Just how damning are allegations by Congressman Curt Weldon that a secret Pentagon intelligence operation pegged hijacker Mohammed Atta as a threat nearly two years before he led the 9/11 attacks? When Weldon first made the charge in a new book and in a June speech on the House floor, it met with little attention, but perhaps due to the August heat or the approaching fourth anniversary of the attacks, the accusation ignited controversy last week.
The question is whether it has any substance. Weldon says a data-mining exercise, called Able Danger, spotted Atta and other hijackers in 1999, but Pentagon lawyers in September 2000 blocked officials running the program from handing the tip to the FBI. Weldon's further allegation that the 9/11 commission was alerted to the alleged oversight but ignored it prompted the defunct panel to conduct an investigation last week before issuing a statement late Friday saying members had received only an 11th-hour mention of Atta that "was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation." Meanwhile, at Weldon's request, House intelligence committee chairman Peter Hoekstra told TIME he is investigating the matter but cautioned against "hyperventilating" before the completion of a "thorough" probe.
In a particularly dramatic scene in Weldon's book, Countdown to Terror, the Pennsylvania Republican described personally handing to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, just after Sept. 11, an Able Danger chart produced in 1999 identifying Atta. But Weldon told TIME he's no longer certain Atta's name was on that original document. The congressman says he handed Hadley his only copy. Still, last week he referred reporters to a recently reconstructed version of the chart in his office where, among dozens of names and photos of terrorists from around the world, there was a color mug shot of Mohammad Atta, circled in black marker.
Pentagon officials are playing down any controversy. They say they can find nothing produced by the Able Danger program, which involved fewer than half a dozen intelligence analysts, mentioning Atta's name. A senior Pentagon official briefed on the program told TIME, "This is much ado about nothing." a source close to the former 9/11 commission aides who chased down the story last week said they had been led to believe the Pentagon would issue a statement along these lines on Friday. But as of Sunday, this had not occurred. "We have been working with the 9/11 public discourse project to gain more clarity into this issue," said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Air Force Lieut. Col. Ellen Krenke. "Clearly there was information that was developed through this program, but it is unclear what was provided to the 9/11 Commission." Krenke said she did not know about any statement planned that would say no information had been developed about Atta before the Sept. 11 attacks.