WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. military intelligence team identified four Sept. 11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohammed Atta, as likely members of an al Qaeda cell in the United States over a year before the 2001 attacks, a former team member and a Republican congressman said on Tuesday.
The classified eight-member team, code-named "Able Danger," produced a chart with photographs of Atta and three other hijackers in 2000 and unsuccessfully sought to pass the information on to the FBI.
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who is vice chairman of both the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, said the information was provided to the staff of the Sept. 11 commission but some commissioners were never briefed on the material.
The panel's 2004 final report examining the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington contained no information suggesting that the U.S. government knew the hijackers were operating inside the United States as early as 2000.
Lee Hamilton, the commission's former vice chairman, said panel staff interviewed "Able Danger" members in Afghanistan in October 2003 and later reviewed documents on the operation supplied on request by the Bush administration.
"Neither in the documents nor in the conversations was there any mention of a Mohammed Atta or his cell," Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, told Reuters in an interview. "There was no mention of Mohammed Atta and no mention of any military surveillance of him."
The former military intelligence official insists he personally told Sept. 11 commission staff members about Atta in Afghanistan, and offered to supply them with documents upon his return to the United States, only to be rebuffed.
COMMISSION REVIEWING DOCUMENTS
Former Sept. 11 commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said on Tuesday that the panel's former staff would review internal memos and other documents to make sure information about Atta was not overlooked.
"We will know by the end of the week whether we missed something," Felzenberg said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was unaware of the intelligence information.
"Able Danger," now disbanded, was a small classified military operation engaged in data-mining analysis of "open source" information including media reports and public records through the use of massively powerful computer systems.
Both Weldon and the former military official, who spoke to Reuters in the congressman's office, are actively encouraging intelligence officials to consider a resumption of the activity, which could mean as much as $30 million in new business for defense and intelligence contractors.
The former military official said his unit recommended that information identifying Atta and fellow hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi as part of an al Qaeda cell they called "Brooklyn" be forwarded to the FBI.
"They were in the country at least a year before 9/11," said the former military intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.
But government lawyers advised the military's Special Operations Command, which oversaw "Able Danger," not to forward the information apparently because the four were in the United States legally on visas and should not be subject to a military operation.
"We don't know whether the lawyers were with the DOD or the White House. All we know is that (the Able Danger members) were stopped," said Weldon.
Weldon said he may ask for a formal inquiry into the issue after Congress returns from its August recess.
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