Senate panel takes on Pentagon over 'Able Danger' program

If officials at the Defense Department thought that the controversy over 'Able Danger' would die down, today's hearing conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee before an overflow audience may change their minds.

Able Danger was an Army data mining program run in 1999 and 2000 under the auspices of the Special Operations Command and the Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA). The program conducted research into numerous sensitive issues, such as Russian corruption and Chinese weapons proliferation, and included terrorism as one topic.

According to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and several former members of Able Danger, the program had identified Mohammed Atta, one of the leaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, as an associate of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Muslim cleric convicted for seditious conspiracy, as early as 2000.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) convened the hearing to explore the allegations that Able Danger had identified Atta, and to learn why the Pentagon disbanded the program and destroyed the information it gathered. Specter also was seeking information as to whether the Posse Comitatus Act'which bars the military from any law enforcement activities within U.S. boundaries'was the justification for the Pentagon's action, and if so, whether the act should be amended in some fashion.

The Defense Department did not send any representatives with knowledge about Able Danger to testify, and ordered several individuals not to testify.

'There have been extensive discussions between my staff and staff of the Department of Defense' regarding the scope of the hearing, Specter said. 'I am surprised that five people were ordered not to testify. ' It appears obstructive.'

Weldon, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and is known for his steadfast support of the military, has been publicly asking why the order was given to destroy Able Danger research.

'The DoD never conducted an active investigation' into Able Danger once the program became known, Weldon said. 'No oaths were given [and] no subpoenas issued.' Instead, there has been 'denial, deception, threats to DoD employees, character assassination, and now silence,' he added.

The attorney representing Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency and member of the active Reserve, and James Smith, a defense contractor ' both of whom worked on Able Danger ' testified on their behalf.

'Unfortunately, I'm here as a surrogate speaker for several witnesses,' attorney Mark Zaid said as his two clients sat right behind him.

Zaid described the events of the past several weeks ' including the orders to his clients not to testify, the destruction of the records and the Pentagon's decision not to send a representative with knowledge of Able Danger ' as 'more to do with CYA' than steps taken to protect classified information or programs.

Eric Kleinsmith, who was a major with the Army and chief of intelligence for LIWA until February 2001, testified that he was ordered to destroy Able Danger's information.

'I deleted the data,' he said. 'There were two sets, classified and unclassified, and also an 'all sorts,'' which contained a blend of the two, 'plus charts we'd produced.'

Kleinsmith said he deleted the data in the May-June 2000 time frame by the order of Tony Gentry, general counsel of the Army Intelligence and Security Command.

By the time William Dugan, acting assistant to the secretary of defense for intelligence oversight, testified to the committee, senators were getting annoyed with the lack of cooperation.

Specter grilled Dugan about the application of Posse Comitatus and whether there was any indication it applied in this case.

'No sir, I don't think this is a Posse Comitatus issue,' Dugan responded. 'I think it's an oversight, a compliance issue.'

Finally Specter's exasperation came out. 'Perhaps if we had somebody who knew more,' he said. 'You were sent over ' perhaps with the calculation you wouldn't have the information.'

At the end, Specter suspended the hearing, rather than adjourning it, promising there will be another go-round.

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