During a U.S. visit to discuss the use of biometric technology in the war against terror, German Interior Minister Otto Schily denied that his country knowingly passed on information on a Sep.11 hijacker to the CIA.
Not just tough talking -- Schily (right) with U.S. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge.
Known for his tough, no-nonsense manner, Schily enjoys a good reputation in Washington: Some political observers even believe that Schily is one of the most-liked German politicians in the White House. Sure enough, there was enough evidence of that goodwill during the minister's five-day visit to the U.S. dominated by security issues. Schily met for wide-ranging talks with America's who's-who of security and intelligence -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, CIA chief George Tenet and FBI head Robert Mueller.
Biometrics to the fore
The discussions centered on the implementation of biometric technology to enhance existing security measures particularly when screening passengers entering the country. At a meeting last October in Berlin, both Schily and Ridge had attributed a "leading role" to the EU and the U.S. in the introduction of biometric data.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily uses the iris scan machine at Frankfurt airport
Starting this year the U.S. introduced finger-printing and digital photos for passengers entering the country with a visa. The data is stored in a computer and can be compared with a terrorist and criminal database. Schily also kicked off a six-month pilot iris-scan project at the Frankfurt airport this month (photo).
U.S.-imposed deadline a sore point
But the main sticking point on the biometrics issue is an Oct. 26 deadline that the U.S. has set for Germany and 27 other countries -- whose citizens do not require a visa to the U.S. for a stay of up to 90 days -- to issue biometric passports that would include a microchip containing electronic facial features or fingerprinting data.
Though Schily made clear at a press conference on Monday that, "the commitment of this date is no way thrown into question," experts believe that most EU countries will fail to meet the deadline. It's not just the massive technical and logistics effort that is expected to hinder EU states in sticking to the given date, but also a lack of common standards on the introduction of biometric data, both within the EU as well as with the U.S.
It still remains unclear which data (fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition) and what storage technology will be used in the process. Though Schily has warned that disparate regulations would complicate controls and disrupt air travel, he was vague on Monday about whether he discussed the issue with the Americans. "Yes, well, we have to see whether we can really do that (achieve common standards)," he said.
Schily: "Article is misleading"
Schily however was much more unequivocal that Germans had "no idea" that a man whose first name and telephone number they passed on to U.S. authorities long before the Sep.11 terrorist attacks would turn out to be a key player in the plot.
The New York Times reported earlier Tuesday that German intelligence officials gave the CIA the above information on Marwan al-Shehhi in March 1999 and asked the Americans to track him. The story, citing a senior German intelligence official, said that after the Germans passed on the information to the CIA, they did not hear form the Americans about the matter until after Sep. 11.
"Your article was a little bit misleading," Schily told a small group of reporters including one of the authors of the New York Times article, Reuters reported.
The information was the earliest known clue the U.S. received about any of the hijackers and has now become a crucial element of an independent U.S. commission's investigation into Sep. 11, 2001. U.S. officials say al-Shehhi was the pilot who flew the second plane into the World Trade Center.
A United Arab Emirates native, al-Shehhi moved to Germany in 1996 and became a key member of the al Qaeda Hamburg cell at the heart of the Sept. 11 plot. Mohammed Atta, one of the plot leaders, was his roommate.
"Routine" data exchange
Schily added that the indication that German intelligence officials had made a link between the name and an upcoming attack "is not true. At that time we had no idea that (it) could be a thing like this (the Sept. 11 attacks)." The minister said that Germany gave the information on al-Shehhi to the U.S. as part of "routine" data exchanges, adding that authorities were unable to connect the rather common Arabic name "Marwan" to a family name.
CIA Director George Tenet
CIA director George Tennet (photo) also rejected suggestions that his agency had failed to act on the German tip. Speaking before an annual Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on global threats on Tuesday, Tenet said, "In 1999 the Germans gave us a name -- Marwan, that's it, and a phone number. And we didn't sit on our hands."