By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
In September, news about a previously unknown FBI investigation that found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family living near Sarasota led the FBI to deny there was any connection and assert that it made all of its files available to congressional investigators a decade ago.
But two months on, the FBI has been unable or unwilling to substantiate that it disclosed any information regarding its Sarasota investigation to Congress, says former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.
“My suspicion is that either, one, the documents don’t exist; two, that if they do exist they can’t find them; or three, they did find them and they did not substantiate the statements that they’ve made and that they are withholding them,” said Graham. He has long contended the FBI stonewalled Congress about what it knows about possible Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers.
The FBI investigation began shortly after 9/11 when residents of the gated community of Prestancia, south of Sarasota, called to report the abrupt departure from their luxury home of a Saudi family about two weeks before four passenger jets originating in Boston, Newark and Washington were hijacked. The family left behind a Chevy Blazer in the driveway, a Chrysler PT Cruiser in the garage, clothes in the closet and a refrigerator full of food.
Neighbors said agents searched the house and hauled away bags of belongings. But the most important information came when the FBI examined gatehouse security logs and photographs of license plates, according to then-homeowner’s association administrator Larry Berberich and a counterterrorism agent involved in the investigation.
They said the security records revealed that the home was visited by vehicles used by 9/11 terrorist leader Mohamed Atta and fellow hijacker-pilot Ziad Jarrah. Atta piloted the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Jarrah was at the controls when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa.
The counterterrorism agent, who asked that his name not be disclosed, said an analysis of phone records found additional links between the residence and other hijackers and terrorist suspects, including Adnan Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
FBI DENIES TIES BETWEEN FAMILY AND HIJACKERS
Stories about the Sarasota investigation were published jointly by Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald in September. The Justice Department initially declined to comment. Later, FBI agents in Tampa and Miami issued separate statements denying that any connection existed between the family and the terrorists.
“There was no connection found to the plot,” Tampa FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Steven E. Ibisen said in a statement released to the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 15. No details were provided.
Graham, a Democrat who also served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987, has said that he and other members and staff of the Joint Inquiry were not made aware of the Sarasota investigation by the FBI. He said in September that news of it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.”
With the assistance of the Senate Intelligence Committee he once chaired, Graham asked the FBI in September to provide him with file numbers about the Sarasota inquiry and the dates that those records were provided to congressional investigators. With that information, the committee’s records custodian could locate them in the National Archives.
At one point, Graham said, FBI agents produced 10 file numbers. But when intelligence committee personnel reviewed those files “it was their determination that there was no information in any of the 10 files that was relevant” to the Sarasota investigation, he said.
After failing to meet several subsequent self-imposed deadlines, Graham said, “The FBI asked (that) instead of finding the documents could they brief us instead. I said, ‘No, that would not be acceptable.’”
FBI agent David Couvertier, a spokesman for the Tampa office, did not respond when asked Monday to explain why the agency has yet to provide Graham with the information that’s needed to locate the Sarasota records in the Joint Inquiry’s old files.
The FBI also denied a recent Freedom of Information request by Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald that sought agency records about agents’ findings in Sarasota.
“The release of records…would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” of the Saudi nationals who owned or lived at the home, said the Oct. 6 denial letter signed by David M. Hardy, an official in the FBI’s Records Management Division.
The Saudis who lived in the Prestancia home at 4224 Escondito Circle were Abdulaziz A. Al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud, and their small children. The home was owned by Anoud’s parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Ghazzawi was described as a middle-aged financier and interior designer. Deborah Ghazzawi was born in the United States.
Sarasota County records show the Al-Hijjis were married in May 1995 and that the Ghazzawi’s purchased the home the following September.
Al-Hijji attended a local junior college and, at age 26, enrolled at the University of South Florida in January 2000. University records show he attended continuously until April 27, 2001 and was awarded a bachelor of science degree with a major in management information systems on August 10, 2001.
The counterterrorism agent said the Al-Hijji’s later traveled from South Florida to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia via the Washington, D.C. area and London. The agent said Ghazzawi and Al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI.
AN FBI PLOY
After property fees went unpaid, the homeowner’s association filed a lien on the home to try and collect. Association attorney Scott McKay said that during the subsequent litigation and sale of the property in 2003 the FBI asked him to try and convince the Saudis to return to the U.S. The ploy didn’t work.
The discovery a decade after the fact of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation has reinforced Graham’s belief that the U.S. has engaged in a coverup of information to protect America’s relationship with the oil-rich kingdom.
“The thing that has made me leery of what the FBI now says is the way they handled the San Diego events,” he said, referring to the fact that the FBI failed to share with the Joint Inquiry’s investigators information it had learned about connections between local Saudis and two Saudi-born 9/11 hijackers – Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Congressional investigators chanced to find that “treasure trove of information” on their own, he said.
Events in Sarasota share a “common outline” with contemporaneous events in Southern California involving al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi, Graham said.
The Joint Inquiry report and the 9/11 Commission report both describe how another Saudi living in San Diego, Omar al-Bayoumi, provided extensive assistance to the hijackers, including housing. The report says al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported that he thought al-Bayoumi was an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The report said the FBI also learned that al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements.” Bayoumi left the U.S. two months before the attacks.
Graham said congressional investigators also established that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and alleged al-Qaeda commander who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen on September 30, was an Imam to some of the hijackers.
After news about the Sarasota investigation broke, Graham contacted the White House in hopes of getting some answers. What he got instead was an email from David Turk, a special assistant to the president, informing him that chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan “had asked the FBI about his inquiry and was told that the 9/11 Commission was well aware of the Sarasota house/occupants and chose not to include it in the final 9/11 Commission’s report because it ‘didn’t stick to the wall.’
Graham said, “I was disappointed and somewhat surprised, given the FBI’s reputation (for) not being as transparent as it should be in areas where’s there’s no national security concerns, that the White House would have accepted what the FBI said with apparently no questions.”
Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director, said Monday that he does not recall anything about the Sarasota investigation.