Offering new revelations about the CIA’s role in shutting down military intelligence penetration of al-Qaeda, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer joins a growing list of government officials accusing former CIA director George Tenet of misleading federal investigators and sharing some degree of blame for the 9/11 attacks.
A decorated ex-clandestine operative for the Pentagon offers new revelations about the role the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played in the shut-down of the military’s notorious Able Danger program, alleged to have identified five of the 9/11 hijackers inside America more than a year before the attacks.
Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer joins a growing list of government officials accusing former CIA director George Tenet of misleading federal bodies and sharing some degree of blame for the attacks. Shaffer also adds to a picture emerging of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit as having actively prevented other areas of intelligence, law enforcement and defense from properly carrying out their counterterrorism functions in the run-up to September 2001.
Shaffer spoke to documentary filmmakers John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski in late 2011, on the day Judicial Watch successfully forced the Department of Defense (DOD) to declassify many Able Danger documents through their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The materials newly in the public domain allowed Shaffer to speak more candidly than ever before. While he maintains the DOD bureaucracy was always the main obstacle for Able Danger, he offers fresh disclosures on the role played by the CIA in the shut-down of its military offensive.
In the wake of the devastating African embassy bombings of 1998, which left more than 200 dead, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) – responsible for the Pentagon’s secret commando units – brought together specialists from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to begin mapping the al-Qaeda network. Based in the Information Dominance Center – also referred to as Land Information Warfare Activity, or LIWA – at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the team’s advanced data-mining software found connections between known terrorists and subjects with matching profiles. This highly classified project was code-named Able Danger.
The project first came to public attention in June 2005, nearly one year after the 9/11 Commission released its report, when Congressman Curt Weldon gave a special orders speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. Following attacks on Weldon’s credibility, five Pentagon whistleblowers came forward to back up his claims, including Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, a CIA-trained senior intelligence operations officer, Bronze Star Medal recipient and reserve Army lieutenant colonel with more than 22 years in the intelligence community.
Shaffer now claims the media’s focus on the data-collection aspect of Able Danger missed the point. “Data mining kind of became, to use a film term, the MacGuffin,” says Shaffer, a reference to a narrative device – often used in Alfred Hitchcock movies – which drives the plot while ultimately having no relevance to it. “That was the throwaway they wanted people to focus on. The overall project was something that covered the entire command structure of [SOCOM]. The project was put together to give the national command authority options.”
In other words, the collecting of information about al-Qaeda’s cell structures was only meant to be a first step in a larger action to be taken using the data. “It wasn’t simply an experiment. My actual assignment wasn’t Able Danger. I could never testify to the actual operational objectives assigned to me and my unit for the purposes of Able Danger.” The Able Danger project, portrayed in most media reports as a mere data-mining exercise, was in fact fully integrated into a larger military effort to target and disrupt al-Qaeda. Its actual capabilities and objectives remain classified.
Shaffer contends that the most damning revelations lie in that still-classified aspect of the project, the operational side. Asked what the next step was to be against the so-called Brooklyn cell identified by Able Danger which he says included five of the 9/11 hijackers, Shaffer responded, “I can’t talk about that.”
At the center of the military’s intended action was a long-term asset recruited by DIA years before Able Danger, a retired Afghan general who had direct access to al-Qaeda activities in Afghanistan. “We had a clear access point to al-Qaeda we were using for our operational purposes,” says Shaffer. “The asset was a separate operation we were going to use for access. We were going to use still-classified capabilities.” That all changed when CIA got involved.
Following the embassy attacks, the White House became concerned about a deficit of access by CIA into al-Qaeda. President Clinton’s Cabinet-level counter-terror director Richard Clarke said he pushed for a shakeup at the agency. “We needed a new direction,” Clarke has explained. At Clarke’s behest, Tenet, CIA director between 1997 and 2005, removed Michael Scheuer, the founder of its Bin Laden unit – also known as Alec Station. Two men with strong operational backgrounds, Cofer Black and Richard Blee, were brought in to take over leadership. “When Cofer Black took over the counterterrorism center at the CIA, he was aghast that they had no sources inside al-Qaeda,” reported Clarke. “So he told me, ‘I’m going to try to get sources in al-Qaeda.'”
As Black and Blee began their efforts at the CIA, Able Danger was ramping up. Then-Major Anthony Shaffer was at that time in charge of a secretive DIA unit known as Stratus Ivy, facilitating five major DOD black operations. The assets each held equal importance. Shaffer says SOCOM brought him into the Able Danger project to work on agent coordination in 1999.
That October, Shaffer was asked by Navy Captain Scott Philpott, then-head of operations for the Able Danger initiative, to brief the CIA liaison to SOCOM, a senior agency official. But the meeting did not go well. In the interview with Nowosielski and Duffy, Shaffer names the CIA representative for the first time. He was Cold War veteran David Rolph, previously a station chief for the agency in Moscow.
“We, the Able Danger team, would like to have access to Alec Station to conduct our operations,” Shaffer said he told Rolph. But Rolph explained that unless Gen. Peter Schoomaker, commander of SOCOM, personally and directly approached CIA director Tenet for access, they would not get it. Shaffer offered Alec Station a “seat at the table,” allowing a station employee into their process.
According to Shaffer, Rolph bluntly informed him the CIA would never cooperate with SOCOM on the matter, because if the military succeeded in prosecuting the options for going after the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, it would “steal the thunder” of Alec Station. Shaffer found the response peculiar, even for the notoriously turf-defensive agency.
“I spent a lot of time working in joint projects between Special Operations Command and CIA,” Shaffer revealed. “So the fact that in this one area they would not cooperate was new, and it concerned me. But very often the CIA would just do things without regard to anyone else.”
How the CIA’s go-it-alone attitude regarding al-Qaeda helped enable the events of 2001 has only recently gained wider public attention. The story, reduced to an obscure endnote in the 9/11 Commission Report, exploded in 2011 when it emerged that Richard Clarke, counter-terror director for both Presidents Clinton and Bush, had, in a filmed interview, accused the CIA of deliberately withholding information on two of the 9/11 conspirators, the same ones separately discovered by Able Danger.
According to Clarke, some 50 employees in Black’s and Blee’s units would likely have known from early 2000 that conspirators Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi – among those who would commandeer American Airlines Flight 77, and reportedly the closest to Bin Laden himself – were working for al-Qaeda and had arrived in the United States. Incredibly, the agency sat on this information for up to 18 months, ignoring standard protocol requiring them to tell the FBI and Clarke’s team on the White House National Security Council.
Only a high-level decision could explain the silence of officers he spoke with regularly, Clarke believes. Pressed by John Duffy, the former head of counter-terrorism sensationally placed the blame on the CIA director. Tenet and others were quick to issue a dismissive press statement. But it can now be revealed the CIA’s negligence went far beyond keeping critical intelligence to itself.
Around the same time Alec Station learned of al-Mihdhar’s and al-Hazmi’s likely arrival in the US, Able Danger’s data-mining also unearthed the same individuals’ domestic presence. According to several people who directly participated in the project, by mid-2000 their data mine had identified five “hotspots” for al-Qaeda activity – including the German- and New York-based cells later implicated in the hijacking plot. Much of the controversy has centered on whether, more than a year before the events of 2001, Able Danger had identified lead hijacker Mohammed Atta. A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation and Defense Department Inspector General (IG) report have concluded otherwise. Still, Shaffer and colleagues remain adamant that key witnesses were ignored and testimony distorted in the IG’s final report. In other words, it was a classic whitewash.
“We found two of the three cells which conducted the [9/11] attacks,” says Shaffer. “They were the ‘Brooklyn cell’ not by geography, but they were the Brooklyn cell because members of the cell formed a similar profile to those who conducted the ’93 World Trade Center bombing. We were looking at individuals, groups, and who they talked to, relationships, if they went to a certain mosque during a certain period of time.” LIWA analysts created a massive chart with the names and photos of these terrorists. “We discovered these guys here and the CIA apparently knew these guys were here,” he insists. “And yeah, nobody really seems to know what was going on.”
Shaffer says the significance was understood at the time. “We were scared to death that we had found operational cells … within the United States. We did not have all the pieces of the puzzle, and we were not able to make sense of everything we had. Military action was going to be the ultimate outcome of the project.”
Shaffer recruited LIWA as part of that military response. “They were going to be targeteers in the effort. I was able to convince SOCOM to bring them in. I knew the commander, Maj. Gen. Bob Newman.” Shaffer said Newman encouraged him to use the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) – conducting intel, security and information operations for the military’s commanders – to run the “black” side. Shaffer will only hint that the action to come was to involve cyberspace. “As we started developing the methodology to approach targeting the global elements of al-Qaeda, there was a great deal of push-back from the community.”
Shaffer said he personally briefed Tenet on a number of occasions, from 1999 to 2001, on aspects of Able Danger and other concurrent DIA projects. In the pre-9/11 structure, the CIA director was also the director of central intelligence for the US government at large, overseeing all 16 agencies that made up the intelligence community, including DIA. We do not know if the presence of the Brooklyn cell inside the US was briefed to Tenet. Shaffer refused to disclose details of the classified briefings. Whatever he did report, Shaffer said that, “Tenet did not feel comfortable with some of the things we were talking about.”
In his 2009 interview with Duffy and Nowosielski, Richard Clarke speculated that the CIA’s Alec Station may already have been running its own domestic operation by that time to track al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, living under their own names in Southern California. Clarke admitted he had no way of proving his assertion, but believed it was the only way he could make sense of the facts. His theory is given credence by five former FBI counter-terror officials who backed his assertion that Alec Station was deliberately withholding information about the future 9/11 hijackers.
That spring, Army Intelligence and Security Command attorney Tony Gentry got involved, claiming to be concerned over domestic spying by the US military, which is not allowed; he also worried about rules prohibiting the retention of data about a US person for longer than 90 days. Shaffer was told many of the individuals in the cells were becoming citizens or had green cards. They were told they couldn’t look at them, that they were out of bounds. Shaffer said he was informed by DOD lawyers that many al-Qaeda extremists were inside the US because they did a lot of American fundraising. They were not considered a threat.
“I still to this day believe this concern [over data retention] was a farce,” Shaffer says with a tinge of anger in his voice, “based on the way the US government abuses US citizen information constantly in other areas.” The Brooklyn cell was debated within SOCOM. Shaffer met with three-star Gen. Larry Ellis, the senior operations officer for Army in spring 2000. Ellis agreed with Shaffer, but DOD lawyers insisted it was not the military’s job to do that level of information gathering.
“It became clear that someone didn’t want us looking at the data, and they gave an extraordinary direction.” Army staff lawyers directed Capt. Eric Kleinsmith to destroy some 2.5 terabytes of publicly sourced data. In March or April 2000, the offices of Orion Scientific Systems, a private contractor employed by LIWA for the program, were stormed by armed federal agents. Much of the material produced for Able Danger was confiscated – and with it went the US military’s best shot at unraveling the hijacking plot.
Soon after the end of the data collection aspect of Able Danger, the CIA pushed for the shut down of the operational side. The retired Afghan general at the center of Able Danger’s planning was what is known in spook parlance as a “principal agent.” Principal agents serve as proxies for professional intelligence case officers. Case officers for the CIA or DIA manage principal agents from stations around the world, and those principal agents in turn handle their own agent networks. The DIA’s asset oversaw a network of other infiltrating agents, their names known to Shaffer and his team. After briefing the CIA director, Shaffer began to suspect Alec Station was using the information to recruit from the Afghan general’s network.
“Basically, they were stealing our assets,” Shaffer said. He believes Alec Station had become desperate to infiltrate al-Qaeda. “They were kind of on the outside looking in. I think we had a better set of accesses than they did, and that’s why they wanted to terminate our asset and use his subsets for their own.”
Once the agency had successfully recruited enough assets from the DIA’s principal agent, they finally wanted DIA out of the picture altogether. In September or October 2000, Shaffer’s boss, Army General Bob Hardy Jr., was forced to square off against the CIA director in a closed session before the House Intelligence Committee. Shaffer characterizes it as “a major battle.”
Congress established the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 1977, supposedly to oversee executive branch departments of the United States government. Whether it succeeds in its role is debatable, but in any case when the CIA took the step of complaining to the committee, it was evidently taken seriously. Tenet made the case that Able Danger was interfering with a parallel operation by the CIA, apparently being run from Alec Station.
“George Tenet went to Congress and lied,” Shaffer boldly stated. Tenet painted DIA’s retired Afghan general source as a murderer, a claim Shaffer says was unfounded. He had heard Tenet did so at the behest of “all of Alec Station,” then run by Blee, which was complaining loudly about Able Danger. “We felt CIA made a huge mistake for political reasons, only to back off … with regard to the asset in Afghanistan. But in hindsight it is very clear the CIA had its own game, and they were not interested in cooperating to the point where they were interfering with our ability to conduct our own offensive capability against al-Qaeda.” Based on Tenet’s testimony, Congress ordered DIA’s asset – with direct access to al-Qaeda activities in Afghanistan – terminated. Shaffer characterizes Tenet’s deception as causing “huge damage” to the overall concept of his part of the program.
It is not the first time a former official has accused Tenet of lying to a government body. Speaking about Alec Station’s withholding of intelligence about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi from himself and his staff, Richard Clarke explained,” [Tenet, Black and Blee] have been able to get through a joint House investigation committee and get through the 9/11 Commission, and this has never come out. They got away with it.”
In his public testimony before the Congressional Intelligence Committees, Tenet was asked directly by Sen. Carl Levin about a cable that came into Alec Station in 2000 alerting them that al-Hazmi had flown to the US. Tenet’s answer to Levin: “Nobody read that cable in March, in the March timeframe.”
Levin pushed: “So the cable that said that Hazmi had entered the United States came to your headquarters, nobody read it?”
Tenet’s own CIA Inspector General, John Helgerson, later revealed in the declassified summary of his still-classified 9/11 report that 50 to 60 officers inside Black’s and Blee’s units knew of reports in 2000 that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar may have been in the US.
Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission, also revealed his doubts about Tenet in a 2008 interview with Nowosielski and journalist Rory O’Connor, asserting the commissioners felt Tenet had been “obviously not forthcoming” in some of his testimony before their “lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the President.” Asked whether they believed he had misspoken during statements that later proved false, Kean responded, “No, I don’t think he misspoke. I think he misled.”
In late 2000, the data mining aspect of the military’s project was reconstituted as “Able Danger II” and moved to a classified private intelligence research center in Garland, Texas. When command of SOCOM changed hands from the retiring Gen. Schoomaker to Gen. Charles Holland in November, Holland again ordered termination of the efforts in Texas and for the personnel to return to SOCOM headquarters in Florida.
Shaffer claimed there were at least three senior military exchanges over the order that resulted in yelling contests. Most notable was in December when Maj. Gen. Rod Isler, director of operations for DIA, called in their boss Admiral Tom Wilson, the DIA Director, who reported to Tenet. In a shouting match, Wilson directed Isler and Shaffer to stop supporting Able Danger II.
In January 2001, with a new President, George W. Bush, in the White House, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer briefed Gen. Hugh Shelton, the man who had originally supported the formation of Able Danger, on the program results and operational options, including the possibility of reactivating the retired Afghan general asset that George Tenet had caused to be disengaged.
Shaffer said he provided a variation of the same briefing to Tenet himself in February, with DIA Director Adm. Tom Wilson present. The following month, Gen. Ron Isler ordered Shaffer to completely end his work on Able Danger II. Shaffer strongly disagreed, resulting in an argument, before Isler pulled rank on him. From that point on, Able Danger II was essentially done.
Two months later, Shaffer would receive a frantic call from another Able Danger officer desperately wanting to know if Shaffer would permit him to save the information by moving it to one of Shaffer’s military facilities for the purposes of developing a plan of action. When Shaffer asked his boss, Col. Mary Moffitt, she took such offense at his “insubordinance” [sic] in mentioning Able Danger again that she began the process of demoting Shaffer from his leadership position to one on the Latin American desk of DIA.
Shaffer believes it is possible, though he has no way of knowing for certain, that Tenet played a back-channel role in the shut-downs of both Able Danger and Able Danger II. “Tenet could talk to DOD lawyers. CIA lawyers could talk to DOD lawyers, with the understanding that Tenet wants something said. I’ve been asked to carry messages from senior leaders, one to another. There’s no documentation on that meeting. No one ever knows it occurred, without any paper trail. It’s done all the time. Lawyers belong to the senior leadership they belong to. It would not be surprising to me if there was some level of pressure … brought to bear to back people off or discourage them.”
On the subject of Richard Clarke’s bombshell, the decorated intelligence officer is guarded. “Clarke may well be correct in his assessment that the CIA felt they were smarter than everybody else,” he reflects. “They were trying to control assets, and I do believe, from my perspective they were working to suppress other operational activities which would either compete with them, or potentially report on some of the things they were doing.”
What if David Rolph, speaking on behalf of the agency’s director when he met Shaffer in late 1999, had been more cooperative? What if Tenet had not pushed Congress to shut down the military’s long-term asset with connections inside al-Qaeda? What if the CIA had worked with, instead of against, the military? We will never know.