FBI coughs up new 9/11 records about Sarasota; Documents, evidence missing

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

New York’s World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

Newly released FBI documents say agents investigating 9/11 connections did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that 9/11 hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family.

The FBI’s surprising assertion that agents chose not to collect basic evidence during its once-secret Sarasota investigation is contained in a previously classified “Memorandum for the Record” about an FBI briefing given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, called the FBI’s statement “stunning.”

The memorandum also fails to explain, as the commission’s final report suggested it would, the basis for FBI statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission that sought to discredit an April 2002 FBI report that – contrary to the FBI’s public comments – said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

A heavily censored copy of the four-page Memorandum for the Record is among more than 200 pages of declassified 9/11 Review Commission records released to FloridaBulldog.org this month by the FBI amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.

The Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, but was largely controlled by the FBI. Its three members, all of whom were paid by the FBI, included former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.

New questions about Review Commission

The Review Commission operated in secret for about a year and went out of business when it issued its final report in March 2015. The memo, cited in the report’s footnotes, raises new questions about whether the commission made an actual, thorough review of what happened in Sarasota or simply accepted the FBI’s assertions.

“It’s somewhere between just blind acceptance of whatever the FBI put before them and the failure of the FBI to disclose other information not in this memo,” said Graham.

Florida driver's license photo of Mohamed Atta

Florida driver’s license photo of Mohamed Atta

The FBI’s Sarasota investigation began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when neighbors in the upscale Prestancia development alerted law enforcement to the abrupt departure of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home at 4224 Escondito Circle about two weeks before 9/11. The couple left numerous personal belongings, including their cars, clothes, furniture and a refrigerator full of food.

The home was owned by al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to the late Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a nephew of former King Fahd, and eldest son of Saudi Arabia’s current monarch, King Salman. The prince died in July 2001 at age 46.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story included statements by Prestancia’s security chief and a counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as to how the FBI had used the gatehouse’s sign-in logs and photographs of license plates to discover that cars used by 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited al-Hijji’s home. Atta and two other hijack pilots took flight lessons at nearby Venice Municipal Airport.

No disclosure to Congress, 9/11 Commission

The story also noted the FBI had not disclosed its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 or the subsequent 9/11 Commission. The FBI has said it did notify Congress and the 9/11 Commission, but a number of persons affiliated with those probes, including former Sen. Graham, have said they were not told about the Sarasota Saudis.

The newly released Memorandum for the Record does not address the significant question of whether the FBI notified Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, and if not, why. It does, however, dispute the accounts of both Prestancia’s then-security chief, Larry Berberich, and the counterterrorism officer who said FBI agents collected and analyzed the gatehouse records that documented who entered Prestancia prior to 9/11 and where they went.

“The FBI did not obtain the gate records from the community because there was not a justified reason to believe there was a connection with the hijackers. There was no investigative belief or reason to obtain the records,” the memo says.

“It’s unbelievable that they would make the statement that they didn’t collect the records because they didn’t have a belief that there was a connection,” Graham said. “It was the records that would have given them that connection.”

Nevertheless, the memo says elsewhere that the FBI concluded there was “no evidence the hijackers visited the family’s residence.” The memo does not explain how, if the gate records were not obtained, the FBI could reach that conclusion.

The FBI has said in public comments, and to the 9/11 Review Commission, that it found “no evidence” connecting the Sarasota Saudis to any of the 9/11 hijackers, “nor was there any connection found between the family and the 9/11 plot.”

A startling statement

The memo, however, includes a startling statement about the FBI’s record-keeping practices that indicates the bureau cannot back up its conclusions. “There is no actual documentation of searches and work done to rule out connections,” the memo says.

The memorandum goes on to dispute the counterterrorism officer’s account of how agents, using a subpoena, obtained phone company records about incoming and outgoing calls to the Escondito house. A link analysis – tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversation – found that calls dating back more than a year prior to 9/11 “lined up with the known suspects,” the counterterrorism officer said.

The links were not only to Atta and other hijack pilots, but to other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center, and al Qaeda terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah, the counterterrorism officer said. Shukrijumah, a Broward resident later added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, was reported killed in a military raid in Pakistan in December 2014.

The memorandum, however, says, “The FBI found there is no evidence and no grounds that the family, or 2 & 3 degrees of separation, had any telephonic connection,” with the hijackers.

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

Neither the memo nor the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report indicate that the commission sought to verify any of the FBI’s assertions. The FBI has declined to make public records about its phone record analysis.

Similarly, the memo discusses statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission by the FBI regarding its own April 2002 “many connections” report linking the Sarasota Saudis and 9/11 figures.

80,000 pages

 The FBI released that redacted report, containing national security information and originally marked “declassify on 03-14-2038,” to Florida Bulldog in 2013 during a separate Freedom of Information lawsuit that sought access to records of the FBI’s Sarasota probe.

 

In that case, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale ordered the FBI in April 2014 to produce for his inspection 80,000 pages of records from its Tampa area field office. The judge’s inspection is ongoing.

Before the 9/11 Review Commission, however, the FBI disavowed its report, saying it was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated,” according to the commission’s final report. The FBI went on to tell the commission that the special agent who wrote it, when questioned later, “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

Still, the Memorandum for the Record cited in the commission’s report says the unnamed special agent wrote the report to request opening a more urgent investigation of the Sarasota Saudis, but that didn’t happen.

“Tampa did the right thing by entering information into Rapid Start,” the memo says, referring to the tracking information management system used by the FBI prior to 9/11. “After 3 calls they opened a case. They interviewed the family members when they returned to the U.S. [several years later.] They obtained their contact information. However, Tampa did not have the derogatory needed to bump the investigation up to a [redacted].”

The memo does not explain why, if the 2002 report was “wholly unsubstantiated,” the agent who wrote it would have sought to draw attention to his own shoddy work by seeking further investigation. Likewise, the memo does not address why the FBI made public such a flawed report or why it redacted information from it due to reasons of national security.

The last section of the memo, “Gaps/Possible Issues/Recommendations” was redacted in full under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act regarding “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”

Mother of slain ex-Broward al Qaeda boss hopes for end to stigma

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan El Shukrijumah in 2003.

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan El Shukrijumah in 2003.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Nearly two years have passed since Miramar’s Zuhrah A. Jumah got news that her eldest son, Adnan, had been killed during a military raid on an al Qaeda hideout in a mountainous corner of northwest Pakistan.

Lately, she wonders how long Adnan El Shukrijumah’s ugly reputation as a dangerous senior al Qaeda commander will continue to trail her and her family.

“I go to the airport. My name comes up on the computer and they stop me. They say, ‘You’ve been selected’,” says Jumah, a mild-mannered widow with 13 grandchildren who has lived in the same modest home off West Hallandale Beach Boulevard for 20 years. “I’m searched. Sometimes they question me.”

Those traveling with her are also met with extra suspicion by airport security – even her 2-year-old granddaughter.

“You want to take me. Take me,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “Just leave my grandkids alone. You’re disturbing their lives.”

The family’s names can be confusing to Westerners. Jumah explains that El Shukri is the family name, and Jumah is her last name. Broward property records dating to 1996, including the deed to her home, identify her by that name. For reasons that are unclear, however, she has often been identified in news stories by the name Zuhrah Abdu Ahmed.

Zuhrah A. Jumah, top left, and her son Adnan El Shukrijumah, right and bottom.

Zuhrah A. Jumah, top left, and her son Adnan El Shukrijumah, right and bottom.

Jumah says the last time she spoke with Adnan was “12 to 15 years ago.” She said that a week after 9/11 he phoned her, “Did you see what happened?” he asked. She said he was “shocked and scared” because Muslims were being blamed and even then he was on the FBI’s radar as a suspect in plotting an attack in Florida. She said she believed her phone was tapped.

By then authorities had identified the 19 suicide hijackers who crashed passenger jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field as citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon.

‘I gave him comfort’

“Did you see how they put out the claim that we did it?” Adnan Shukrijumah told his mother, who said: “I told him if you’re not involved you have nothing to fear. I gave him comfort.”

Jumah said she and her late husband, Gulshair M. El Shukri Jumah, a local imam with ties to imprisoned New York radical Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, were home when the FBI arrived the day after the terrorist attacks looking for Adnan. He’d apparently left the country months before, however.

“The FBI was here the next day looking for Adnan,” she said. “They searched everything and took a computer that Adnan used.” It was not returned, she said.

The FBI has said Adnan Shukrijumah was a hardened terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head and an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a variety of charges stemming from his 2010 federal indictment in New York playing an alleged leadership role in a plot to attack New York City’s subway system, as well as other targets in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

FBI agents have visited Jumah’s home many times since 9/11. “They come every time something happens,” she says. The last time was in December 2014, “to see if he was really killed.” She refused to talk to them.

“We believe, as Muslims, things happen to test your faith,” she said.

Jumah, 55, says talk about her son’s ties to al Qaeda “makes no sense to me. I avoid it.” Instead, she recalls Adnan as “a nice, kind person” who wanted to have a family and a life – perhaps in South Florida. “He told me, ‘Mother, you must think what I’ve accomplished” she said, referring to his studies in computer engineering at Broward College and a side business as a computer technician.

‘He liked to travel’

Asked why, if her son was not involved in terrorism, he’d turn up in a remote region of Pakistan at an alleged al Qaeda compound, she says, “He liked to travel. He liked to move around. He’d gone there after all of the news and media and the blame and the claims.”

Adnan, born in Saudi Arabia in 1975, went to Pakistan to do business.

“He was going to look, to buy stuff and then sell it wholesale… kids’ clothes, sunglasses, jewelry – things like that. It was a business trip,” she said. Still, she doesn’t know the names of anyone Adnan worked with who could verify that account.

Adnan Shukrijumah, 39 at the time of his reported death, was killed during a firefight with Pakistani soldiers and a helicopter gunship on Dec. 6, 2014. Though it is widely accepted that he died that day, the FBI has yet to confirm it and he remains on its Most Wanted Terrorists List. An FBI spokesman has described the confirmation process as “international in scope and quite involved.”

Jumah believes that the Pakistani army killed her son. Now, she’s hoping the FBI will confirm his death and allow her to move on with her life.

“I want it to end,” she says, wearily. “I want it to be closed and finished.”

FBI Director Comey’s credibility issues go beyond presidential politics to 9/11 panel

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey discusses the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings during a press conference at FBI headquarters on March 25, 2015. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (left), and former Congressman Tim Roemer (right), are also pictured.

FBI Director James Comey discusses the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings during a press conference at FBI headquarters on March 25, 2015. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (left), and former Congressman Tim Roemer (right), are also pictured.

FBI Director James Comey’s credibility is under heavy fire due to his headline-making public statements about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton that have entangled the bureau in presidential politics.

Republicans howled in July when Comey publicly declared he wouldn’t recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Over the weekend, Democrat Clinton reportedly told supporters she blames her surprising loss to President-elect Donald Trump on Comey’s announcement 11 days before the election that he had restarted the email probe, as well as his announcement two days before the election that an examination of newly discovered emails had not changed his July findings.

But those aren’t the first credibility issues to be raised about Republican Comey since he became FBI chief in 2013. Others, largely unreported, arose from his handling of a secretive blue-ribbon panel authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence.

Under Comey’s direction, the 9/11 Review Commission became a captive of the FBI. He chose its three commissioners, authorized they be paid undisclosed sums and arranged for FBI personnel to spoon-feed them information. As the panel’s final report makes clear, the commissioners in turn were pliant to the very agency they were tasked to examine.

After the Review Commission was finished, Comey misled the public by promoting the fiction that it was an independent panel of experts.

“This is a moment of pride for the FBI,” Comey told reporters when the Review Commission’s final report was released, according to the New York Times. “An outside group of some of our most important leaders and thinkers has stared hard at us and said, ‘You have done a great job at transforming yourself.’ They’ve also said what I’ve said around the country: ‘It’s not good enough.’ ”

But the 9/11 Review Commission members – Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman – were not outsiders. Each signed personal services contracts with the FBI at the outset that under federal regulations made them de facto FBI employees. The FBI has declined to say how much they were paid.

The Review Commission issued its final 127-page report, “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” on March 25, 2015. It was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the bureau needed to speed up reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.

An embarrassing 2002 FBI report

The Review Commission’s most controversial finding: a section that curiously sought to discredit an April 16, 2002 FBI report that had become an embarrassment to the bureau.

The 2002 report discussed the findings of the FBI’s investigation of a Saudi family who it said had “fled” their Sarasota area home shortly before the 9/11 attacks and were later determined to have had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” Florida Bulldog obtained a heavily censored copy of the document during ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.

The FBI report corroborated earlier source-based reporting by Bulldog and Irish journalist Anthony Summers that in 2011 disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. Among other things, the story reported how law-enforcement agents had obtained community security records – including photos of license tags – showing that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had visited the home in the gated Prestancia neighborhood.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11

The FBI did not inform Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation, according to former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks. The FBI has said Congress and the 9/11 Commission were told.

The 2002 report, however, conflicted with the FBI’s prior public statements that said it had found no connection to terrorism during its once-secret investigation into the apparently hasty departure from Sarasota of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family. The couple moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.

The Review Commission, while silent about whether the FBI informed Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, cited unidentified FBI officials who called the April 2002 FBI report “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote the [report] was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” said the report, which does not identify the allegedly inept agent or provide further explanation.

Embracing the FBI

The Review Commission’s report, however, recounted the FBI’s assertions without challenge or reservation, adopting them as its own findings. Its recommendation: that the bureau “continue its thorough investigation into the 9/11 attacks.”

As originally conceived in legislation proposed in 2012, the 9/11 Review Commission was to be much tougher: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would take testimony and receive evidence in public. Its chairman and vice chairman would be appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate, staff would be hired without outside interference, and the General Services Administration would provide support services.

That proposal failed, but the idea of a 9/11 Review Commission was repurposed. Instead of being under congressional control, it was to be put under the administration and control of the FBI. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control was stripped out.

The proposed FBI 9/11 Review Commission was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.

Following delays attributed to sequestration, the Review Commission was established in January 2014. It relied heavily on the FBI for information, and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. intelligence community. About 30 individuals were interviewed, including CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met with Comey several times, the report said.

Commissioners got more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics like the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code name for its 9/11 investigation.

Commissioners also traveled to eight FBI field offices and six legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, according to the report.

The FBI declined to release any transcripts, memorandums or other back-up records generated by the Review Commission. In June 2016, Florida Bulldog sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for access to those records. Trial is set for March in U.S. District Court in Miami.

Widow of ex-South Florida al Qaeda figure reported in Pakistan hostage swap

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Al Masra's front page story last month with the story of Pakistan's release of al Qaeda boss Ayman Zawahiri's two daughters and the widow of ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.

Al Masra’s front page story last month with the story of Pakistan’s release of al Qaeda boss Ayman Zawahiri’s two daughters and the widow of ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.

Nearly two years after Pakistan’s army said it killed fugitive terrorist leader and ex-Broward resident Adnan El Shukrijumah, the FBI still hasn’t verified his death. But news reports this month say al Qaeda recently claimed that Shukrijumah’s widow was one of three women released by Pakistan in exchange for the son of the country’s former army chief.

The other women reportedly handed over to al Qaeda in the exchange were the adult daughters of Ayman al Zawahiri, who took over as leader after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in May 2011.

The Long War Journal, a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, first reported the story Sept. 2. Al Qaeda’s unverified claims about the exchange were made in late August in Al Masra, a magazine published by an organization linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. State Department had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Shukrijumah, chief of al Qaeda’s North American operations, before the 39-year-old former Miramar resident was reported slain during a helicopter gunship assault on a hideout in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan on Dec. 6, 2014. Shukrijumah’s widow and four children were reportedly taken into custody following a gun battle.

The reward has since been canceled, but the FBI continues to list Shukrijumah as one of its “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

In 2003, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced the government's manhunt for Adnan Shukrijumah

In 2003, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced the government’s manhunt for Adnan Shukrijumah

“The United States Government has not yet confirmed the death of El Shukrijumah,” the FBI said in a statement released to Florida Bulldog last week. “He will remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List until the time a confirmation is made.  The confirmation process, which is international in scope and quite involved, remains ongoing. Therefore, the FBI will not comment on it.”

Shukrijumah, indicted in 2010 for his alleged role in plots to attack New York City’s subway system and London’s Underground, was a key figure in the FBI’s Sarasota investigation of a Saudi couple, Abdulazziz and Anoud al-Hijji, that declassified FBI documents say had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The couple came to the FBI’s attention after neighbors reported they’d moved abruptly out of their home and returned to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports obtained by Florida Bulldog say that Wissam Hammoud, a terrorist associate imprisoned on unrelated charges, told the FBI in 2004 that Abdulazziz al-Hijji introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at the property of the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton in 2000 or 2001.

The Long War Journal and the Hindustan Times reported this month that al Qaeda sources first announced the release of the three women in early August. At the time, no mention of an exchange was made, but The Journal added, “Independent accounts indicate the global jihadist organization had been trying to secure their release in exchange for the kidnapped sons of Pakistan’s elite.”

Shukrijumah’s widow

The Journal said Al Masra identified Shukrijumah’s widow as Sumaiya Murjan Salem. She was identified as the daughter of the late Sheikh Murjan Salem al Jawhari. In an interview, Journal reporter Thomas Joscelyn described Salem al Jawhari as a “Zawahiri loyalist, a guy who was prominent in ideological circles.”

Shukrijumah’s widow and Zawahiri’s daughters, and their children, were reportedly sent to Egypt. Al Qaeda’s boss, 65, was born in Egypt.

The Journal reported that al Qaeda claimed the women were released in exchange for the son of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who stepped down as army chief in 2013. Before that, he headed Pakistan’s Directorate General for Inter-Services Intelligence.

The Indian Express later cited unnamed “Pakistani military sources,” as denying that there was a swap for the younger Kayani, but said the sources conceded that the women were exchanged, for the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Ali Haider Gilani, however, was rescued in a joint U.S.-Afghan raid in May.

The Journal reported that As Sahab, “a propaganda arm for al Qaeda’s senior leadership,” had released a threat in mid-July about the “treacherous” Pakistani army’s detention of the women. It identified Umaymah al Zawahiri and Fatima al Zawahiri, both in their mid-30s, as the wives of dead al Qaeda commanders. Sumaiya Salem was listed as Shukrijumah’s widow.

“Al Qaeda accused the Pakistanis of holding the three women and their children on the ‘orders of American intelligence’ since 2014,” The Journal story said. “The jihadists claimed at the time that the negotiations to free them had ‘failed.’ Al Qaeda said it would hold the Pakistani government and its ‘American masters’ responsible.”

“On Aug. 5, al Qaeda’s social media channels lit up with news that Zawahiri’s daughters and Shukrijumah’s widow had been released,” the story said.

9/11 terrorists, submersibles and an untold Fort Lauderdale story

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

On September 12, 2001, Fort Lauderdale businessman Bill Brown’s morning routine began like most others. After dropping his young daughter off at day care, the widower drove to work at his marine accessories store, The Nautical Niche.

What Brown says happened next was anything but ordinary. The parking lot of his store at 2301 S. Federal Highway was filled with federal agents and police.

“As soon as I arrived, they asked if we could go inside and talk,” said Brown. “They gave me a name and asked me who the person was. I wasn’t familiar with the name and I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ An agent said that he and several other men were the ones who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” the day before.

Confused, Brown replied that he knew nothing about the attacks. “Well, your phone number was the most prominent on his call list and it looks like you had a substantial relationship together,” an agent said. “We want to know his association with you.”

Agents from the FBI, CIA, U.S. Customs and Immigration were present that morning, but it was the FBI that took the lead, Brown said. They copied his sales records and later had Brown take a lie detector test in which he was asked only a couple of questions about his patriotism.

“I gave them complete access to our computer and anything I had,” Brown said. “We come to find out…they were customers of mine.”

Bill Brown

Bill Brown

Brown said it was determined that one or more hijackers had purchased between four and eight K-10 hydrospeeder submersibles in multiple transactions at a cost of $20,000 apiece. The now-retired Brown, 60, recalled that one or two of those high performance diver propulsion vehicles was shipped to Singapore, while another was sent to a location in the Northeast U.S. He recollects that shell companies were used in some transactions.

“They were sent all over,” said Brown, who told the South Florida Business Journal in 2002 that his store, which catered to the desires of super-rich yacht owners, had gross revenues of more than $6 million in 2000.

Brown, who Florida corporate records show sold his business in 2007, does not recall the shipping addresses, or the names of the recipients for those pre-9/11 transactions. Nor does he remember the name of the hijacker(s) who purchased them, either in person or via the internet.

A ‘significant cell’ broken

Brown does remember, however, that an FBI agent later told him the Singapore sale was traced back to its recipient and that “a significant cell” of terrorists was broken up as a result.

The FBI in Miami declined a detailed request for comment. Instead, a spokesman suggested that a reporter file a Freedom of Information request, a process that can take years.

The matter remained out of public view for 15 years until Brown came forward after seeing an advance newspaper article about Thursday’s 9/11 panel discussion at Nova Southeastern University hosted by the Florida Bulldog. He said investigators from the 9/11 Commission, or its predecessor, Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, never contacted him.

The Joint Inquiry’s co-chairman, former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham, said in an interview that he was unaware of the FBI’s 15-year-old investigation of the submersibles purchase by a 9/11 hijacker.

“This is potentially significant. Why were we not made aware of this? You’ll need to ask the FBI why they didn’t feel, as they apparently felt with information about what happened in Sarasota, that this wasn’t worthy of sending up the line.”

Graham referred to an FBI investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota who moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Florida Bulldog, working with author Anthony Summers, disclosed the existence of that investigation in September 2011, and reported that agents found evidence – including gatehouse entry logs and photos of license plates – that Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited the residence of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji. Reports later released by the FBI said the family had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.

The FBI quickly identified the hijackers using flight manifests, information in recovered baggage and documents found where the hijacked jets crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Some names, like that of ringleader Mohamed Atta, appeared in news stories the next day.

What plans the al Qaeda hijackers or their leaders had for the submersibles is not known. However, in 2003 the Christian Science Monitor reported that “one of the biggest concerns” of U.S. officials at the time was that terrorists were targeting ports and ships. The newspaper cited a Department of Defense exercise “Impending Storm” that simulated several types of ship-borne attacks on U.S. cities.

al Qaeda and mini-subs

In 2013, CNN reported about a 17-page letter found at Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound that laid out a detailed al Qaeda strategy for attacking targets in the U.S. and Europe. The letter was written to bin Laden in March 2010 by senior al Qaeda planner Younis al-Mauretani, and among other things discussed using “mini-submarines” to plant explosives on undersea pipelines, CNN said.

Brown kept no business records after he sold The Nautical Niche, and his story is not documented in local public records. For example, Fort Lauderdale police have no record of a service call to The Nautical Niche on September 12, 2001. A department records official, however, said that back then calls to assist another agency were sometimes not documented.

Brown has talked privately about his experience over the years.

“He told me about the incident that happened to him back then,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly. “His dad worked in the Kennedy Administration.”

Donnelly was the prosecutor who tried and convicted Robert Stapf in September 2001 for the 1998 stabbing murder of Brown’s wife, Caron.

“I was on the witness stand in trial,” said Brown. “Someone came crashing in the courtroom’s back door screaming, ‘We’re under attack! Someone flew into the World Trade Center!”

Donnelly recalled that Judge Dan True Andrews quickly suspended court for the rest of the day. The next morning, the feds were waiting for Brown at The Nautical Niche.

Brown’s former bookkeeper and sales assistant, Adelle Savage of Delray Beach, said he told her what happened shortly after she began working at The Nautical Niche in 2002 or 2003.

‘I can attest to that’

“In the course of conversation…he told me about how when he arrived that morning all the cops and agents were there. They thought he was connected before they realized that he had no idea who he was selling to,” said Savage. “I can attest to that.”

Savage also said that on several occasions Miami FBI agents David Grazer and George Nau came to the store to see Brown. Brown identified the same agents in a separate interview, saying he “maintained a relationship with the FBI handlers who kept on eye on me.”

“Obviously, my life was at risk for cooperating with the feds. We didn’t know if some of these people were still down here or what,” Brown said.

Brown described The Nautical Niche, which displayed a yellow submarine in its front window, as a kind of Sharper Image for yacht owners. The Business Journal’s 2002 story reported The Travel Channel had “included The Nautical Niche on its list of places for a show called, ‘How to Spend a Million.’ ”

Brown said his clientele were often billionaires, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and included various Middle Eastern royalty, including members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud.

The Nautical Niche’s sale of the submersibles that interested federal agents, however, was different from the company’s other large transactions because the purchasers paid cash. “They would go to my bank and make counter deposits,” said Brown. The amounts deposited were about $5,000, low enough to avoid federal reporting requirements.

At the time of the sales, Brown didn’t question the transactions. “In the yachting business there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t ask questions. People like their privacy.”

VIDEO: 15 Years Later, Unanswered Questions of 9/11

Presented by Florida Bulldog  and Nova Southeastern University. Dan Christensen, editor and founder of the nonprofit news organization,  moderated a panel on Sept. 8 at Nova Southeastern University featuring former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11; Sharon Premoli, a victim’s advocate who was at work on the 80th floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck; Sean Carter, a partner with Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor law firm who is helping lead a lawsuit on behalf of the victims’; Thomas Julin, Florida Bulldog’s attorney and a partner with the Gunster law firm in Miami; and Dr. Charles Zelden, an NSU history and political science professor.

Florida Bulldog and Nova Southeastern University present: Sen. Bob Graham and Unanswered Questions of 9/11 on 15th Anniversary

On Sept. 8, join former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for a lively panel discussion at Nova Southeastern University about the continuing search answers and justice 15 years on. A question and answer session will follow.9-11-plan200x200

Purchase tickets and learn more on EventBrite. Proceeds benefit the Florida Bulldog, an independent 501(c) 3 nonprofit providing watchdog reporting in the public interest. To make a tax-deductible contribution to Florida Bulldog click here. (more…)

28 pages connect Saudi prince to al Qaeda leader, supporters of 9/11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

The Saudi ambassador who met with President George W. Bush at the White House two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 had connections to a major al-Qaeda figure and other Saudis suspected of helping two of the suicide hijackers while they were in the United States.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s contacts are contained in FBI and CIA reports cited in the 28 pages from Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 that were ordered declassified by President Obama after 13 years and made public Friday.

The “28 pages,” which are actually 29 pages, assert that 9/11 hijackers were helped by individuals “who may be connected with the Saudi government.’’ They do not, however, address the apparent ties of Mohamed Atta and other hijackers to Saudis living in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

FBI reports say agents found “many connections” between the September 11 plotters and the Sarasota Saudis, but neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission were informed. The matter did not become public until 2011 when the Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported it.

The 28 pages, however, do contain a new Florida angle.

“FBI documents also indicate that several Saudi Naval officers were in contact with the September 11 hijackers,” the 28 pages say. One of those officers, Saleh Ahmed Bedaiwi, was posted to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola.

The FBI’s Jacksonville Field Office investigated Bedaiwi at the time, but what else the 28 pages had to say about the matter was blacked out by the government before their public release.

Government officials, including House Intelligence Committee members Devin Nunes, R-CA, and Adam Schiff, D-CA, said the 9/11 Commission and the nation’s intelligence community investigated, but could not substantiate the 28 pages’ leads about possible Saudi involvement. However, there is little information in the public record to back up those assertions.

For example, while the names of Bedaiwi and fellow Saudi Naval officers Osama Nooh and Lafi al-Harbi are included in a declassified June 2003 9/11 Commission work plan as “interview candidates,” none is identified on a list of 1,200 persons interviewed by commission investigators.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who coordinated the declassification review of the 28 pages, said in a statement Friday that the final chapter of the Joint Inquiry’s 2002 report was kept secret so long because it “contained still-sensitive national security and law enforcement information.”

Secrecy ‘outweighed by the public interest’ in transparency

The declassification review, however, “determined that the harm to national security” by releasing the 28 pages “is outweighed by the public interest in additional transparency… Some information has been redacted because the document includes discussion of properly classified matters the disclosure of which would still cause significant harm to national security.”

Clapper’s statement was accompanied by the less-noticed release of a one-page “executive summary” of a September 2005 “joint FBI-CIA intelligence report assessing the nature and extent of Saudi government support of terrorism.”

Congress required the previously unknown joint assessment in a classified annex of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004. Several sentences of the report’s transmittal letter to Congress by FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director Porter Goss were blanked out, as were several sentences in the summary. The full report remains classified.

The assessment’s key finding marked the latest government statements in defense of the Saudis: “There is no evidence that either the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family knowingly provided support for the attacks of 11 September 2001 or that they had foreknowledge of terrorist operations in the Kingdom or elsewhere.”

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The assessment, however, also noted, “There is evidence that official Saudi entities, [redacted] and associated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provide financial and logistical support to individuals in the United States and around the world, some of whom are associated with terrorism-related activity.” Further, the assessment said, “The Saudi government and many of its agencies have been infiltrated and exploited by individuals associated with or sympathetic to Al-Qa’ida.”

While the 28 pages reference the sometimes bitter testimony of FBI agents and CIA officers who complained “about a lack of Saudi cooperation on terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks,’’ the 2005 joint FBI-CIA report observed that the Saudis began cooperating with the U.S. following several bombings inside Saudi Arabia starting in May 2003.

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

The 28 pages include a variety of new information about figures in the 9/11 drama. Among the most intriguing is a previously unreported connection between Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the U.S. whose nickname was Bandar-Bush because of his close ties to President George W. Bush, and Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value” Guantanamo detainee who before his March 2002 capture in Pakistan was among al Qaeda’s highest ranking members and a confidant of Osama bin Laden.

U.S. and coalition forces recovered Zubaydah’s phone book. “According to an FBI document, ‘a review of toll records has linked several of the numbers found in Zubaida’s [sic] phonebook with U.S. phone numbers.’ One of the numbers is unlisted and subscribed to by ASPCOL Corporation in Aspen, Colorado,” the 28 pages say.

An FBI investigation stayed pending ‘guidance’ from headquarters

In July 2002, FBI headquarters asked its Denver office to investigate “this connection.”

Two months later, the 28 pages say, agents in Denver reported that ASPCOL “is the umbrella corporation that manages the affairs of the Colorado residence of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The facility is protected by Scimitar Security. Agents of the Denver Field Office noted that neither ASPCOL nor Scimitar Security is listed in the phone book or is easily locatable. In addition, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office has no record of ASPCOL.”

The 28 pages say the FBI reported that “CIA traces have revealed no direct (emphasis added) links between numbers found in Zubayadah’s phone book and numbers in the U.S.”

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

“The Denver office did not attempt to make any local inquiries about ASPCOL as they believed that any inquiries regarding ASPCOL would be quickly known by Prince Bandar’s employees,” the 28 pages say. “Due to the sensitivity of this matter, they decided to hold their investigation of ASPCOL in abeyance until they received additional guidance from FBI headquarters.”

Asked about the matter via email, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Matthew Bertron said Tuesday, “The FBI has no comment on your specific questions.”

The 28 pages contain additional new information involving other individuals who worked at Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy. One was an embassy bodyguard whose phone number was also in Zubaydah’s possession. The paragraph about the matter includes a number of redactions, including the name of the bodyguard, that make it difficult to understand what’s being said.

Bin Laden’s half-brother, Abdullah Bin Laden, also surfaces in the 28 pages under a section titled, “Connections between Saudi government officials in the U.S., and other possible terrorist operatives.”

“For example, according to FBI documents there is evidence that hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohammed Atta [who piloted the jets that struck the Twin Towers] were in contact with Mohammed Rafique Quadir Harunani, the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation since 1999 and a close associate of Abdullah Bin Laden… He claims to work for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C. as an administrative officer. Abdullah Bin Laden has financed Quadir’s company and is listed by Quadir as the emergency contact for Quadir’s children. They are in frequent email and phone contact as well.”

Osama Bin Laden half-brother’s terrorist connections

The chapter goes on to discuss Abdullah Bin Laden’s connections to “terrorist organizations.”

“He is the president and director of the World Arab Muslim Youth Association (WAMY) and the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America. Both organizations are local branches of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. According to the FBI, there is reason to believe that WAMY is ‘closely associated with the funding and financing of international terrorist activities and in the past has provide logistical support to individuals wishing to fight in the Afghan war.’”

The 28 pages also provide new information about a known episode that raised questions about Prince Bandar’s possible ties to some of the hijackers more than a decade ago.

Back then, it was reported that Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, had for some time sent a monthly stipend to $2,000 the wife of Osama Bassnan, a suspected Saudi agent, alleged al Qaeda sympathizer and “close associate” of Omar al-Bayoumi, another apparent Saudi agent who provided financial and other support to two 9/11 hijackers in San Diego in 2000.

The 28 pages say “in a recent search of Bassnan’s residence the FBI located copies of 31 cashiers checks totaling $74,000 during the period February 22, 1999 to May 30, 2002. These checks were payable to Bassnan’s wife and were drawn on the Riggs Bank account of Prince Bandar’s wife.” The money was supposed to be for “ ‘nursing’ services, but according to the [blank] document, there is no evidence that Bassnan’s wife provided nursing services.”

The pages say Prince Bandar himself also sent checks directly to Bassnan and his wife. Those checks, cashed in 1998, were for $15,000 and $10,000.

On Oct. 9, 2002, FBI Executive Assistant Director Pasquale D’Amuro told the Joint Inquiry, “What the money was for is what we don’t know.”

One year later, on Oct. 7, 2003, investigators with the 9/11 Commission interviewed Bandar. What he was asked and his replies are not known. A “memorandum for the record” about his interview, and the interview itself, are classified. The reason, according to the National Archives, is national security.

The release of the 28 pages isn’t the last word in the search for who was behind 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

It took 13 1/2 years and enormous public and political pressure to force President Obama to order today’s release of the suppressed chapter from Congress’s Joint Inquiry report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 suicide hijackers.

The pages, however, were not released in full. Nearly every page is speckled with black marks where information was redacted. In some cases, those deletions are of entire paragraphs, almost certainly meaning that controversy about the 28 pages will continue.

Those 28 pages, however, aren’t nearly the last word about the people and events behind 9/11. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of additional U.S. government investigative documents about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks remain classified.

“I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and has long advocated for the public release of the chapter that was withheld from publication at the direction of President George W. Bush.

The declassification process that led to today’s release of the 28 pages was first sought three years ago by the Florida Bulldog and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, represented by Miami attorney Thomas Julin. The Joint Inquiry’s 838-page report described the hidden chapter as being about “specific sources of foreign sources of support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In September 2014, in response to criticism that President Obama had failed to keep his promise to 9/11 family members that he would release the 28 pages, the White House announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “coordinating the required interagency review” of the 28 pages for possible declassification.

The declassification review, however, did not include a review of numerous other secret government documents about 9/11 generated by the FBI, CIA, Treasury and State departments and the National Security Agency – or even the 9/11 Commission itself.

The FBI alone has acknowledged that a single field office in Tampa holds 80,000 classified pages about 9/11. Those records are being reviewed for possible public release by the presiding federal judge in a Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent in 2012.

The suit seeks the release of FBI files about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to the hijackers who abruptly moved out of their home and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other possessions.

Last month, 19 survivors and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11th sent a letter to President Obama asking him to designate for “prompt declassification” nine categories of documents “relevant to responsibility for the events of 9/11.”

“We hope and trust that you regard the release of the 28 pages as only a first step in responding to the public calls for transparency and accountability,” the letter says.

The records requested for declassification are:

  • Documents about the involvement of government-sponsored Saudi religious institutions in supporting al Qaeda. The letter identified 10 organizations that should be subject to declassification review, including the Muslim World League, Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Saudi Red Crescent Society and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
  • Documents concerning further investigations of the transactions, relationships and issues discussed in the 28 pages.
  • Unreleased records of the 9/11 Commission. In 2004, the Commission had urged that all of its records, to the greatest extent possible, be made publicly available by January 2009. “More than seven years after that target date, the bulk of the Commission’s records have not been processed for declassification at all, and the limited records that have been released are in many cases so heavily-redacted as to be of little use to the American public,” the letter says.
  • Documents relating to the activities, interactions, relationships, contacts and financial transactions of the 9/11 hijackers in Florida and other areas of the United States.
  • Documents about al Qaeda’s wealthy Gulf donors and support by Islamic banks and financial institutions. Those listed are: Al Rajhi Bank, National Commercial Banks, Saudi American Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, al Shamal Islamic Bank, Faisal Finance and al Baraka.
  • Records relating to Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to promote Wahhabi Islam” and the “relationship between those efforts and terrorist activity, fundraising and recruitment.” Those records are “especially pertinent” because employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Saudi Embassy and in consulates “were implicated as possibly having provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.” Also, records about “as many as 70” Saudi diplomats associated with Islamic Affairs whose credentials were revoked in the aftermath of 9/11.
  • Records about other investigations of al Qaeda attacks and operations. The letter seeks the “long overdue” release of records involving the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Bojinka plot and numerous other incidents.

The victims and relatives, who for years have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for damages, expressed concern in their letter that the Obama Administration’s public response to calls for transparency “have focused narrowly on the 28 pages alone.”

“Any meaningful effort to provide the American public with the truth concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the emergence of al Qaeda and the events of 9/11 must encompass the full spectrum of evidence bearing on questions of Saudi culpability, not merely the 28 pages,” the letter says.

saudiarabiamap“By all public accounts, the 28 pages focus on a very discrete set of relationships and transactions relating to Saudi support for two of the 9/11 hijackers once they were already in the United States,” the letter goes on. “While this evidence is critically important, the broader issue, and the one principally raised by our lawsuit against the Kingdom, is the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding and patronage of al Qaeda, and role in spreading the jihadist ideology that gave rise to bin Laden’s organization during the decade leading up to the attacks.”

Efforts to obtain access to other, still-secret 9/11 information are underway. For example, the Florida Bulldog has a number of outstanding Freedom of Information requests that seek FBI and terrorism task force records about the activities of the suicide hijackers in South Florida, northern Virginia and northern New Jersey.

More recent federal documents that may shed light on 9/11 are also being sought for public disclosure.

On June 16, Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records by and about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

The Review Commission was established a decade after the 9/11 Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings and released no transcripts or documents to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 report. The commission’s members and executive director were paid by the FBI in still-secret personal services contracts.

The lawsuit seeks to obtain those records to assess the basis for reliability of the Review Commission’s findings and recommendations, notably its conclusions about a remarkable April 16, 2002 FBI report. That report, released by the FBI after the initial lawsuit was filed, reported that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The FBI report corroborated witness statements that were the basis for a Sept. 8, 2011 story in the Florida Bulldog that first reported the story of the Sarasota Saudis, including the existence of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that the FBI never disclosed it to Congress. It was also a major embarrassment for the Bureau, flatly contradicting the FBI’s public statements that agents had found no connections between the family and the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission concluded that the FBI report was “unsubstantiated” based on statements by unidentified FBI officials calling the report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

FOIA lawsuit disputes 9-11 Review Commission effort to discredit sensational FBI report

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

Two blue ribbon government panels on 9/11, two approaches to public accountability.

The 9/11 Commission held a dozen public hearings before issuing its 567-page report to the nation in 2004. While many of its records remain classified, the commission also made public additional staff studies with detailed information about terrorist financing, terrorist travel and immigration and border security.

The lesser-known FBI 9/11 Review Commission was established a decade later to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings, released no transcripts of its proceedings and provided no supplementary documentation to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 final report.

For more than a year, the FBI has declined to make public any additional information about the 9/11 Review Commission. On Wednesday, for the second time in four years, the FloridaBulldog.org’s nonprofit corporate parent sued the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice – this time using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to seek records about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued in 2012 for access to FBI records about its once- secret investigation of a Saudi family living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. Since 2014, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale has been reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 documents produced by the FBI for possible public release.

Wednesday’s complaint seeks to discover the basis for and the reliability of the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings and recommendations.

Specifically, the lawsuit focuses on the Review Commission’s conclusions about a sensational April 16, 2002 FBI report that investigators found contained “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The report also said a Saudi family member had attended a flight training school attended by the terrorists.

The Review Commission, after reviewing unspecified FBI records and being briefed by the FBI, found that allegations the Saudi family was connected the 9/11 plot were “unsubstantiated” and called the FBI report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Review Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

The “9/11 Review Commission’s finding is false, unsupported by credible evidence, and intended to discredit truthful facts that were accurately reported in the April 16, 2002 FBI report,” says the new FOIA complaint prepared by Miami attorney Thomas Julin.

FBI investigation made public after a decade

The Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota probe days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks in September 2011. Neighbors of Abdulaziz and Anoud al Hijji called authorities after the couple moved abruptly out of their home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said the FBI did not disclose the Sarasota probe to Congress. The matter was also not addressed by the 9/11 Commission.

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

The FBI later acknowledged its investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI also claimed it disclosed its Sarasota investigation to Congress.

In response to the Bulldog’s repeated FOIA requests, the FBI offered no responsive records. Six months after the first lawsuit was filed, however, the FBI released a copy of its April 2002 report, heavily censored for reasons of national security. The report contradicted FBI public statements downplaying the significance of its Sarasota investigation and corroborated the accounts of a counterterrorism officer and others that were the basis for the original news story.

The new FOIA suit comes 14 months after the Bulldog’s initial FOIA request for access to 9/11 Review Commission’s records, including an April 30, 2014 “Memorandum for the Record” about the FBI’s disputed 2002 report.

The FBI has produced no documents in response to those requests nor cited any reason to justify the lack of disclosure. Federal law requires government agencies to determine whether to comply with a FOIA request in 20 working days.

The 9/11 Review Commission was originally proposed by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, as an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold public hearings, compel testimony and retain experts and consultants. After that idea died, a plan for a 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been removed.

FBI Director James Comey later appointed the commission’s three members – Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former 9/11 Commission member and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University security studies professor Bruce Hoffman.

How much did FBI pay commissioners?

The FBI paid the commissioners and commission executive director John C. Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, under personal services contracts that made them de facto FBI employees. Those contracts are among numerous documents sought in the new FOIA suit.

Meese, Hoffman, Roemer and Gannon each declined to be interviewed about the Review Commission.

Congress appropriated a total of $2.5 million to the FBI for the review process. Commissioners were guided by the FBI and, their report makes clear, relied heavily for information on the Bureau and interviews with other government intelligence sources, including CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Transcripts of those interviews are also among the documents the FOIA lawsuit seeks to make public.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission's 2015 report.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.

 

The 9/11 Review Commission released the unclassified portion of its 127-page report in March 2015.

The report devotes three pages to its review of the Sarasota probe whose disclosure Sen. Graham has said “opens a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.” The review was confined to its analysis of the April 2002 FBI report, which stated that the FBI said the special agent who wrote it was “unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

The FBI did not identify the agent or explain how he could have made such a serious error. Nevertheless, the agent’s “unsubstantiated” information was repeated in other FBI reports the Bureau subsequently made public.

The FOIA suit seeks a variety of records about the 9/11 Review Commission, including its transcripts, memoranda for the records, personal services contracts with commissioners and staff, draft copies of the final report, FBI briefings titled “Sarasota Family” and “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” and an FBI summary report regarding Fahad al Thumairy.

Thumairy was a diplomat with the Los Angeles Saudi Consulate’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs from 1996-2003. Thumairy, who was also a prayer leader at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, was expelled from the U.S. due to suspected ties to terrorists.

The Bulldog’s complaint asks the court to hear the case quickly and order the defendants to release the requested documents or be required to submit them to the court for review. If the documents are not released, the complaint asks the court to require the government to provide what’s known as a Vaughn index, showing the author, recipients, date and subject of each document.

Finally, the judge was asked to determine if any FBI or DOJ personnel acted “arbitrarily or capriciously” in withholding records. If so, attorney fees and costs can be assessed against the government and those responsible could be punished for contempt and face disciplinary actions.

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