By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A top Florida FBI agent said Thursday that members of a Saudi family living quietly near Sarasota were questioned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but no evidence was found that linked them to the hijackers.
A week after Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald published a story showing ties between the family and some of the terrorists, Tampa’s head FBI agent, Steven Ibison, released a statement Thursday saying the FBI investigated “suspicions surrounding” the Sarasota home, but never found evidence tying the family members to the suspects.
“There was no connection found to the 9/11 plot,” said the statement, released to the St. Petersburg Times. The prepared statement provided no details.
The agency’s statement “to correct the public record” comes just days after Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor asked for a House investigation into the events surrounding the Sarasota family, which abruptly left the home days before the 9/11 attacks, leaving behind three vehicles, food in the refrigerator and toys in the pool.
The FBI’s official version, the second in a week, conflicts sharply with reports from people who worked at the homeowners’ association and a counter-terrorism officer who joined the investigation.
A senior administrator at the luxury community told reporters that cars used by the 9/11 hijackers — the tag numbers noted by security at the gate — drove to the entrance requesting to visit the family at various times before the terrorist attacks. One of the cars was linked to terrorist leader Mohamed Atta, said administrator Larry Berberich.
In addition, a counterterrorism officer who requested anonymity said agents also linked phone calls between the home and known hijacking suspects in the year before the attacks.
The FBI’s response to the discovery has drawn criticism from U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who said he was never told of the Sarasota investigation when he was co-chair of the congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Thursday’s FBI statement said the agency provided all the information to the congressional inquiry.
“Nobody I’ve spoken with from the Joint Inquiry says we got any information on this,” Graham said. “It’s total B.S. It’s the same thing we’ve been getting from the FBI for the past 10 years.”
Graham, who appeared on national television this week, added that the FBI failed to provide information in the years after 9/11 linking members of the terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.
“It was not because the FBI gave us the information. We had a very curious and effective investigator who found out,” Graham told MSNBC.
In an appearance Monday on MSNBC, Graham said he spoke with President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He said he has gone to the White House’s chief of counterterrorism to ask that the administration look into the Sarasota case.
The FBI, which has not released any results of its investigation, said family members who lived in the home owned by Saudi financier Esam Ghazzawi were tracked down and interviewed about the case after the terrorist attacks.
It wasn’t clear from Thursday’s statement whether the FBI or Saudi intelligence conducted the interrogations. The family was believed to have flown to Saudi Arabia after briefly stopping in Virginia days before 9/11.
The Joint Inquiry shut down at the end of 2002, apparently without ever hearing about this from the FBI. But Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, who represented the Prestancia homeowners’ association in a claim for unpaid dues when the property was sold in 2003, said the FBI asked him to try and get the Saudis to return to Sarasota so they could be questioned.
McKay said he tried on behalf of the agency, but Ghazzawi was able to sign his name under a notary at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003.