Miami-Dade County

Report backtracks on Sarasota Saudis

A new report, produced with the assistance of the FBI, seeks to discredit a previous bureau document that describes numerous links between a Saudi family in Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers.

The 128-page document — issued by the 9/11 Review Commission, a body authorized by Congress — is titled “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century.” It makes passing reference to an April 16, 2002, document that ties the Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers. Without offering any detail, it says that tie was “not substantiated.”

Two years ago, the FBI provided a heavily censored copy of that 2002 document to Broward Bulldog Inc., parent company of FloridaBulldog.org, amid an ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit that seeks access to the FBI’s files on the matter.

The original FBI document says flatly that the Saudis, who abruptly moved out of their home in the upscale community of Prestancia in south Sarasota about two weeks before the 2001 attacks — leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothes and other items — had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

FloridaBulldog.org first reported about the document on April 16, 2013.

But, according to the report released Wednesday, “The FBI told the Review Commission that the [FBI document] on which the news article was based was ‘poorly written’ and wholly unsubstantiated. When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote [it] was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.” The agent was not identified and no further explanation was offered.

The original document’s information, however, was corroborated by a counterterrorism officer’s detailed account regarding what the FBI found during its investigation of Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, in a story published by FloridaBulldog.org in September 2011.

Irish journalist and FloridaBulldog.org contributor Anthony Summers first interviewed the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Summers and Robbyn Swan are co-authors of The Eleventh Day, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2012.

“The report raises more questions about Sarasota than it answers,” said Thomas Julin, the news organization’s Miami attorney. “The report provides no plausible explanation for the contradiction between the FBI’s current claim that it found nothing and its 2002 memo finding ‘many connections’ between the Sarasota family and the 9/11 terrorists.”

The FBI document not only contradicted the FBI’s prior public statements about the matter, it re-fueled concerns raised by official investigations that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has yet to be told.

“The report raises new concerns that the FBI is concealing Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” said attorney Julin. “The report should have explained why the Sarasota investigation was not disclosed to Congress.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry, said Wednesday that he had been unaware of the existence of the 9/11 Review Commission.

“I was surprised by it, as were most Americans, and therefore I was not able to contribute to its deliberations,” said Graham, adding that he wished he had had that opportunity.

The Review Commission’s findings, as well as its lack of supporting documentation for its conclusions, failed to persuade Graham to alter his public skepticism about the FBI regarding 9/11.

“The FBI has served America through most of its history. There were stumbles by the agency before 9/11 and since the tragedy there has been a consistent effort to cover up the extent of Saudi Arabia’s involvement,” Graham said. “Let’s let the American people know what happened and have … a serious discussion of what happened, why it happened, where it was adverse to U.S. interests and how to avoid its repetition.”

The 9/11 Review Committee was established in January 2014 when Congress directed the FBI to create a commission to conduct a “comprehensive external review” of the implementation of recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Part of the job was to assess “any evidence now known to the FBI that was not considered by the 9/11 Commission,” the report says.

FBI Director James B. Comey appointed three commissioners: former Reagan Administration Attorney General Edwin Meese; Tim Roemer, a former congressman and ambassador; and Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University. The commissioners and Executive Director John Gannon, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence, were apparently paid for their service.

The report says commission staff traveled to eight FBI field offices to interview key personnel including members of counterterrorism squads, but none in Florida. More than 30 officials with the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community were interviewed, including ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA boss John Brennan. Their statements were not made public.

“I am shocked that this commission failed to talk to Bob Graham,” said attorney Julin.

While the report urged the FBI to do more about the threat of terrorism, Director Comey saw it as vindication for the FBI.

“I am pleased the Review Commission recognized the significant progress we have made to build a threat-based, intelligence-driven law enforcement and national security organization,” Comey said.

The report says that commissioners obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file, interview reports and copies of a handful of documents previously released to FloridaBulldog.org via the Freedom of Information Act. FBI officials also briefed commission members more than 60 times on a variety of topics. One of those briefings was about Abdulaziz and Anoud al Hijji, whose father Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to a member of the Saudi Royal family, the report shows.

Still, the 9/11 Review Commission’s report omits a number of seemingly relevant facts. For example, it neglects to mention that the April 2002 document the FBI discounts also cited national security to withhold other information from the public.

The report, while saying “the FBI found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the family,” also does not mention other information linking Hijji to terrorist figures, including Prestancia gatehouse security logs and license plate photos that the counterterrorism officer said showed that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had gone to Hijji’s home. Also, statements made in 2004 to the FBI by now-imprisoned terrorist associate Wissam Hammoud described Hijji as an acolyte of Osama bin Laden, who had once introduced him to al-Qaida figure Adnan El Shukrijumah.

Likewise, the report omits any reference to the ongoing Freedom of Information case in Fort Lauderdale, where U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is reviewing 80,000 classified pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office. The judge will decide what documents should be made public.

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible. www.floridabulldog.org

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