Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer said the small intelligence unit, called "Able Danger," had identified Atta and three of the other future Sept. 11 hijackers as al Qaeda members by mid-2000.
"We recognized there are linkages and patterns of linkages to the al Qaeda leadership,"
He said military lawyers stopped the unit from sharing the information with the FBI.
"We were trying to find a way to bring the Special Operations Command folks together with the FBI folks in Washington so they could discuss the potential impact of having these individuals in the United States," Shaffer told Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "Part of the problem with that was, the lawyers didn't allow us to properly go after, either by intelligence collection or by allowing the FBI to to look at these guys, because they were here legally.
"And there was a big issue regarding the fact that these foreign nationals were here in the United States doing things which were, in my judgment, questionable, based on their linkages to the al Qaeda leadership," Shaffer added. "But because they were here legally, again, the lawyers really did not want us going after any information or dealing with them whatsoever at this point in time."
The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks left the Able Danger claims out of its official report. Shaffer doesn't think the panel was given all the information his team had gathered.
"I spoke to the officer recently who actually physically took two briefcase-size packages of documents over to them," Shaffer said. "I can tell you for a fact that was probably 1/20th of the actual hard copy documents and probably none of the actual data. The 2.5 terabytes of data used for the project. I don't believe they got all the documents. I don't believe they pressed properly to get all the documents."
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, has said the Sept. 11 commission did not adequately investigate the claim that four of the hijackers had been identified more than a year before the attacks.
Former commission chairman Thomas Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton said last week that the military official who made the claim had no documentation to back it up.
Shaffer rejected that remark. "Leaving a project targeting al Qaeda as a global threat a year before we were attacked by al Qaeda is equivalent to having an investigation of Pearl Harbor and leaving somehow out the Japanese," he said.