The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said Wednesday he would look into whether the Pentagon obstructed his committee by refusing to allow testimony from five people who had knowledge of a secret military unit named ``Able Danger.''
They were expected to testify Wednesday about a link between al-Qaida and four of the Sept. 11 hijackers - including leader Mohamed Atta - that the unit is said to have uncovered than a year before the 2001 attacks.
``I think the Department of Defense owes the American people an explanation of what went on here,'' said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Maj. Paul Swiergosz, a Defense Department spokesman, said that public testimony about Able Danger would be inappropriate.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that some employees recall seeing an intelligence chart identifying Atta as a terrorist before the attacks.
``We have expressed our security concerns and believe it is simply not possible to discuss Able Danger in any great detail in any public forum,'' Swiergosz said.
A second spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the Pentagon believes it has provided sufficient information on Able Danger to the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, which oversee the department.
Lt. Col. Mark Shaffer, a military intelligence officer who worked on Able Danger, was prepared to testify that three different times he tried to meet with the FBI to discuss the unit's findings, but was prevented from doing so because of legal concerns by department lawyers, according to Shaffer's lawyer, Mark Zaid, who testified on his behalf.
Specter said one reason for the hearing was to determine whether the federal Posse Comitatus law needs to be amended. The 1878 law restricts the military's law enforcement functions in the United States.
The Pentagon was represented at the hearing by William Dugan, the acting assistant to the secretary for intelligence oversight. Dugan testified that he had very limited knowledge of Able Danger.
But, he said, if the information were properly collected, Posse Comitatus should not have prevented intelligence sharing between the Pentagon and the FBI. Specter told Dugan to inform his superiors that the committee wants to hear from people with firsthand knowledge of Able Danger.
Zaid, the lawyer, also testified on behalf of James Smith, a defense contractor. Zaid said Smith recalls seeing, before the Sept. 11 attacks, a chart bearing Atta's picture. The picture was purchased from a California contractor, Zaid said.
Erik Kleinsmith, a former Army major who worked on Able Danger, said he destroyed documents pertaining to Able Danger in 2000 because he was required to do so under Army regulations.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., was the first to come forward to assert that Able Danger had identified Atta and three others as being members of an al-Qaida cell. If correct, the intelligence would change the timeline for when government officials first became aware of Atta's links to al-Qaida? AP reports.
Slade Gorton, a member of the commission that investigated the attacks, said a review of Able Danger documents found ``no charts, no data sets, and no analysis identifying Mohamed Atta or any of the other hijackers pre-9/11.''