I don’t think an apology is or will be owed to the 9/11 Commission. Most of us who have asked questions about the Able Danger controversy were careful to note that nothing untoward had been proved yet. But the Commission has a dubious track record, having closed ranks around Jamie Gorelick when it was obvious that she had a blatant conflict of interest, having whitewashed the significance of “the wall” to pre-9/11 intelligence failure, and having gone out of its way – in the absence of any meaningful investigation – to deny Iraq/Qaeda ties. It was – and it remains – sensible to ask questions here, and the Commission’s initial reaction last week only gave more cause for concern.
Remember, the Commissioners who spoke out said initially that there was no way the Commission had been told about U.S. officials making an Atta identification prior to 9/11, and acknowledged that if the Commission had been told such a thing it would have been a big deal, requiring further inquiry. Within 72 hours, they had changed their tune, saying: what do you know, we did hear such a thing, but we decided the U.S. naval intelligence officer who told us about it was not reliable, and that the program he cited to us was not historically significant.
The Commission’s new memo is indeed an impressive piece of rebuttal, but it’s not a show-stopper. Two things – if only two things – are clear. First, Rep. Weldon has some answering to do. If he has answers, he should provide them promptly.
On this score, it is noteworthy that he is not on his own in these startling allegations. He has said he is in contact with knowledgeable witnesses who are in a position to testify. Further, the New York Times’ account last Thursday reported that both Weldon “and a former defense intelligence official who was interviewed on Monday have said that the Able Danger team sought but failed in the summer of 2000 to persuade the military’s Special Operations Command, in Tampa, Fla., to pass on to the Federal Bureau of Investigation the information they had gathered about Mr. Atta and the three other men.” (Emphasis added.) It’s high time for these sources to come forward and explain themselves.
Second, as noted above, in their initial public denials last week, Commission members opined that evidence of an Atta identification would have been significant if the Commission had learned about it. It turns out the Commission did learn about such evidence (viz., the naval intelligence officer’s account) but was not persuaded by it. Well, that’s why God made footnotes. If, as the Commissioners concede, government awareness of Atta was a highly important topic, and if, as the new memo indicates, there were good reasons to be skeptical about the naval officer’s version of events, the simple solution was to mention his allegation in a footnote and knock it down with the rebutting information.
The Commission’s task, as the first sentence of its final report reflects, was to submit a report for the government and the country’s consideration. It was fine for the Commission to make judgments about the weight of the evidence as long as it was comprehensively reporting what the evidence was. It was not fine to withhold conflicting evidence on significant topics so that others would not know there was an alternative to be considered. There are hundreds of footnotes in the report, some of which are, in fact, efforts to explain how the Commission resolved conflicting evidence on various topics. There is no good reason not to have handled the naval officer’s claims this way – so that Congress could have asked follow-up questions and Weldon and others could have come forward with their conflicting contentions a year ago.