A Fort Lauderdale federal judge on Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied the government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.
Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private inspection.
The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once-secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.
“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order, and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.
The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to Saudi Arabia’s royal family with apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated Sarasota community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.
Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said that agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al-Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show that the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the agency never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.
On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince the judge that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.
The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case-management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.
Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI.” He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.
But the government pushed back.
On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay — until May 2 — to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.
Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled “secret,” and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa [9/11] sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”
The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format. He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.
Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.
“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.
Finally, Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his father-in-law, Esam Ghazzawi, once an advisor to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.
The government has contended that the privacy interests of al-Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.
Broward Bulldog is a not-for-profit, online-only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. www.browardbulldog.org