Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog on Feb. 20. As on Monday, we are re-posting our coverage of the 9/11 investigation after it was picked up today, March 13, by MSNBC.
By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota.
Graham would not disclose the content of the documents, which are marked “Secret,” but said the information they contain is at odds with the FBI’s public statements that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis then living in Sarasota.
“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.
“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” Graham said. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”
Whether the 9/11 hijackers acted alone, or whether they had support within the U.S., remains an unanswered question – one that began to be asked as soon as it became known that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. It was underlined when Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry, which Democrat Graham co-chaired, released its public report in July 2003. The final 28 pages, regarding possible foreign support for the terrorists, were censored in their entirety—on President George W. Bush’s instructions.
Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who had participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”
Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, only to find the man had been instructed by FBI headquarters not to talk.
LICENSE PLATES TIED TO HIJACKERS
The FBI-led investigation a decade ago focused on Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia and left the country in the weeks before 9/11. The couple, who had lived there since about 1995, left behind three cars and numerous personal belongings such as furnishings, clothes, medicine and food, according to law enforcement records. A concerned neighbor contacted the FBI.
Analysis of Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle, according to a counterterrorism officer – speaking on condition of anonymity – and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.
The home was owned by Mrs. Al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd and a noted racehorse owner. Prince Fahd died in July 2001.
Al-Hijji, who now lives and works in London, this month called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.
The FBI backs up al-Hijji. After initially declining to comment, the Bureau confirmed that it did investigate but said it found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.
The FBI reiterated its position in a February 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.
Newly released Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents, however, state that an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, the ex-Broward resident and suspected al Qaeda operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
In 2003, the FBI asked Sarasota lawyer Scott McKay, who was involved in the sale of the property, to convince al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Ghazzawi, to return to the U.S. to sign documents. The ploy, intended to get Ghazzawi back for questioning, failed when Ghazzawi instead signed the sale documents at the American consulate in Beirut.
The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI. The agent believed that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds had been interested in both men even before 9/11.
The FBI interviewed Al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and her American-born mother, Deborah Ghazzawi, when they returned to Sarasota briefly in 2003. The women denied involvement with the 9/11 terrorists, and said the couple’s 2001 return flights to Saudi Arabia had been booked well in advance.
Al-Hijji told London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, that he returned to the U.S. for two months in 2005 to study in Houston, but was not questioned by the FBI. Asked why federal agents had questioned his wife and mother-in-law, he said he had “no idea.”
GRAHAM ASKS FOR HELP
Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.
That prompted Graham to ask the FBI for assistance in locating in the National Archives the Sarasota-related files that were allegedly turned over to Congress. Instead, after what Graham said were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, the Bureau suddenly turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.
Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, which responded by setting up a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Joyce told Graham he “didn’t want to talk” about the Sarasota episode. Graham was assured, however, that he would shortly be shown material that supported the FBI’s denials, and a further meeting was arranged with an FBI aide.
In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.
Graham said the Joint Inquiry was not the only national investigative body kept in the dark about Sarasota. He said the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have told him they also were unaware of it.
Kean, a former New Jersey governor, told Graham the Commission would have “worked it hard,” because the hypothesis that the hijackers completed the planning alone was “implausible.”
Kean did not return several phone messages seeking comment. But Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, confirmed this month that he learned nothing about the Sarasota matter while serving as vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission.
Graham sees the information now emerging about Sarasota as ominously similar to discoveries his Inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from another Saudi, one of whom helped Mihdhar and Hazmi find an apartment. Multiple sources told investigators they believed the latter helpful Saudi had been a Saudi government agent.
Later, when 9/11 Commission staff gained limited access to these individuals in Saudi Arabia, the aides’ reaction was caustic. One memo described the testimony of one of them as “deceptive…inconsistent…implausible.” The testimony of another displayed an “utter lack of credibility.”
TWO HIJACKERS LIVED WITH FBI INFORMANT
Graham is troubled by what he sees as FBI headquarters’ persistent apparent effort to conceal information, including the fact that Mihdhar and Hazmi lived for months in California in the home of a paid FBI informant. Even when that emerged, the FBI denied his Inquiry access to the informant. Graham wonders if that was merely because of the Bureau’s embarrassment, or because the informant knew something that “would be even more damaging were it revealed.”
The newly surfaced FDLE documents containing Hammoud’s troubling 2004 information about al-Hijji have reinforced Graham’s concerns because they conflict with the FBI’s public statements.
Hammoud’s statement that al-Hijji introduced him to Broward’s own Saudi terror suspect, Shukrijumah, is consistent with the report that Prestancia gate logs showed Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji house – and buttresses longstanding official suspicion that he was linked to the hijackers. When Mohamed Atta visited a federal immigration office in Miami to discuss a visa problem in May 2001, a 9/11 Commission footnote reports, a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah accompanied him.
Graham sees what he believes to be the suppression of evidence pointing to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers as arising from the perceived advantages to the West, at the time and now, of keeping Saudi Arabia happy.
In late December, the U.S. announced a new $30 billion defense deal with the Saudis.
“This agreement serves to reinforce the strong enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. “It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security.”
Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.
“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.