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Panel rejects assertion US knew of Atta before Sept. 11

WASHINGTON -- Former members of the Sept. 11 commission yesterday dismissed assertions that a Pentagon intelligence unit identified lead hijacker Mohamed Atta as a member of Al Qaeda long before the 2001 attacks.

The former commissioners also criticized the government for not putting in place changes recommended last year in homeland security and emergency response. They pointed most notably to the failure to improve communication systems, which they said might have saved lives after Hurricane Katrina.

Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, had accused the commission of ignoring intelligence about Atta while it investigated the attacks. The commission's former chairman, Thomas Kean, said there was no evidence anyone in the government knew about Atta before Sept. 11, 2001.

Two military officers, Army Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer and Navy Captain Scott Phillpott, contended that a classified military intelligence unit, known as ''Able Danger," identified Atta before the attacks. Shaffer has said three other hijackers were identified, too.

Kean said the recollections of the intelligence officers cannot be verified by any document.

''Bluntly, it just didn't happen and that's the conclusion of all 10 of us," said a former commissioner, former senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington.

Pentagon officials said this month that they could find no documents to back up the allegations.

According to Weldon, members of ''Able Danger" identified Atta and three other hijackers in 1999 as potential members of a terrorist cell in New York City. Weldon said Pentagon lawyers rejected the unit's recommendation that the information be turned over to the FBI in 2000.

Weldon's spokesman, John Tomaszewski, said no commissioners have met with anyone from Able Danger, ''yet they choose to speak with some form of certainty without firsthand knowledge."

Separately, the former commissioners criticized Congress, saying it has not updated communications rules to help police, fire, and rescue personnel in a crisis such as Katrina. ''It is a scandal in our minds," Kean said.

The commissioners also faulted state, local, and federal authorities responding to Katrina, contending that they did not have a clear chain of command, leading to some of the same confusion that plagued the Sept. 11 rescue effort.

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