war planning effort of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Shaffer claims <http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/earlywarning/2005/09/the_secret_hist.html> that intelligence analysis associated with Able Danger. According to the news reports, Shaffer obtained a medal under false pretenses, improperly flashed military identification while drunk, misused government credit cards, and, hold on, stole pens,

I'll agree that DIA investigators have been dredging up whatever they could. But the news stories, and Shaffer's lawyer, have only been reporting part of the story. I imagine that Shaffer's real problem is revealing the existence of Able Danger in the first place, together with other compartmented programs that he has also made reference to in numerous interviews: Stratus Ivy, Dorhawk Galley, and Able Providence. Shaffer likely had to sign a "non-disclosure" agreement related to his clearance for each of these. I'm all for conscientious government officials going public when they believe their agencies are secretly breaking the law, but you've got to admit, Shaffer's biggest problem seems to be his ability to keep a secret, hence why would the government grant him a security clearance.


Relocating from a new article page. --Bob Burton 00:18, 3 Nov 2005 (EST)

"Able Danger" explains everything. Also, DOD employees were ordered to shred pre- and post 911 intelligence regarding terrorist activity, links, and tracking information.