Prodded by federal judge, FBI finally identifies Sarasota Saudis by name in court

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Six years after news broke that the FBI found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family who’d moved abruptly out of their Sarasota home two weeks before the terrorist attacks – and didn’t tell Congress – the FBI has identified the family publicly.

The disclosure is in a partially declassified Memorandum for the Record that recounts a briefing about the family given by the FBI to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014. “Briefing Title: Al-Hiijjii Family,” the document says.

The FBI reluctantly disclosed the family’s last name – which is correctly spelled al-Hijji – in the wake of a Miami federal judge’s Feb. 27 order that it had failed to show that disclosure would invade the al-Hijjis’ privacy. The original version of the memo, released in November, blanked out the al-Hijji name, claiming privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, came to the FBI’s attention within hours of 9/11 when neighbors contacted them to say the couple abruptly had moved out of their upscale home in the Prestancia development, leaving behind their cars and numerous personal belongings. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Among other things, agents later determined that vehicles driven by 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah – who trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport – had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle.

The FBI kept its investigation secret for a decade, not informing Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the investigation in September 2011. The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The FBI’s disclosure of the al-Hijji name is a small but noteworthy milestone in FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog last June that seeks the release of records of the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. The commission, paid and controlled by the FBI, spent a year conducting an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and evaluating new evidence. It issued a 127-page report in March 2015.

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.

“It makes you wonder if they’re going through all this because there’s an arrangement with al-Hijji and Ghazzawi,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin. “It smacks of a confidential source agreement.”

Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph

The FBI filed court papers this month seeking again to dismiss the lawsuit. In them, the FBI said it had reviewed about 900 pages of classified commission records and declassified and released 328 pages in whole or in part. While some records containing new information about 9/11 were disclosed, many of those records were copies of the FBI’s personal services contracts with commission members and staff.

The government’s filings seek to explain to the court why, despite several ostensibly thorough searches, the bureau continues to report finding new Review Commission documents, as recently as March 7 and again on March 13.

Government court papers said the records, like others previously processed, were under the direct control of FBI Director James Comey, who kept the 9/11 Review Commission’s records stored in his office and not in the FBI’s Central Records System.

The March 7 documents were said to include four additional Memoranda for the Record and “a number of transitory records” the FBI thought it had purged last year. The records were being reviewed for possible release.

“In addition, on March 13, 2017, the FBI Director’s Office identified certain hard copy records held in storage, which had not previously been identified or searched, and which it believes may include material responsive to plaintiffs’ requests,’’ said another government filing. “The Records and Information Dissemination Section is currently retrieving these additional records and will review the same.”

Releasing “in context”

The release of the al-Hijji name, while notable, was not complete. There are clear references to the al-Hijjis elsewhere in the April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record, but the names remain redacted.

Here’s how the FBI explains it: “The FBI concedes to releasing the Al-Hiijjiis in this context. This is the summary of information released in a public article.”

The disclosure marks the second time that judicial prodding has caused the FBI to make public names in the memorandum that it previously withheld citing privacy concerns.

In February, the bureau identified Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire as the briefer who told the Review Commission that an explosive April 2002 FBI report stating that agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” was bogus.

The report flatly contradicted FBI public statements that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement,” Maguire said, according to the memorandum. The memo, however, contains nothing to explain the basis for Maguire’s assertions.

The agent who wrote the controversial report is Gregory Sheffield. Judge Cecilia Altonaga has ruled that FBI disclosure of his name would not invade his privacy. Nevertheless, the FBI has not acknowledged his name.

The FBI kept Sheffield’s report secret for more than a decade before releasing a partially declassified version to the Florida Bulldog in March 2013 amid separate FOIA litigation in Fort Lauderdale. The document, censored on grounds of national security, confirmed previous reporting.

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10 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Mark Isenberg says:

    Hello from Tarpon Springs,
    Thank you Dan C. and staff for staying on this case and the FBI reluctance to disclose much about the family. Before Rachel Maddow and others rush you on tv to discuss the details of what you are following and learning,be mindful that a lot of what you are telling us may require collaboration at the international level and you may need help from folks at the NY Times,Frontline in Boston or Pro Publica. I have a feeling once you can get some international help,it will be easier to connect the dots as to whether the Saudis had a lot bigger role in the plot or financing of those hijackers while they took flying lessons in Venice. Stay on it no matter how long. Mark Isenberg

  2. Dear Fellow Florida Bulldog Readers:

    I personally believe we are the lucky, unintentional,
    elite, because we have lucked into the most important
    journalism anywhere in the Southeastern U S, this
    continuing effort to bring the truth to light by The Florida
    Bulldog.

    My perception is that it is frightening how much truth
    is kept from the people about important events.

    Only now, 50 years later, can we watch The Military
    Channel, and learn that The Gulf of Tonkin Incident,
    based upon which Congress authorized The Vietnam
    War, was NOT real. I.e. North Vietnam did not attack our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin!

    I, for the first time in my 65 year life, am studying
    the possibility of extraterrestrial presence, and activity,
    on Earth.

    Sincerely,

    Jackson Rip Holmes

  3. David elkins says:

    In my FOIA suit, Elkins v FAA, 1:14-cv-00476, US District Court, District of Columbia, after year of litigating against the Federal Aviation Administration, the DC circuit ordered release of records, radar flight plots, call sign, in flight radio communications with Tampa tower concerning long term, illegal unwarranted surveillance. The records depict the date, time, latitude, longitude, agency (FBI), altitude, method (aircraft) concerning a bogus claim of “On going National Security Investigation”. without citing what violation of federal law has occurred or what threat to “National Security” is about to occur. It always appears the DOJ / FBI hides their incompetence or misconduct under (7) A-E. National Security claim is always their trump card, even if it doesn’t apply. Keep up the good work Bulldog!!!!

  4. Gene Nelson says:

    Excellent investigative reporting, Dan Christensen. IMHO, you are documenting the excessive power of “oil politics” in America. All the more reason to expand the use of energy sources that don’t require fossil-fuel combustion, such as nuclear fission – first championed by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. See this article for details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyman_G._Rickover

  5. Mark Rossini says:

    Thank you for this great reporting. Your readers might find this document of interest.

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zRsdzSJ6cKzph-PBpH2rdfouSRG-i016GrhQdfTeJK0

  6. Adam says:

    Mark why do you FBI guys always blame the CIA.

    You had the men living with shaikh your counterterrorism informant. Why was Shaikh allowed to die without ever being intereviewed by anyone? What is the big secret. And how many more Shaikhs were there out there we dont know about.

    You guys were allowed in investigate the US embassy bombing plot which could have led you to the AlQaeda communications hub in Yemen and the family of one of the California cell, yet you always act like you had to wait for the CIA to tell you first before you can know.

    The CIA knew about these guys overseas. Fine. But that says they did their job on their end and the breakdown only comes when the FBI take over and we are supposed to blame CIA for this. There was some sort of breakdown with Zacarias Moussaoui too, was that also CIAs fault. What caused your failure to tie Aulaqi to the plot in the aftermath? You guys maintain to this day he had nothing to do with it. Why have you not resolved that with the facts floating around the internet that he was just about the mastermind of the whole thing.

    How many 9/11 prosecutions did the JTTF make since 9/11? It seemed to me like the Spanish and the Germans made more that you guys, with Motassadeq and Yarkas. Is this also CIAs fault?

    The giant black hole of 9/11 is on the FBIs side, not the CIAs.

  7. Adam says:

    “The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.”

    His in-laws are powerful Saudis from Washington….

    Anwar Aulaqis friend lived next door to them in Arlington. FBI wernt exactly keen to catch Aulaqi either.

  8. myron levin says:

    Really fascinating & disturbing stuff. Way to stick with this, Dan.

  9. Mike says:

    In terms of the CIA/FBI “breakdown” in regard to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar we have never gotten an answer from FBI UBLU agents who were given the information in August of 2001. The conduct of the UBLU has never been credibly explained by anyone in power. The 9/11 Commission did a horrible job on this aspect.

    For example Dina Corsi claimed she was worried about the intel/criminal wall and that is why the info wasn’t immediately shared with the Cole investigators.

    1)The invocation of wall restrictions has been refuted by NSLU attorney Sherry Sabol who denied giving Corsi this advice.

    2)FBI legal counsel Larry Parkinson said the wall excuse didn’t make sense to him.

    3)Why was a single rookie intel agent tasked to perform a search with routine priority? Meaning if the wall was truly the main concern then why not put 50 intel side agents on an immediate priority search?

    To an outsider it sure looks like the UBLU was ordered to obstruct the investigation of al-Hamzi and al-Mihdhar. Why would anyone order an FBI unit to obstruct an al Qaeda investigation during a period of high threat?

  10. adam says:

    Why has the FBI JTTF not prosecuted and wrapped up the 9/11 domestic network?

    Why approach it as immigration violation?

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