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Graham: FBI hindered Congress’s 9/11 inquiry, withheld reports about Sarasota Saudis

Bob Graham will be in Miami Beach Friday to promote 
his new book, <em>America, The Owner's Manual.</em>
Bob Graham will be in Miami Beach Friday to promote his new book, <em>America, The Owner's Manual.</em> AP

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has accused the FBI in court papers of having impeded Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 by withholding information about a Florida connection to the al-Qaeda attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The information, first reported in 2011, includes a recently declassified FBI report that ties a Saudi family who once lived in Sarasota “to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

“The FBI’s failure to call (to the Joint Inquiry’s attention) documents finding ‘many connections’ between Saudis living in the United States and individuals associated with the terrorist attack(s)…interfered with the Inquiry’s ability to complete its mission,” said Graham, co-chairman of the Joint Inquiry.

Graham said the FBI kept the 9/11 Commission in the dark, too. He said co-chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton and executive director Philip Zelikow all told him they were unaware of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation.

Moreover, Graham stated that Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce, the Bureau’s second in command, personally intervened to block him from speaking with the special agent-in-charge of the Sarasota investigation.

“I am troubled by what appears to me to be a persistent effort by the FBI to conceal from the American people information concerning possible Saudi support of the Sept. 11 attacks,” Florida’s former governor said.

Graham’s remarks are contained in a 14-page sworn declaration made in a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

The suit seeks the records of an FBI investigation into Esam Ghazzawi, a former advisor to a senior Saudi Prince – who had he lived was well placed to become king -Ghazzawi’s wife Deborah and son-in-law and daughter Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.

The Ghazzawis owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated-neighborhood of Prestancia where the al-Hijjis lived until about two weeks before 9/11. Their hurried departure – leaving behind cars, furniture and personal effects – prompted neighbors to call the FBI.

News of the subsequent investigation didn’t surface until September 8, 2011 when its existence was disclosed in a story published simultaneously by and The Miami Herald.

The story reported that a counterterrorism officer, as well as Prestancia’s former administrator Larry Berberich, said that gatehouse logbooks and photographs of license plates showed that vehicles used by the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home. Analysis of phone records also linked the hijackers to their house, the counterterrorism officer said.

Sen. Graham told reporters in September 2011 that while Congress had relied on the FBI to provide all of its information about 9/11, he had not been made aware of the Sarasota probe.

After the story broke, the FBI acknowledged its investigation but claimed itfound no evidence to connect the Ghazzawis or the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. Agents maintained, too, that the FBI made all of its 9/11 records available to Congress.

The Freedom of Information lawsuit was filed last September, after the FBI declined to release any records on the matter.

In March, as the case moved toward trial this summer, the Bureau unexpectedly released 31 of 35 pages it said had been located. The partially censored records flatly contradict the FBI’s earlier public comments and state that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons allied with the hijackers.

Last month, the Department of Justice asked U.S. District Judge William Zloch to end the lawsuit, citing national security and saying the FBI has identified and released all documents responsive to its Sarasota probe.

But in his declaration, Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said those few pages “do not appear to be the full record of the FBI investigation.” He dismissed the government’s assertion that it lacks further documentation as “entirely implausible.”

“On a matter of this magnitude and significance, my expectation is that the FBI would have hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents,” Graham stated.

As evidence that records continue to be withheld, Graham cited a Sept. 16, 2002 FBI report about Sarasota that he was allowed to see after making inquiries at the FBI. That report should have been released, he said, but was not.

Graham’s declaration, and several by others involved in the case, were filed Friday along with a memorandum by attorney Thomas Julin asking the judge to deny the government’s request to shut down the lawsuit and to set the case for trial.

Julin is a partner in the Miami law firm of Hunton & Williams.

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