In its only public statements about the Sarasota Saudis who suspiciously quit their home in a gated community in haste two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind numerous personal belongings — the FBI has said it investigated, but found no connection to the 9/11 plot.
Nearly three years later, however, the FBI has yet to back up its assertions by producing investigative reports written by agents who conducted the probe.
In fact, the few FBI records that have been released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2012 by BrowardBulldog.org flatly contradict the Bureau’s public statements. They say the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to 9/11 terrorist figures – a determination in line with the recollections of a counterterrorism officer with knowledge of the investigation.
The officer, who has asked not to be named, said authorities found gatehouse vehicle and telephone records indicating that Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the luxury home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.
KEY RECORDS HAVEN’T SURFACED
The gatehouse and phone records haven’t surfaced – despite the completion this month of a court-ordered search of more than 80,000 pages of FBI 9/11 records. Neither have specific FBI documents mentioned in the handful of FBI records that have trickled out to date, or others that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, says he was shown by the FBI after the story broke in 2011.
What’s going on?
The answer appears to lie in an obscure provision of federal law enacted decades ago that allows the FBI to say that certain sensitive records don’t exist when they actually do exist.
“That sounds like the most likely thing because you know beyond any question that records were created and they’re not showing up where they should show up,” said Washington, D.C. attorney James Lesar, a veteran FOIA litigator. “They’ve simply kept them secret.”
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966. It provides access to federal agency records, but there are nine exemptions, including personal privacy, which agencies can invoke to withhold records from public inspection. There are also three less common “exclusions” used to suppress information about sensitive law enforcement and national security matters.
A 1986 amendment to the act incorporated an exclusion that allows the FBI to treat classified records about foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism as “not subject to the requirements” of the act.
Justice Department guidelines established by Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese say that means that those who request excluded records can be told, “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request.”
“The approach has never involved ‘lying,’ as some have suggested,” Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Iowa Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a Nov. 2011 letter. “The logic is simple: When a citizen makes a request pursuant to the FOIA, either implicit or explicit in the request is that it seeks records that are subject to the FOIA; where…records that exist are not subject to the FOIA, the statement “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request” is wholly accurate.”
Still, such answers can “mislead,” as California U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney observed in a 2011 ruling in another FOIA case.
When the law is invoked “the government will routinely submit an in camera declaration addressing that claim, one way or the other,” the guidelines say. “In camera” is legal terminology for privately in the judge’s chambers.
That appears to be what happened in federal court in Fort Lauderdale this month when the FBI filed Records Section Chief David Hardy’s fourth declaration in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA case. A footnote in the declaration says the FBI simultaneously filed Hardy’s fifth declaration in camera and ex parte (without providing a copy to the news organization).
Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents BrowardBulldog.org.
“We intend to challenge the FBI’s claim that it has no records or that they can be treated as not subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” said Julin. “The judge can make a determination that these records should be open to the American public and I would expect him to do that if he finds that disclosure of these records would not endanger national security.
“We have every reason to believe that this is the case since Sen. Graham has been espousing the view that the existence of a Saudi network in the United States is something that should be disclosed to the American people and would not endanger the United States,” Julin said. Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl., chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch continues his review of Hardy’s latest declarations and more than 80,000 pages of un-redacted 9/11 documents the FBI has produced for his private inspection.
QUESTIONS ABOUT AN FBI AGENT’S TRANSFER
FBI records released to date and the observations of the counterterrorism officer appear to fit the FOIA exemption scenario.
The FBI agent in charge of the Sarasota Saudi investigation was Gregory Sheffield. According to the counterterrorism officer, Sheffield wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks.
On July 22, 2002, Sheffield interviewed al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and mother-in-law Deborah Ghazzawi “regarding possible terrorist activity.” The women, who had returned briefly to the home, denied fleeing before 9/11 or knowing certain unnamed individuals, according to the reports.
Soon after, according to the counterterrorism officer, Sheffield was transferred to the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence (FCI) division and left the area. The officer said the transfer suggested Sheffield may have recruited an al-Hijji family member as a source of information.
“I believe that the transfer of Sheffield to the FCI side of the Bureau speaks volumes as to the lack of information available. If he was able to recruit a family member then all information up to that point will be off limits under the National Security Act,” the counterintelligence officer said in an interview last year.