WASHINGTON -- Staff members of the Sept. 11 commission are investigating allegations from a GOP congressman that the hijackers' leader, Mohamed Atta, had been identified as a potential threat in a classified Defense Department program a year or more before the attacks occurred.
Officials with the commission confirmed a report yesterday in The New York Times that two staff members had interviewed a uniformed military officer, who said in July 2004 that a secret program called ''Able Danger" had identified Atta as a potential terrorist threat in 1999 or early 2000.
Panel investigators viewed the assertion as unlikely in part because Atta was not recruited as an Al Qaeda operative until a trip to Afghanistan in 2000, and did not enter the United States until June of that year, officials said.
The interview of the officer is among several allegations made by Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania and deputy chairman of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. Weldon has sought to publicize the assertions of a former defense intelligence official about the Able Danger program.
According to interviews with Government Security News and other news organizations, that former official has offered a version of events that is similar to, but more expansive than, the assertions made by the military officer. The former intelligence official has said that he briefed Sept. 11 commission staff members on the Able Danger program while in South Asia in October 2003.
The official said he told commission staffers during the trip that the program had identified Atta and three other future hijackers as part of an Al Qaeda cell in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Weldon and news reports. The official and Weldon have also said Pentagon lawyers blocked sharing the information on the suspected cell with the FBI or other US agencies.
A commission spokesman, Al Felzenberg, said this week that none of the four commission staffers who were present during the Asia trip briefing recall any mention of Atta or a terrorist cell.
Felzenberg said the 2003 briefing focused generally on Able Danger, which officials have said relied heavily on computerized analysis of public data.
''The name 'Atta' or a terrorist cell would have gone to the top of the radar screen if it had been mentioned," he said.
Felzenberg declined to comment yesterday on the interview in July 2004 with the military officer, citing an commission investigation of the allegations that could be completed as early as today. Pentagon officials have also declined comment this week.
Weldon, who has championed the use of data mining as an intelligence tool, first alleged that the Pentagon had identified Atta before the hijackings in a speech on the House floor in June. He wrote in a letter to the Sept. 11 panel on Wednesday that its failure to fully investigate the claims ''brings shame on the commissioners."
Weldon recently published a book alleging that Iran is hiding Osama bin Laden, is preparing terrorist attacks against the United States, and is the chief sponsor of the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. Many of the allegations are based on information from a source who has been discounted by the CIA as a fabricator.