Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Mistakes of Able Danger Live On

Answers to some of the troubling questions about the Able Danger data-mining project can be found in this National Journal article posted at In interviewing Erik Kleinsmith, the officer who destroyed the Able Danger electronic data, Shane Harris has managed to resurrect quite a bit of the short history of the Information Dominance Center, of which Able Danger was a part, and offers this explanation as to why the massive stores of data and analysis were destroyed:
In early 2000, in the midst of Able Danger, a lawyer with the Army's general counsel visited Kleinsmith. As Kleinsmith testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, the lawyer reminded him that under Army regulations, any data the IDC collected on U.S. persons -- even inadvertently -- had to be destroyed within 90 days. If analysts could establish a legitimate reason to investigate a person further, they could keep the corresponding data.

But with potentially tens of thousands of names, checking each one would have been impossible, Kleinsmith said. In the Pentagon briefing, Gandy concurred: "I don't think they had the capability to scrub it in the fashion that the oversight rules could live with."
So two and a half terabytes of data were sent to oblivion. This is not to say that the work of Able Danger would have prevented the 9/11 outrage. Other factors drew attention away from whatever schemes al Qaeda had for attacks on US soil.
After the Cole bombing [October 12, 2000], the IDC concentrated on projects not related to Al Qaeda. "We went on to do some other things, other projects," the former IDC employee said. Less than a year later, the 9/11 attackers struck. Looking back, Kleinsmith doesn't claim that he saw the attacks coming. Rather, he felt resigned. "I wasn't surprised," he said. He had studied Al Qaeda's evolution and believed he knew its capabilities. "I thought, 'So it begins.'
A number of "what ifs?" come to mind here - what if more resources had been available, what if walls had not been constructed between military intelligence projects and civilian counter-terrorist agencies, what if politicians had not been so eager to spend the "peace dividend" that the Cole could have been met at sea by an oiler - instead of entering a hostile port to refuel? All twenty-twenty hindsight, to be sure, and all the "what ifs" are ultimately forgiveable if analysis of them helps us be more effective in the future.

But it seems that lessons may not have been learned.
Today, Kleinsmith is still struggling with the same puzzles. And, to hear him tell it, apart from the advancements in technology, little has changed. So much is still unknown, and undone, about the terrorist threat to the United States, he said. He can simply watch television to know that law enforcement isn't rounding up the terrorist cells he believes his team identified in the United States five years ago.

Ultimately, Kleinsmith sounds less like a man burdened by his past than one nervous about the future. No one seems to be acting on the information the IDC found that terrorists had taken up residence in the United States, far from New York, he said. And, as if they were listening, waiting for him to tip his hand, Kleinsmith cautiously added, "I'd just prefer not to say where they are."
And the much ballyhooed 9/11 Commission didn't mention a word about "Able Danger". I think that deserves an "F" for the Commissioners.

Via Captain's Quarters.

Also posted at The Jawa Report.