Fabled Danger?

Atta bombshell looks more like case of mistaken ID


Later this month, Washington may witness one of the most intriguing hearings in history. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter is expected to call a career military official to testify about his shocking allegation that the Pentagon flagged 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta as a potential al-Qaeda terrorist more than a year before the attacks, and that his name and face wound up on a chart buried somewhere in the bureaucracy.

The revelation, if true, would rewrite the 9/11 Commission Report, which concluded the government could not have prevented the attacks and was not responsible for the loss of thousands of lives.

Navy Capt. Scott J. Phillpott, who headed a Pentagon counterterrorism project codenamed Able Danger, has claimed that as early as January 2000, his team identified lead hijacker Atta as part of an al-Qaeda terror cell operating out of Brooklyn.

That's all very curious, however, because according to German police records, Atta was nowhere near the U.S. then. He was in Hamburg. And it wasn't until March 22, 2000, that Atta, an Egyptian national, began contacting flight schools here to see about taking lessons. He emailed 31 different schools. In one email, he wrote: "We are a small group of young man [sic] (2-3 persons) from several different Arab countries. We would like to start a course for professional airplane-pilots."

Then on March 31, Atta also emailed an old friend from Cairo who was studying in Florida to ask if he needed to apply for a student visa before coming to the U.S. He then applied for his visa, got it May 18, and arrived here June 3—several months after the Able Danger team allegedly placed the future hijacker in Brooklyn. By July, Atta had settled in Florida, far from his alleged Brooklyn base.

But isn't it still possible the Able Danger team could have identified Atta as a member of an American cell before he got here, perhaps from records of his foreign travels?

There are a couple of problems with that notion, too. For one, the team developed its al-Qaeda links by mining data from open sources, which involved searching the Internet. Passenger lists and visa data are confidential and not available through open sources.

And even if Pentagon analysts had mined those closed records, they more than likely would not have found Atta in them for the simple reason that he didn't use that last name (nor did anyone in his family). He went by Mohamed el-Amir, not Atta. That's the way he was listed on flight manifests and travel documents—until, that is, he got his U.S. visa in May 2000. It was issued using his first and last names (his full name was Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta).

So when Atta arrived in America in June 2000, he in effect had a brand new identity as Mohamed Atta, making it highly unlikely Able Danger would be able to identify him by that name six months earlier as claimed.

Some analysts maintain that Atta was also IDed by photo, however. They recall seeing his mug on a chart of suspected al-Qaeda operatives that was produced back then.

This is even more curious. Where did they get it? There were no publicly available photos of Atta in early 2000. And that was long before there was one of him in the files of the Florida DMV, which would have been in the summer of 2000.

Phillpott and others on his team who share his recollection can't explain it. But one of them, a former contractor, says he recognized Atta after 9/11 from his distinctive "cheekbones." James D. Smith is sure there was an Arab terrorist on the chart, which he helped develop some 20 months earlier, with the same features.

Problem is, he no longer has the chart, and is relying on memory. Smith says he left his only copy of the chart back at his old job. It was stuck to his office wall, he says, and was impossible to remove when he left.

Are there other copies of the chart floating around? Unfortunately not. The Pentagon has found no evidence that such a chart ever existed. It sifted through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, and came up empty. So did 9/11 Commission investigators, who reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents.

However, the Pentagon did turn up a "similar" chart showing links to a "Brooklyn cell." But it did not contain a photo or a reference to Atta (or any of the other 18 hijackers), just two individuals with similar names—Mohammed Ajaz and Mohammed Arateff—who could easily have been confused for Mohamed Atta.

Others who claim to have seen a chart naming Atta have spelled his first name incorrectly as Mohammed. In his new book, Countdown to Terror, which started the furor over Atta, Republican Congressman Curt Weldon said the chart "showed Mohammed [sic] Atta and the infamous Brooklyn Cell." (Weldon, a big fan of data-mining intelligence programs like Able Danger, which was defunded, has taken up the cause of its disbanded former leaders.)

Given confusing Arab naming conventions, mistaking the identities of terrorist suspects is commonplace. And variations on the transliteration of Mohammed, the most common name in the Muslim world, are legion. What's more, there are scores of men named Mohamed Atta.

Several Pentagon officials say their colleagues are basing their allegations on flawed memories, echoing the conclusion of 9/11 Commission investigators. According to the Pentagon, only five out of the 80 people associated with Able Danger recall seeing Atta the hijacker on a chart or any document prior to 9/11.

I have no doubt these career military analysts mean well, and would have no motive to lie (although at least one, Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, is upset the data-mining project was axed and is lobbying Congress—with the help of Weldon—for $50 million to refund it). More than likely, they're remembering someone else. It looks simply like a case of mistaken identity.

If Specter wants his hearing to "get to the bottom" of the Atta caper as he says he does, he might also want to call, in addition to Phillpott and Shaffer, German authorities who could testify about the Atta emails in their files. Or he could just call veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott, who obtained copies of them for his book, Perfect Soldiers.

But that would be too easy. Washington loves a good conspiracy theory, so this one will likely drag out beyond the absurd, sapping precious time and money from the investigation of real scandals.