By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org
A mass of documents detailing the Tampa area connection to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many of which may have never been made public, are stored out of sight in the FBI’s Tampa field office.
“The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation,” say new court papers filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Precisely what information is contained in those records was not disclosed.
The Justice Department cited the Tampa records in an effort to convince U.S. District Judge William Zloch not to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records of its investigation into apparent ties between the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and Saudis living in Sarasota.
Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily left their upscale home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated community of Prestancia, and the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, leaving behind numerous personal items and a trail of suspicion and mystery.
The FBI said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. But after BrowardBulldog.org sued last year under the Freedom of Information Act the FBI released a handful of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents had found “many connections” to persons associated with the 9/11 terrorists.
Those connections include a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where 9/11 hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained, according to the report. The flight student’s name was censored.
The news organization alleges the FBI’s two prior searches were inadequate and that additional records of its Sarasota investigation have been improperly withheld.
Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, has told the court in a sworn declaration that he believes the FBI should have hundreds or even thousands of pages of additional records about the matter.
Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org, has proposed a new search method for the records, including requiring better word searches, and has asked the court to approve it.
The Justice Department is resisting. In court papers, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez said the proposal “would require the FBI to conduct an exhaustive fishing expedition” for no good reason.
[Court documents filed in the case can be found here.]
The FBI’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, was code-named PENTTBOMB, a compression of the words Pentagon, Twin Towers and Bombing. The FBI has said PENTTBOMB was its largest investigation ever, which at its peak involved more than half of its agents.
The FBI has a number of ways that it stores records about PENTTBOMB and its other cases, including its antiquated Central Records System (CRS).
The FBI searched CRS in response to BrowardBulldog.org’s original Freedom of Information Act request in the fall of 2011, but reported finding nothing. It wasn’t until earlier this year, well after the lawsuit was filed, that a further search of CRS turned up the approximately 30 pages that were made public.
The CRS has been replaced by the FBI’s new, $440 million “Sentinel” computer system that was deployed after the original search. Court papers say all FBI records prior to Sentinel’s start-up have been migrated into its system. Attorney Julin has requested the FBI be ordered to conduct a search of the more efficient Sentinel system.
Fernandez acknowledged that the FBI did not search several databases including a pair of surveillance databases and the FBI’s email system.
The surveillance databases were not searched because they were not “specifically requested” to be searched, Fernandez wrote. The email system was not searched, she said, because the FBI “had no reason to believe responsive records would be located on these systems.”
In a reply filed Wednesday, Julin accused the government of playing “cat and mouse” in its responses.
“The reason that the FBI has not located many additional records relating to this investigation has now been made clear. The FBI states in its response…that it ‘did not interpret plaintiffs’ request as seeking information as to any findings regarding family members who resided at the Sarasota address,’” Julin said.
“In essence, this seems to say that the FBI specifically structured its search to exclude the very documents that the FBI knew that the plaintiffs were attempting to obtain and that might either explain the FBI’s public contradiction of the plaintiffs’ published reports or show the FBI’s public statements to be false.”
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.