In separate August 23 reports, The New York Times and Fox News falsely reported that a second military official backed up a claim by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer that military intelligence unit Able Danger identified lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks. In fact, rather than providing backup for Shaffer's claims, Navy Capt. Scott Phillpott was one of Shaffer's two original sources.
In an article titled “Second Officer Says 9/11 Leader Was Named Before Attacks,” Times reporter Philip Shenon wrote that Shaffer's account is “now backed up” by Phillpott, who “has become the second military officer to come forward publicly to say that a secret intelligence program tagged the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks as a possible terrorist more than a year before the attacks.” Similarly, on Fox News' Fox News Live, anchor Jon Scott reported that Phillpott “has come forward to back up claims” that Atta was identified in early 2000, while national correspondent Catherine Herridge asked: “If the documents [proving Atta was identified] are never found, will we reach a point when enough people have gone public to say it happened that perhaps the documents may ultimately not be that significant?”
But as The Washington Post reported on August 19, Shaffer has acknowledged that Phillpott and a civilian official “told him after the attacks that Atta and other hijackers” had been identified on an Able Danger chart in 2000, and Shaffer was “relying on the[ir] word.”
Further, there is significant doubt as to whether the unnamed civilian official -- identified by the Post as a “civilian employee of the former Land Information Warfare Activity at Fort Belvoir [Virginia]” -- actually supports Shaffer's stated account. Appearing on the August 22 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, 9-11 Commission member and former senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) noted that an internal Pentagon investigation -- which a Pentagon official said "has been both broad and deep" -- has thus far found no evidence that Atta was identified by Able Danger in early 2000. Gorton suggested that, because the Pentagon investigation has yet to find any evidence supporting Shaffer's account, “as of today” the civilian official, “does not corroborate what he has to say” :
GORTON: Well, in the first place, you're not going to have something that had anything to do with 9-11 unless there was some intelligence to share. And it's becoming more and more evident that there wasn't any intelligence to share.
GORTON: What we know on the 9-11 Commission is that he told us nothing about Mohammed Atta or anyone else in Afghanistan, but he did tell us about Able Danger. We followed up on Able Danger. We got records about Able Danger from the Department of Defense. It had nothing about Mohammed Atta in it.
O'REILLY: OK. And I believe you. I believe you.
GORTON: Since this has come out, the Defense Department --
O'REILLY: They issued a statement saying they didn't know anything.
GORTON: -- has been scrambling to see if it has something. It has nothing. And as of today, it tells us that the civilian female, whom Colonel Shaffer has as a source, does not corroborate what he has to say.
O'REILLY: OK. And that's all true.
GORTON: There was nothing to share.
While the Times article noted that the 9-11 Commission issued a statement that Phillpott's account “was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation” and that Able Danger “did not turn out to be historically significant,” neither the Times nor Fox News Live revealed the reasons the commission stated for finding Phillpott's claim insufficiently reliable. By contrast, the Post reported on August 23: “The Sept. 11 panel said it did not find Phillpott's assertions credible because there were no documents to support them, and because Atta did not first travel to the United States until June 2000,” at least four months after Phillpott claims that Able Danger identified Atta.
From the August 23 edition of The New York Times:
An active-duty Navy captain has become the second military officer to come forward publicly to say that a secret intelligence program tagged the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks as a possible terrorist more than a year before the attacks.
The officer, Scott J. Phillpott, said in a statement on Monday that he could not discuss details of the military program, which was called Able Danger, but confirmed that its analysts had identified the Sept. 11 ringleader, Mohamed Atta, by name by early 2000. “My story is consistent,” said Captain Phillpott, who managed the program for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command. “Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000.”
His comments came on the same day that the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, told reporters that the Defense Department had been unable to validate the assertions made by an Army intelligence veteran, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, and now backed up by Captain Phillpott, about the early identification of Mr. Atta.
The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission acknowledged on Aug. 12 that their staff had met with a Navy officer last July, 10 days before releasing the panel's final report, who asserted that a highly classified intelligence operation, Able Danger, had identified “Mohamed Atta to be a member of an Al Qaeda cell located in Brooklyn.”
But the statement, which did not identify the officer, said the staff determined that “the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation” and that the intelligence operation “did not turn out to be historically significant.”
With his comments on Monday, Captain Phillpott acknowledged that he was the officer who had briefed the commission last year. “I will not discuss the issues outside of my chain of command and the Department of Defense,” he said. “But my story is consistent. Atta was identified by Able Danger by January-February of 2000. I have nothing else to say.”
From the August 23 edition of Fox News Live:
SCOTT: A second U.S. military officer has come forward to back up claims that the identity of 9-11 ringleader Mohammed Atta was known to the government more than a year before the devastating attacks.
HERRIDGE: The Navy Captain Scott Phillpott is the second military officer to publicly back claims that Able Danger identified Atta as a security risk; that's someone who had ties to known terrorists.
SCOTT: Catherine, this is now two different soldiers, two different military people from different branches of the military -- one Navy guy, one Army guy -- confirming this story that's been out there, that Able Danger had identified Atta. It's got to add a lot of fuel to the fire -- that must be shaking some pretty powerful corridors in Washington.
HERRIDGE: I think it is. I think there are sort of two key things to watch now. I think whenever you have a story like this you have to ask yourself: When these people come forward, what do they have to gain? Phillpott has 22 years with the Navy, he's a decorated officer. And Lieutenant Colonel Tony Shaffer has about the same amount of time with the Army. So you've almost got what's developing into a David and Goliath situation. I wonder ultimately what will happen with the documents. If the documents are never found, will we reach a point when enough people have gone public to say it happened that perhaps the documents may ultimately not be that significant?