Why isn’t Edward Jay Epstein running the NSA?

This space would sure feel a lot more at ease with the redoubtable Dr. Epstein running intelligence than the Keystone Kops routine going on between the Pentagon and the 9-11 Commission. Here’s some of Epstein’s intelligence on display:

Two US military intelligence officer, Navy Captain Scott Phillpott and Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, told the 911 Commission staff that a secret military intelligence unit codenamed Able Danger had identified Mohammed Atta and three of his 9-11 hijacking associates more than a year before the 9-11 attack. It even had a photograph of Atta. (The 911 Commission, which stated that no evidence had emerged that Atta’s identity was known to any US intelligence group prior to the attack, did not include any references at all to Able Danger in its final report.)

According to Lt. Col. Shaffer and Captain Phillpott, Able Danger identified Atta and his associates via a process of cross-referencing information from different sources known as “data mining.” If true, one key issue is the criteria that Able Danger used to pluck them out of cyberspace.

Here are three criteria Able Danger might have applied to the data.

First, if Able Danger cross-referenced Arab males who flew to Pakistan in 1999 and Arab males who subsequently requested a replacement passport and then applied for a US visa, it would have come up with a list of Arabs possibly seeking to hide trips to al-Qaeda facilities in Pakistan and Afghanistan from US authorities. Such a list would include both the names of Atta and al-Shehhi.

Next, if the resulting list was cross-referenced with applicants to US flight schools, Atta’s name would come up 31 times, as he applied to 31 flight schools. The reason Able Danger might elect this criteria was the 1998 accounts that Osama Bin Laden planned to train pilots for crop dusting and other agriculture tasks. On that short list now would be Atta and Shehhi and if Able Danger had a liaison with German intelligence, it could further learn the address both men used, 54 Marienstrasse in Hamburg, had been under police surveillence for possible extremist Islamic activities.

Finally, if the short list had been cross referenced with US visa applications in 2000– Able Danger would have turned up the person that Atta and al-Shehhi gave as their point of contact in America. If that name had also been given by other suspects, Able Danger would have reason to consider that Atta and al-Shehhi were coming to America to join a conspiracy.

There are so many reasons to hate bureaucracies: all the CYA, the way they suck the common sense out of things and replace it with process and procedure. Dr. Epstein’s clarity, focus and simplicity are worth quite a lot more in themselves than the obfuscation and officiousness of the 9-11 Commission gang. (HT: Tom McGuire)

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