September 23, 2005

Pentagon, Senate committee bicker over 9/11 probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon and the Senate
Judiciary Committee squabbled publicly on Friday about whether
lawmakers could question five key witnesses in public about
their claims the U.S. military identified four September 11
hijackers long before the 20001 attacks.

The Defense Department came under fire from Republican and
Democratic lawmakers this week when it prohibited the same
witnesses, including members of a secret military intelligence
team code-named Able Danger, from appearing before the
judiciary panel at a public hearing on Wednesday.

The panel's chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania, said at Wednesday's hearing the Pentagon could be
guilty of obstructing congressional proceedings. Other
lawmakers accused the Defense Department of orchestrating a

On Friday, the Senate committee announced the Pentagon had
reversed its position and would allow the five witnesses to
testify at a new public hearing scheduled for October 5.

The Pentagon denied anything had changed, despite
behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach a solution agreeable to
both sides.

"Our position has not changed," Defense spokesman Bryan
Whitman told Reuters. "This is a classified program and there
are still aspects of it that are not appropriate for an open
hearing. And that's what we have told the committee."

Not so, responded William Reynolds, the judiciary
committee's director of communications.

"The Pentagon has agreed to make five witnesses available.
Although there was no talk at the time when they made that
offer, the assumption was that it would be in an open committee
hearing," Reynolds said in an interview.

"If the Pentagon has issues with that, they need to let us
know," he added.

Able Danger, now defunct, was a small highly classified
data-mining operation that used powerful computers to sift
through reams of public data in search of intelligence clues on
a variety of topics.

The five witnesses in question were all involved with Able
Danger and contend the team identified September 11 ringleader
Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers as members of an al
Qaeda cell in early 2000 -- more than a year before the

A Pentagon review of the operation has turned up no
documents to support the assertion.

But one prospective witness, Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer,
has said publicly that Able Danger members tried to pass the
information about Atta along to the FBI three times in
September 2000 but were forced by Pentagon lawyers to cancel
the meetings.

Much of the information related to Able Danger was
destroyed in 2000, according to a former Army officer who
testified before Specter's panel on Wednesday.

Lawmakers from both parties have suggested the Pentagon is
trying to prevent the witnesses from testifying for fear that
they could confirm that data which might have prevented the
attacks on New York and Washington was known to the federal
government long before September 11, 2001.