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Pentagon can't verify Able Danger claim

Initial probe hasn't confirmed hijackers were watched before 9/11

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Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer says a U.S. intelligence unit identified Mohamed Atta as an al Qaeda operative in 2000.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon has so far been unable to validate a claim that a secret military intelligence unit identified four September 11 hijackers as al Qaeda members a year before the 2001 attacks, a spokesman said Monday.

But Larry Di Rita said the Pentagon is still looking into the matter. He said the investigation has found general references to terrorist cells, but he would not elaborate.

Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, a member of the secret intelligence unit called Able Danger, said recently that the unit identified Mohamed Atta and three other hijackers as members of a "Brooklyn cell" more than a year before the 9/11 attacks. (Full story)

"We have not found what Shaffer says exists," Di Rita told reporters.

Shaffer has said he alerted the FBI in September 2000 about the information he says Able Danger uncovered, but that three planned meetings he set up with bureau officials were blocked by military lawyers.

He also said he met with the now-defunct 9/11 commission and passed on what he knew. The information was not contained in the panel's final report.

In a statement issued August 12, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and vice-chairman of the 9/11 commission, did not dispute that a program called Able Danger existed and that the commission had investigated it.

But, they said, the covert program "did not turn out to be historically significant, set against the larger context of U.S. policy and intelligence efforts that involved [Osama] bin Laden and al Qaeda." (Full story)

Shaffer told CNN Wednesday he worked this year with Rep. Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, and they determined "there was a significant amount of information that was totally deleted or not provided to the 9/11 commissioners."

The lieutenant colonel said Able Danger uncovered information about Atta by searching through public databases and looking for patterns.

Shaffer declined to be specific about what kind of documents linked Atta to al Qaeda, saying intelligence units continue to use such processes.

On Tuesday, Weldon told CNN that Shaffer set up meetings with FBI officials in 2000.

But the Pennsylvania Republican said the sessions were canceled because lawyers for the Special Forces unit -- of which Able Danger was a member -- allegedly were concerned military authorities could not legally share information with domestic law enforcement about potential terror suspects in the United States.

CNN's Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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