By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
A lawmaker says a Special Operations Command unit identified terrorist Mohammed Atta before the attacks.
TAMPA - Congress and the Sept. 11 Commission have launched multiple investigations into reports that the Special Operations Command in Tampa held back information that could have foiled the 9/11 plot, officials said Tuesday.
The fast-paced developments were in response to information provided by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee.
Weldon said a secret military unit known as "Able Danger" discovered a year before the attacks that ringleader Mohammed Atta and three other future hijackers were in the United States.
Weldon said the unit - created at SOCom under a classified directive in 1999 to take out al-Qaida targets - identified Atta and the others as likely members of the organization.
In fall 2000, the unit recommended SOCom share the information with the FBI, Weldon said in an interview Tuesday.
But lawyers at either the Pentagon or SOCom determined the men were in the country legally, Weldon said. He said he based his information on intelligence sources.
When members of Able Danger made their presentation at command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Weldon said, the legal team "put stickies on the faces of Mohammed Atta on the chart," to reinforce that he was off-limits.
"They said, "You can't talk to Atta because he's here on a green card,"' Weldon said.
Had SOCom shared the information with the FBI, Weldon said, 9/11 might not have happened.
"The outcome would have been seriously affected."
In a statement Tuesday, SOCom said Able Danger developed information about al-Qaida "as part of an effort to deter transnational terrorist organizations."
"We do not have any information about whether Able Danger identified Atta or other 9/11 hijackers, or about a recommendation to provide information to the FBI," SOCom said.
SOCom is responsible for the nation's secret commando units, and has played a central role in the war on terror since 9/11.
A former spokesman for the Sept. 11 Commission said that members of its staff were told about the program but that the briefers did not mention Atta's name. The commission report produced last year did not mention Able Danger's findings.
On Tuesday, commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton said that Weldon's information, which the congressman said came from multiple intelligence sources, warrants a review.
He said he hoped the panel could issue a statement on its findings by the end of the week.
"The 9/11 Commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9/11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell," said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Had we learned of it obviously it would have been a major focus of our investigation."
At least two congressional committees have begun looking into the episode.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said he, too, had asked the Pentagon for information about the Able Danger program.
The Indian Shores Republican said that in hindsight, it was easy to say that one thing or another could have disrupted the hijackers.
"There should have been better sharing of information," he said.
Young said that passage of the Patriot Act and appointment of John Negroponte as intelligence czar, which gives one person access to all information generated by the intelligence community, would help resolve future problems.
"The tools weren't as good then as they are today," Young said.
Sounding agitated by what he perceived as a missed opportunity, Weldon made a distinction between the military lawyers and Special Operations Forces, whom he praised. Gen. Pete Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, was SOCom commander at the time.
The small military unit developed the information using mostly open sources, not classified channels, Weldon said.
Weldon revealed the Able Danger findings in a little-noticed speech on the floor of the House in June. On Monday, Government Security News, a biweekly publication that covers homeland security, published a cover story on the subject, generating another article in the New York Times.
Until now, Atta had not been identified publicly as a threat to the United States before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
According to Weldon, the military unit identified a terrorist cell in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September 2000.
The individuals identified as members of the cell were Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhamzi.
In late 1999 or 2000, the CIA had identified Almihdhar and Alhamzi as terrorist members who might be involved in a terrorist operation.
The duo arrived in Los Angeles in early 2000, but the FBI was not warned about them until spring 2001. No efforts were made to track them until a month before the terrorist attacks.
In the article published by Government Security News, a former defense intelligence official who worked with Able Danger said he alerted SOCom about the unit's findings. The publication said it interviewed the source in Weldon's office.
"The documents included a photo of Mohammed Atta supplied by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and described Atta's relationship with Osama bin Laden," the article said.
"The officer was very disappointed when lawyers working for Special Ops decided that anyone holding a green card had to be granted essentially the same legal protections as any U.S. citizen.
"Thus, the information Able Danger had amassed about the only terrorist cell they had located inside the United States could not be shared with the FBI, the lawyers concluded."
Former Sen. Bob Graham, one-time chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was not familiar with the Able Danger program.
However, the Florida Democrat said he was not surprised by Weldon's account.
"If it's true," Graham said, "it would be yet another example of a missed opportunity to learn about the plot and to blow it up before 9/11."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.