"An active-duty Navy captain has become the second military officer to come forward publicly to say that a secret defense intelligence program tagged the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks as a possible terrorist more than a year before the attacks."
Navy Officer Affirms Assertions About Pre-9/11 Data on Atta
WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 – An active-duty Navy captain has become the second military officer to come forward publicly to say that a secret defense intelligence program tagged the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks as a possible terrorist more than a year before the attacks.
The officer, Scott J. Phillpott, said in a statement today that he could not discuss details of the military program, which was called Able Danger, but confirmed that its analysts had identified the Sept. 11 ringleader, Mohamed Atta, by name by early 2000. "My story is consistent," said Captain Phillpott, who managed the program for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command. "Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000."
His comments came on the same day that the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, told reporters that the Defense Department had been unable to validate the assertions made by an Army intelligence veteran, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, and now backed up by Captain Phillpott, about the early identification of Mr. Atta.
Colonel Shaffer went public with his assertions last week, saying that analysts in the intelligence project had been overruled by military lawyers when they tried to share the program's findings with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2000 in hope of tracking down terror suspects tied to Al Qaeda.
Mr. Di Rita said in an interview that while the department continued to investigate the assertions, there was no evidence so far that the intelligence unit had come up with such specific information about Mr. Atta and any of the other hijackers.
He said that while Colonel Shaffer and Captain Phillpott were respected military officers whose accounts were taken seriously, "thus far we've not been able to uncover what these people said they saw – memory is a complicated thing."
The statement from Captain Phillpott , a 1983 Naval Academy graduate, who has served in the Navy for 22 years, was provided to The New York Times and Fox News through the office of Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a longtime proponent of so-called data-mining programs like Able Danger.
Asked if the Defense Department had interviewed Captain Phillpott in its two-week-old investigation of Able Danger, another Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Paul Swiergosz, said he did not know.
Representative Weldon also arranged an interview with a former employee of a defense contractor who said he had helped create a chart in 2000 for the intelligence program that included Mr. Atta's photograph and name.
The former contractor, James D. Smith, said that Mr. Atta's name and photograph were obtained through a private researcher in California who was paid to gather the information from contacts in the Middle East. Mr. Smith said that he had retained a copy of the chart for some time and that it had been posted on his office wall at Andrews Air Force Base. He said it had become stuck to the wall and was impossible to remove when he switched jobs.
In its final report last year, the Sept. 11 commission said that American intelligence agencies were unaware of Mr. Atta until the day of the attacks.
Commission members did acknowledge in a statement on Aug. 12 that their staff met with a Navy officer last July, only 10 days before releasing the panel's final report, who had asserted that Able Danger, a highly classified intelligence operation, had identified "Mohamed Atta to be a member of an Al Qaeda cell located in Brooklyn."
But the statement, which did not identify the officer by name, said that the commission's staff had determined that "the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation" and that the intelligence operation "did not turn out to be historically significant."
With his comments today, Captain Phillpott acknowledged that he was the officer who had briefed the commission last year. "I will not discuss the issues outside of my chain of command and the Department of Defense," he said. "But my story is consistent. Atta was identified by Able Danger in January-February of 2000. I have nothing else to say."