False Concern

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On Monday Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) brought a New York Times reporter into his Congressional office to meet with an unidentified intelligence official who said: 1) that there is a top-secret military intelligence group called “Able Danger” 2) this group knew in the summer of 2000 that Mohammed Atta, and several other participants in the September 11, 2001 attacks were not only members of al-Qaeda, but present in the United States as well, and 3) the group hesitated to pass on the information to law enforcement agencies because of prohibitions against foreign intel agencies spying on citizens and green card holders.

But the same article very clearly says that that none of the four terrorists who ‘Able Danger’ fingered in 2000 had green cards. That’s confirmed by the 9/11 Commission; they all had some form of tourist visa. Yet Weldon seems confused on the point. In June a local paper quoted him in as saying, “Because the men had green cards, they couldn’t touch them.” And Government Security News, a biweekly newsletter that reported the story on Monday, seems to have bought what was apparently Weldon’s line until very, very recently: they were untouchable because they had green cards.

So when that statement became inoperative, the new line was that the damn lawyers wouldn’t let the intel folks tip off the FBI or other domestic law enforcement because they had a “sense of discomfort” about breaking some sprit of the law. This is, as Robert Novak would say, bullshit. First, the law is clear: citizens and permanent residents (the formal term for green card holders) get this protection, while people on holiday or business trips don’t. Second, as the Times op-ed page deliciously points out today (how’s that for timing) the law is violated all the time. Third, according to Human Rights First, getting exemptions to the law for people suspected of being foreign agents isn’t that tough.

I have little trouble believing that there is something called ‘Able Danger,’ or that it knew about these four men well before the attacks. And it certainly would be consistent with most views of pre-attack intelligence operations that the information wasn’t shared. But the rationale for why the names weren’t passed on just doesn’t have legs. So why float this balloon now? Perhaps Weldon and others are interested in further watering down protections against spying on citizens and permanent residents. Or maybe it’s just nice to blame the lawyers and civil-libertarians rather than the intelligence community or Bush’s (and, yes, Clinton’s) lax approach to Al Qaeda. Or maybe he’s just full of it.

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