A federal judge Monday ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its vast files to identify documents about its once secret investigation of terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.
Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch’s order also rejected a request by the Department of Justice to throw out the Freedom of Information case filed by BrowardBulldog.org in September 2012. Justice has argued that the release of certain information about the matter “would reveal current specific targets” of national security investigations.
The suit alleges the government has improperly withheld information about a local Saudi family’s apparent connections to terrorists, including 9/11 hijack pilot Mohamed Atta and Adnan Shukrijumah, the former Broward resident and alleged al-Qaeda figure who has a $5 million federal bounty on his head.
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the 4-year-old news organization. “The decision tells the FBI that this federal judge wants to make sure that the truth comes out.”
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In his four-page order, Zloch said he would issue a separate order detailing steps the FBI must take to comply with his order requiring the additional records search.
BrowardBulldog.org asked the court in July to compel the additional document search. The suit was filed after the FBI denied the news organization’s record requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Six months after the suit was filed, the bureau unexpectedly released 35 heavily redacted pages, including four pages that were completely blanked out, and asserted it had no more responsive documents to produce. The declassified pages contradicted earlier public statements by FBI agents in Sarasota and Miami that the decade-old investigation had found no evidence of terrorist activity.
In his order, Zloch noted the government has provided him with un-redacted copies of those pages “for the court’s inspection.” Whether that information played a role in the judge’s decision is not known
The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of the lawsuit last week, argued to the court: “The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate [record] searches.”
In the motion requesting a better search, attorney Julin proposed a number of measures the FBI could take to identify records: Use its $440 million Sentinel computer system, employ better word searches and conduct a manual review of all 15,342 documents about its 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOM, said to be stored in the FBI’s Tampa field office.
The FOIA lawsuit seeks FBI records about its investigation of “activities at the residence at 4224 Escondito Circle in the Prestancia development near Sarasota, Florida prior to 9/11/2001 The activities involved apparent visits to that address by some of the deceased 9/11 hijackers.”
The address was the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji until August 2001, when the couple quit their home and returned to Saudi Arabia — leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other items. Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.
Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, the al-Hijji’s neighbors began calling the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to tell them about the couple’s abrupt departure.
BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story reported how agents who searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found logbooks and snapshots of license plates that provided evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including Atta, had visited the home. An analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and Shukrijumah, according to a law enforcement source.
An FBI informant later reported that prior to 9/11 al-Hijji had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.
Records obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show the FBI continued to investigate until at least 2004, when the informant was interviewed. The bureau, however, never disclosed the existence of its investigation to either Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.
Graham has accused the FBI of impeding Congress’ inquiry into 9/11.
Attorney Julin said Monday’s federal court ruling could lead to a better public understanding of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day,’’ an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.