It took 13 1/2 years and enormous public and political pressure to force President Barack Obama to order Friday’s release of the suppressed chapter from Congress’ Joint Inquiry report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 suicide hijackers.
The pages, however, were not released in full. Nearly every page is speckled with black marks where information was redacted. In some cases, those deletions are of entire paragraphs, almost certainly meaning that controversy about the 28 pages will continue.
Those 28 pages, however, aren’t nearly the last word about the people and events behind 9/11. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of additional U.S. government investigative documents about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks remain classified.
“I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and has long advocated for the public release of the chapter that was withheld from publication at the direction of President George W. Bush.
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The declassification process that led to Friday’s release of the 28 pages was first sought three years ago by the Florida Bulldog and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, represented by Miami attorney Thomas Julin. The Joint Inquiry’s 838-page report described the hidden chapter as being about “specific sources of foreign sources of support” for the hijackers while they were in the United States.
In September 2014, in response to criticism that President Obama had failed to keep his promise to 9/11 family members that he would release the 28 pages, the White House announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “coordinating the required interagency review” of the 28 pages for possible declassification.
The declassification review, however, did not include a review of numerous other secret government documents about 9/11 generated by the FBI, CIA, Treasury and State departments and the National Security Agency — or even the 9/11 Commission itself.
The FBI alone has acknowledged that a single field office in Tampa holds 80,000 classified pages about 9/11. Those records are being reviewed for possible public release by the presiding federal judge in a Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent in 2012.
The suit seeks the release of FBI files about the investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to the hijackers that abruptly moved out of its home and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before 9/11 — leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other possessions.
Last month, 19 survivors and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11 sent a letter to President Obama asking him to designate for “prompt declassification” nine categories of documents “relevant to responsibility for the events of 9/11.”
“We hope and trust that you regard the release of the 28 pages as only a first step in responding to the public calls for transparency and accountability,” the letter says.
The records requested for declassification are:
▪ Documents about the involvement of government-sponsored Saudi religious institutions in supporting al Qaeda. The letter identified 10 organizations that should be subject to declassification review, including the Muslim World League, Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Saudi Red Crescent Society and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
▪ Documents concerning further investigations of the transactions, relationships and issues discussed in the 28 pages.
▪ Unreleased records of the 9/11 Commission. In 2004, the commission had urged that all of its records, to the greatest extent possible, be made publicly available by January 2009. “More than seven years after that target date, the bulk of the commission’s records have not been processed for declassification at all, and the limited records that have been released are in many cases so heavily redacted as to be of little use to the American public,” the letter says.
▪ Documents relating to the activities, interactions, relationships, contacts and financial transactions of the 9/11 hijackers in Florida and other areas of the United States.
▪ Documents about al Qaeda’s wealthy Gulf donors and support by Islamic banks and financial institutions. Those listed are: Al Rajhi Bank, National Commercial Banks, Saudi American Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, al Shamal Islamic Bank, Faisal Finance and al Baraka.
▪ Records relating to Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to promote Wahhabi Islam” and the “relationship between those efforts and terrorist activity, fundraising and recruitment.” Those records are “especially pertinent” because employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Saudi Embassy and in consulates “were implicated as possibly having provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.” Also, records about “as many as 70” Saudi diplomats associated with Islamic Affairs whose credentials were revoked in the aftermath of 9/11.
▪ Records about other investigations of al Qaeda attacks and operations. The letter seeks the “long overdue” release of records involving the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Bojinka plot and numerous other incidents.
The victims and relatives, who for years have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for damages, expressed concern in their letter that the Obama administration’s public response to calls for transparency “have focused narrowly on the 28 pages alone.”
“Any meaningful effort to provide the American public with the truth concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the emergence of al Qaeda and the events of 9/11 must encompass the full spectrum of evidence bearing on questions of Saudi culpability, not merely the 28 pages,” the letter says.
“By all public accounts, the 28 pages focus on a very discrete set of relationships and transactions relating to Saudi support for two of the 9/11 hijackers once they were already in the United States,” the letter goes on. “While this evidence is critically important, the broader issue, and the one principally raised by our lawsuit against the Kingdom, is the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding and patronage of al Qaeda, and role in spreading the jihadist ideology that gave rise to bin Laden’s organization during the decade leading up to the attacks.”
Efforts to obtain access to other, still-secret 9/11 information are underway. For example, the Florida Bulldog has a number of outstanding Freedom of Information requests that seek FBI and terrorism task force records about the activities of the suicide hijackers in South Florida, northern Virginia and northern New Jersey.
More recent federal documents that may shed light on 9/11 are also being sought for public disclosure.
On June 16, Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking records by and about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.
The Review Commission was established a decade after the 9/11 Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings and released no transcripts or documents to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 report. The commission’s members and executive director were paid by the FBI in still-secret personal services contracts.
I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released.
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham
The lawsuit seeks to obtain those records to assess the basis for reliability of the Review Commission’s findings and recommendations, notably its conclusions about a remarkable April 16, 2002, FBI report. That report, released by the FBI after the initial lawsuit was filed, reported that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”
The FBI report corroborated witness statements that were the basis for a Sept. 8, 2011, story in the Florida Bulldog that first reported the story of the Sarasota Saudis, including the existence of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that the FBI never disclosed it to Congress. It was also a major embarrassment for the bureau, flatly contradicting the FBI’s public statements that agents had found no connections between the family and the 9/11 plot.
The Review Commission concluded that the FBI report was “unsubstantiated” based on statements by unidentified FBI officials calling the report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.