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.

FBI censored documents to protect privacy of accused 9/11 mastermind, accomplice

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003

Even as the FBI recently has made public more 9/11 records to satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act in advance of a possible trial, it continues to withhold untold documents that promise to cast new light on that terrible day in 2001.

Likewise, about 1,000 pages from the secretive 9/11 Review Commission that were declassified are shot through with blanked-out words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire pages – FBI deletions that undermine the act’s purpose as “a means for citizens to know ‘what their government is up to.’”

The FBI made public those pages in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed in June by the corporate parent of Florida Bulldog after the bureau did not properly respond to lawful record requests. The Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its best-known member former Attorney General Edwin Meese, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to examine new evidence. Its members were chosen and paid by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

National security and the need to protect informants were among the reasons the FBI cited to explain why certain information was kept hidden. In other cases, the reasons the FBI has asserted for redactions appeared arbitrary, even bizarre.

Take for example the 53-page FBI PowerPoint presentation titled “Overview of the 9:11 Investigation” that was shown to the commission during a briefing in April 2014. The PowerPoint included the “non-immigrant visa application” filled out by accused 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who for the last 10 years has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The FBI withheld Mohammed’s entire visa application. Its reason: disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The FBI further asserted the privacy rights of Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in its decision to withhold PowerPoint slides about their credit card information. Specifically withheld: al-Hawsawi’s “credit card statement and supplemental card activity” and Mohammed’s “supplemental Visa card application” to the United Kingdom’s Standard Chartered Bank.

Al-Hawsawi, a Saudi charged with war crimes, is an alleged senior al Qaeda member and organizer and financier of 9/11.

Nine other pages from the 9/11 PowerPoint were deleted. Also redacted was all information about these titles: “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Additional Funding Early to Mid-2001”; “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases; August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets.”

The FBI withheld each of those records citing exemption b7E to the Freedom of Information Act, which shields from disclosure “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

In addition, four pages in the PowerPoint titled “Ongoing Investigation” were blanked out. A variety of reasons cited included privacy, inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums, and techniques and procedures – but not national security.

On the other hand, the bureau last month did release one tidbit that’s sure to fire up those who believe the destruction of the Twin Towers was an “inside job” or that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not an American Airlines Boeing 757.

A partially declassified Memorandum for the Record (MFR) regarding an April 23, 2014 FBI briefing about its 9/11 investigation mentions a startling request for information to the FBI that day:

“The commissioners requested a list of evidence that shows it was actually a plane that crashed into the Pentagon,” the memo says.

Why did the Meese Commission make such a curious request? Did the FBI provide such a list?

The MFR’s declassified pages don’t answer those questions. Still, more than two pages of the six-page document were kept secret citing FOIA exemptions that prevent the disclosure of certain inter-agency or intra-agency memos and sensitive law enforcement techniques.

U.S. judge cites ‘shameful’ FBI delays in making 9/11 records public

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga

A Miami federal judge Tuesday excoriated the FBI for what she called its “shameful” delays in making public certain records about the bureau’s 9/11 Review Commission.

“It is distressing to see the length to which a private citizen must go” to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA],” said U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. “It’s quite shocking frankly.”

At the same time, however, the judge gave the government two weeks to file a further summary judgment motion explaining why it believes the case brought by Florida Bulldog’s parent company should be dismissed. The ruling put off for now an unusual FOIA trial that had been scheduled to begin next week.

“The judge has done an excellent job moving this difficult case forward irrespective of the FBI’s stall tactics,” said attorney Thomas Julin, a partner in the Miami office of the Gunster law firm who represents Florida Bulldog. “This short delay will not put the Bulldog off the scent.”

Assistant U .S. Attorney Carlos Raurell represents the government. He declined to comment.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued the FBI and the Justice Department last June, looking for records about the secretive three-man 9/11 Review Commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese. The group, also known as the Meese Commission, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” inquiry into the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. The commissioners were selected by FBI Director James Comey and paid by the FBI.

The Meese Commission, which began its work in 2014, went out of business after issuing a 127-page report in March 2015. The citizen’s 9/11 Commission released its findings in 2004.

In a related case, Bulldog is suing the FBI in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records from the FBI’s 2001-2003 investigation of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a Saudi couple living in Sarasota with ties to the kingdom’s royal family and apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The al-Hijjis came to law enforcement’s attention after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their upscale home two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is reviewing more than 80,000 pages of classified 9/11 records produced by the FBI for his inspection and possible release.

The ‘many connections’ FBI report

One document the FBI did release six months after that initial FOIA case was filed in September 2012 was a copy of an April 16, 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The couple’s name was blanked out, but discernible.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

The report flatly contradicted prior statements by the FBI that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI, however, repudiated its report in a briefing given to the Meese Commission on April 30, 2014.

A memorandum about the briefing says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire called the 2002 report “a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.” The Meese Commission report said the agent who wrote it was “unable” to explain to his superiors why he wrote it as he did. The FBI has not identified the report’s author, but he is former Fort Myers Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.

At Monday’s calendar call, attorney Julin said the Bulldog was prepared to proceed to trial next week while prosecutor Raurell argued the government needed a continuance in order to file additional court papers asking the judge to dismiss the case. Judge Altonaga gave Raurell two weeks to file a new motion for summary judgment. If summary judgment is not granted on all remaining issues, a trial date will be scheduled.

Julin contends the FBI had no basis to keep Meese Commission records secret.

“The FBI started this fight by claiming it found nothing in Sarasota when it quite obviously did. We’re trying to get records which show why the Meese Commission continued this charade,” he said. “Did the FBI agree not to investigate Saudis who supported the 9/11 hijackers? That is what we’re trying to find out.”

Altonaga’s order

On Monday, Judge Altonaga issued a 37-page order in which she addressed the government’s initial motion for summary judgment, filed Dec. 30, and issues about the appropriateness of FBI redactions laced through four previously released documents. The FBI has cited various exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to justify those deletions, but the news organization objected to many of those redactions as improper.

In a nutshell, the judge ruled the FBI improperly veiled the names of FBI agents, the al-Hijjis and others in the records it has released by repeatedly citing two exemptions intended to shield information that could result in “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The ruling could prompt the FBI to restore those names and re-release those documents, or the bureau could choose to try to persuade the judge of its position at a future trial.

The FBI fared much better with Altonaga regarding its other cited exemptions.

Specifically, the judge ruled the bureau had properly asserted exemptions intended to protect national security, confidential informants, law enforcement records or techniques and procedures and inter-agency or intra-agency memos or letters. The ruling means the FBI is not required to make that information public.

Altonaga saw un-redacted copies of the documents. In her decision granting summary judgment in favor of the FBI on matters of national security, she cited legal precedent that courts “should defer to an agency’s decision to withhold information” about national security matters.

Judges “must recognize that the Executive departments responsible for national defense and foreign policy matters have unique insights into what adverse affects [sic] might occur as a result of public disclosure of a particular classified record,” the court papers say.

‘Penttbomb 2.0’ and the FBI’s brush-off of reports alleging 9/11 ties to Saudi Arabia

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

September 11, 2001
Photo: Det. Greg Semendinger NYC Police Aviation Unit

FBI officials who briefed the 9/11 Review Commission on the bureau’s sprawling 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOMB steered the discussion away from Saudi Arabia by repeatedly disavowing or downplaying reports by agents alleging terrorist ties to the kingdom.

The FBI’s stance is similar to its repudiation before the commission of a startling April 2002 FBI report that said investigators had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The memo, made public by the FBI in March 2013, flatly contradicted earlier FBI statements that its Sarasota investigation, kept secret for a decade, had found no ties to terrorism.

The FBI’s March 31, 2014 Memorandum for the Record (MFR) about the briefing, stamped “SECRET,” was partially declassified and released to Florida Bulldog last week along with other records. The news organization is suing the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for access to 9/11 Review Commission records it has not released. A trial is scheduled for next month in federal court in Miami.

The FBI, which for more than a year refused to disclose any documents about the 9/11 Review Commission, recently has dribbled out records to comply with FOIA requirements following a judge’s admonishment this month that she was not satisfied with the FBI’s explanations for withholding certain information.

Many other FBI records on the commission continue to be withheld in full, while the bureau has yet to acknowledge the existence of additional documents that appear to exist.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who served as co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, reviewed the MFR and called it “just another chapter in the cover-up.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

“It sounds like the FBI was going through the original reports that were submitted and 10 years later they were trying to change the facts and discredit much of the information that was in their original reports,” he said. “There’s no indication of the basis on which they thought the original reports were inaccurate other than they were poorly written.”

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, including Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, were chosen by FBI Director James Comey and paid $84,000 each by the FBI. The commission issued its final report in March 2015.

The March 2014 briefing was given by Jacqueline Maguire, supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Washington field office; Nikki Floris, director of the Analytical Branch of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, and an unidentified FBI supervisory special agent from New York.

Classified until 2039

The briefing’s title and much of its content was redacted from the three-page MFR on grounds of national security. The censored parts are to remain classified until Dec. 31, 2039.

The PENTTBOMB investigation is discussed in a less heavily redacted section. The document notes that PENTTBOMB, the FBI’s code-name for its Pentagon and Twin Towers inquiry was originally assigned to the New York field office, but that the investigation was later moved to FBI headquarters and the Washington field office.

“For 5 years,” the MFR states, “we worked from HQ and worked to prosecute (Zacarias) Moussaoui,” a French citizen who pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring to murder U.S. citizens as part of the Sept. 11 attacks. “From 2006 to the present, it became Penttbomb 2.0 This was broken up into four teams for the four planes. This was the largest investigation in FBI history.”

The memorandum goes on to recount brief summaries of five cases involving individuals “who had interactions with the hijackers.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

The first is Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent who befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, shortly after their arrival in Southern California on Jan. 15, 2000. Here is what the MFR says about Bayoumi, though the wording is heavily garbled and confusing:

“The FBI found Bayoumi had role or at least not a role in terrorist activities, despite the 911 Commissions reporting that he was involved and a Saudi Intelligence Offices. The [FBI’s] 911 IG [Inspector General’s] report [written in November 2004 and made public in June 2006] cleared this individual. He came here for school and everything seems accidental with Bayoumi.”

Factual errors in FBI briefing

But the FBI’s briefing for the 9/11 Review Commission was seriously flawed.

The FBI Inspector General’s 9/11 report did not clear Bayoumi of involvement in 9/11. Rather, it found that a preliminary FBI inquiry of Bayoumi opened three years before 9/11 had been investigated and closed appropriately a year later. The inquiry was started after Bayoumi’s apartment manager reported several suspicious episodes.

Moreover, as Florida Bulldog reported on Dec. 19, a newly released FBI report from October 2012 identified Bayoumi as one of three “main subjects” of an active New York criminal investigation targeting an apparent support network for Mihdhar and Hazmi, who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Among other things, the report said that in June 2012 a team of FBI agents, analysts and a federal prosecutor traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England. The outcome of that 2012 investigation is not known.

The briefing memo also refers to a memorandum written by San Diego’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. The subject matter is blanked out for reasons of national security. It says, however, “This was based on early, bad FBI reporting, but it alleged a connection to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent investigations did not collaborate [sic] this.”

The MFR does not explain the basis for the FBI’s statement.

The name of another “individual with suspected ties to the hijackers” is redacted, but appears from other information in the report to be Osama Basnan, or Bassnan as it sometimes is spelled. The memorandum says he “hated Bayoumi” and was receiving money “for living, school and medical expenses.”

Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1983-2005

“The FBI didn’t see any connection or money going to terrorists,” the MFR says.

Documents prepared by investigators for the 9/11 Commission in June 2003, however, identify Basnan as “a very close associate of al-Bayoumi” who was “in frequent contact with him while the hijackers were in San Diego.” Basnan was “a vocal supporter of Usama Bin Laden” and “received considerable funding from Prince Bandar [then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S.] and Princess Haifa, supposedly for his wife’s medical treatments.”

A 9/11 Commission investigator interviewed Basnan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in October 2003. “The interview failed to yield any new information of note. Instead, in the writer’s opinion, it established beyond cavil the witness’ utter lack of credibility on virtually every material subject.”

The MFR also briefly recounts two other matters involving Saudi nationals.

The first states how FBI briefers told the 9/11 Review commissioners about a pair of Saudi naval officers who had contact with the San Diego-based hijackers. The first several words about the matter were censored citing national security, but the MFR contains no other information about the naval officers.

Saudis on a plane

The second involves “a situation that happened when 2 Saudi individuals were on a plane asking questions about the aircraft. The plane ended up making an emergency landing and [blank]. We do not know what these individuals were doing and we do not have any additional bad information on them.”

In fact, the FBI had plenty of additional information about the Saudis that the briefers appear not to have shared with the 9/11 Review Commission.

The Saudis were Hamdan al Shalawi and Muhammad al-Qudhaieen.

The 9/11 Commission Report published in 2004 says that in November 1999 the pair were detained after the crew of a cross-country America West flight reported that Qudhaieen “had attempted to open the cockpit door on two occasions.”

Both men told investigators that Qudhaieen “was only looking for the lavatory on the plane,” the report says.

The FBI chose not to prosecute the two men who were traveling to Washington to attend a party at the Saudi embassy with tickets paid for by the government of Saudi Arabia.

After 9/11, however, FBI agents in Phoenix “considered whether the incident was a ‘dry run’ for the attacks,” according to the 9/11 Commission report.

Authorities later received information that both men had trained in al-Qaeda training camps.

As trial date draws near, FBI releases more about secretive 9/11 Review Commission

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey, center, announces release of 9/11 Review Commission report on March 25, 2015. Flanking Comey from left to right are commissioners Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese and Timothy Roemer. At far right is Executive Director John Gannon

In moves aimed at heading off an unusual Freedom of Information Act trial in Miami next month, the FBI has released new information about the secretive work of its 9/11 Review Commission.

In one disclosure, the FBI made public how much it paid Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese and two other men who served on the Review Commission, and staff. In another, the FBI put a human face on its effort to discredit a dramatic April 16, 2002 FBI report that said agents had found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers.

The FBI withheld the 2002 report from both Congress and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more simply known as the 9/11 Commission.

Late last year, in response to FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog, the FBI made public copies of its personal services contracts with Meese, former ambassador and congressman Timothy Roemer and Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman, but blacked out their pay.

On Friday, however, after U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga told a trio of government lawyers she wasn’t satisfied with the FBI’s explanations for withholding such information, the bureau relented and restored those contract details in documents re-released to Florida Bulldog.

The contracts show that Meese, Roemer and Hoffman were paid $80,000 apiece plus $4,000 for travel expenses for 11 months of work.

Payments to staff

The FBI also provided new information about payments to more than a half-dozen staffers for the 9/11 Review Commission.

Executive Director John Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, was paid $134,000 plus $4,000 for travel. The FBI’s biggest payout, however, went to Barbara A. Grewe, whose contract shows she was detailed to the 9/11 Review Commission by The MITRE Corporation to serve as a senior director for eight months starting in April 2014. Grewe was paid $163,000 and given $20,000 more for travel. She was hired under an agreement involving the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.

MITRE, with principal locations in Bedford, MA and McLean, VA, is a not-for-profit company that operates federally funded research and development centers to address national security and homeland security and other matters. Grewe’s Linked In profile describes her as a “trusted advisor to senior government officials across a variety of MITRE programs.” She is a former federal prosecutor in Washington who also served as senior counsel for special projects on the 9/11 Commission in 2003-2004.

FBI Director James Comey

The 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. FBI Director James Comey picked the Meese Commission’s members, who operated in virtual secrecy, holding no public hearings and releasing no records about its work beyond its March 2015 final report.

Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June for access to Meese Commission records, including those regarding the April 2002 FBI report that says agents found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The 2002 report, released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid a separate and ongoing FOIA lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale, corroborated earlier reporting by the Bulldog in collaboration with Irish author Anthony Summers that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. That reporting showed that the FBI began its probe after being summoned by neighbors who told them that Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji had moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings. The home was owned by Anoud’s father, 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.

In September 2011, Bulldog reported that agents had found evidence that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 terrorists had visited the al-Hijjis’ home. The bureau, however, did not alert Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission to its probe. After the story broke, the FBI acknowledged its investigation, but said it had found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.

The Sarasota Family

The Commission addressed the matter briefly in a section of its 2015 report titled “The Sarasota Family.” The commission’s inquiry consisted of obtaining copies of the case file and being briefed by an agent who discredited the 2002 report, calling it “wholly unsubstantiated” and “poorly written.” The commission took no other testimony about what happened in Sarasota, and its final report does not explain how the FBI came to its conclusion.

The FBI has not released the name of the agent who wrote the report citing privacy considerations. He is Special Agent Gregory Sheffield, who at the time worked in the FBI’s Fort Myers office.

The FBI recently filed a motion for summary judgment that asks the court to dismiss much of the lawsuit. This week, bureau attorneys are expected to file additional court papers seeking dismissal of the entire case. The matter is set for trial in early March.

Tuesday’s hour-long hearing before Judge Altonaga focused on whether the FBI had made an adequate search for records of any discipline given to the agent who wrote the allegedly bogus 2002 report, and whether it had properly redacted portions of records previously released to the Bulldog.

Representing the government at Tuesday’s hearing were Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell and two FBI lawyers from Washington, Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Fleshner and Paul Marquette of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represented the Florida Bulldog. He argued that a trial would be the proper forum to resolve questions about the FBI’s withholding of information. He told the judge that the news organization’s principal concern was that the FBI had found significant evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks and then failed to disclose it to Congress or conduct an adequate investigation.

Joining Julin at the plaintiff’s table was former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Graham has strongly criticized the FBI for, among other things, failing to notify Congress about its Sarasota investigation.

A heavily redacted Memorandum for the Record

This past November, the FBI released in heavily redacted form a four-page, April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record describing the FBI’s briefing about the Sarasota family for the Meese Commission. Among the information the FBI kept secret was the name of the briefer for privacy reasons.

But on Jan. 30, 2017 after Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued that the Meese report itself had named certain FBI personnel who it said provided “invaluable access to key people and relevant data,” the FBI identified the briefer as Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire. Among other things, Maguire told the Meese Commission that the April 2002 report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.”

FBI agent Jacqueline Maguire testifying before the 9/11 Commission June 16, 2004

(The FBI also identified Agent Elizabeth Callahan as the Technical Point of Contact for the Meese Commission members and staff. The FBI has asserted privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to shield the names of other agents, including the agent who wrote the April 2002 report.)

The memorandum, however, offers no explanation for Maguire’s assertions. On Thursday, attorney Julin asked Miami U.S. Magistrate John O’Sullivan for permission to depose Maguire, but the request was denied.

Maguire previously said in court that she was assigned to the FBI’s New York field office after graduating from the FBI Academy in June 2000. A month after 9/11 she was assigned to a team of agents in Washington working PENTTBOMB, the code-name for its Pentagon, Twin Towers investigation.

“Specifically, I was assigned responsibilities in the investigation into the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon,” she said in a declaration in another FOIA action in 2005.

In November 2011, Maguire accompanied FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce to a Washington, D.C. meeting with former Sen. Graham. The White House arranged the meeting after Graham expressed concern about FBI documents he’d seen that contradicted the bureau’s public assertions that it had found no ties to terrorism during its Sarasota investigation. One of those documents was the April 2002 “many connections” report that the FBI provided the Senate Intelligence Committee in the wake of Bulldog’s reporting.

In a sworn declaration, Graham said Joyce sought to allay his concerns by saying that while the documents he’d reviewed did appear to contradict the FBI’s public statements about Sarasota, other FBI files he could review would provide context to show that the FBI’s public statements were correct.

Maguire was to provide Graham with those documents at a follow-up meeting. Joyce, however, soon changed his mind and declined to let Graham see anything else. Graham said Joyce also told him, in so many words, to “get a life.”

No discipline for FBI agent accused of writing 9/11 report FBI now calls bogus

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Tampa Field Office

The FBI agent who wrote a powerful investigative report about 9/11 that the bureau later publicly repudiated faced no apparent discipline even though the FBI subsequently deemed his report to be “poorly written” and “wholly unsubstantiated.”

The April 16, 2002 report, approved by superiors in the FBI’s Tampa field office, said agents had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” and requested a more urgent investigation be opened. The heavily redacted report, made public in 2013 after Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI for access to records of its once-secret Sarasota investigation, flatly contradicted earlier FBI public statements that the Sarasota Saudis had no involvement in the 9/11 plot.

The 2002 FBI report became a hot potato in 2015 when the 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission, recounted FBI criticism of the unidentified agent in its final report. It says that when the agent was questioned he “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

The report does not explain how the agent could have made such a serious error, why its conclusions are cited in other released FBI documents or why the FBI made such flawed documents public.

Last June, Bulldog filed a parallel Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking Meese Commission records and any related disciplinary action taken by the FBI against the agent it accused of filing a bogus report in the biggest criminal investigation in FBI history.

The government moved on Dec. 30 to dismiss a part of the suit. Essentially, it contends that it has released, or will soon release, all the records about the Meese Commission that it legally can.

The government also informed Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga that an extensive search of its records had turned up no disciplinary records about the unidentified agent. The lack of disciplinary action calls into question the Meese Commission’s criticism of the agent’s 2002 report.

The FBI has declined requests to interview the agent, believed to be former Fort Myers-based Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.

Censored on the CIA’s orders

The government’s motion for summary judgment also disclosed the reason that the FBI heavily redacted a “Memorandum for the Record” (MFR), released in November, that recounts a briefing on “9/11 Additional Evidence” given to the Meese Commission on Oct. 24, 2014. The two-page memo, containing “materials from the Abbottabad raid” on May 2, 2011 in which U.S. Navy Seals killed al Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden, was censored on orders of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The CIA subsequently determined that four paragraphs of the MFR contain information that is both classified and protected by statute and advised the FBI to withhold that information,” said CIA official Mary E. Wilson in a declaration filed by the government.

The motion for summary judgment filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell also offers an explanation for the government’s decision to withhold from public release information about how much the FBI paid the three members of the 9/11 panel, including former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.

Congress authorized the 9/11 Review Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. But copies of personal services contracts signed by all three in January 2014 at the outset of their duties make clear the Meese Commission was not independent. Instead, the commission and its FBI paid staff were under the FBI’s direction and control.

To redact from the contracts the terms of the commissioners’ financial compensation, the FBI invoked an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that protects the release of trade secrets or confidential commercial and financial information obtained from persons by the government.

“Disclosure of these salaries would cause substantial harm to the competitive negotiation process in the future,” the motion says. “Specifically … release of this information would enable potential government contractors the opportunity to judge how they might underbid their [sic] those that served on the 9/11 Reports [sic] Commission board when bidding for similar contracts in the future.”

FBI Director James Comey chose the three commissioners in “consultation with Congress,” the Meese Commission’s report says.

The motion does not address the same redactions of salary information in the FBI’s personal services contracts of Meese Commission staff.

The lawsuit the government wants dismissed was filed in June to challenge the FBI’s failure to produce any records, or to conduct a good faith search for records, since the Bulldog filed its initial Freedom of Information Act request in April 2015. The government has not explained why a lawsuit was necessary to gain access to Meese Commission records the government’s motion acknowledges were stored in director Comey’s office.

Claim of privacy hides names of FBI agents

The government’s motion also seeks to justify, on privacy grounds, the redaction of the names of both FBI agents and support personnel from about 300 pages of documents released since the lawsuit was filed.

“Publicity (adverse or otherwise) regarding any particular investigation to which they have been assigned may seriously prejudice their effectiveness in conducting other investigations,” the motion says, without further explanation. “The privacy consideration is also to protect FBI SAs [special agents], as individuals, from unnecessary, unofficial questioning as to the conduct of this or other investigations, whether or not they are currently employed by the FBI.”

The motion goes on to assert “the release of an agent’s identity in connection with a particular investigation could trigger hostility toward a particular agent … In contrast, there is no public interest to be served by disclosing the identities of the SAs to the public because their identities would not, themselves, significantly increase the public’s understanding of the FBI’s operations and activities.”

The motion does not note, however, that the names of FBI agents and employees typically are not secret. For example, FBI personnel are routinely identified in public court documents filed in both criminal and civil proceedings. The reason: accountability.

Trial in the case is scheduled for early March. Judge Altonaga is expected to rule next month on the government’s motion to dismiss.

Miami federal judge denies FBI motion to postpone trial on secret 9-11 records

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami's Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse

Miami’s Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse

A Miami federal judge Thursday denied the FBI’s request to delay for 90 days a trial to decide whether certain secret records about 9/11 should be made public.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga remains on schedule for the week of March 6.

“The FBI had 21 months to produce the records.  There was no reason to allow further delay,” said attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the Florida Bulldog.

The nonprofit news site’s corporate parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the Justice Department and the FBI in June after three of its Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests seeking records generated by the 9/11 Review Commission received no response from the FBI. The Meese Commission, as it also is known, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s response to the attacks and to evaluate new evidence. It issued its final report in March 2015.

The FBI had requested and obtained a 30-day extension to file various pretrial paperwork in the case on Nov. 29. But at Thursday’s hearing, the FBI’s lawyer, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell, asked Judge Altonaga to postpone the case again – this time for 90 days.

Raurell explained the FBI has located more than 1,100 records “potentially responsive” to the Bulldog’s FOIA request, but that 60 percent of them contain information from 27 other government agencies. The FBI, he said, needed the extra time because less than half those agencies with “equities” in those records had responded to the FBI’s requests for comments needed to justify to the court their claims for secrecy.

Raurell did not identify those 27 government agencies.

“The FBI’s reasons for trying to slow the case were utterly unbelievable.  It made no sense that 27 other agencies had to be consulted,” Julin said in an interview.

Records of ‘paramount’ importance

In a motion filed Wednesday opposing further delay, Julin wrote, “The Bulldog contends the records at issue are of paramount national and international importance because they are expected to shed light on whether the FBI found evidence in 2001 and 2002 that Saudi Arabia supported the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, but withheld that evidence from Congressional and other investigators.”

The judge directed the government to file by Dec. 30 its motion for summary judgment on whatever issues it could. That would likely include providing an explanation for redactions it made in 220 pages of Meese Commission records provided to the Bulldog in November. The motion would ask the court to dismiss the case. Julin said the Bulldog would have two weeks to respond in opposition.

Julin told the judge that if a trial is held, one of the witnesses he likely would call is former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11. Graham has been a leading advocate of more government transparency regarding 9/11.

Altonaga also told the government she might consider another summary judgment motion shortly before trial on other matters.

The release of the 220 pages resulted in three stories. The first reported FBI claims that its agents investigating 9/11 did not obtain security records from a Sarasota gated community that contained alleged evidence that 9/11 hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family. Another story reported that the FBI censored records to hide how much it paid the 9/11 Commission members, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese.

Another document described a 2012 investigation of an apparent U.S. support network that aided two of the 9/11 hijackers – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who with three other terrorists crashed an American Airlines passenger jet into the Pentagon.

The lawsuit is the second pending matter filed by Florida Bulldog that seeks access to 9/11 records. In 2012, the news organization sued after the FBI denied a FOIA request for records about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and other terrorists.

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI released a handful of documents that included an April 2002 FBI report that said the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The Meese Commission later sought to discredit that report as “unsubstantiated,” but provided no explanation for that conclusion. It also refused to identify the agent who wrote the report or say whether he was disciplined for his possibly shoddy work.

In April 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to produce 80,000 pages from its Tampa field office for his inspection. The judge’s review of those records continues.

New FBI document shows active probe of support network for 9/11 hijackers in 2012

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Pentagon after 9/11

The Pentagon after 9/11

As late as October 2012, federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York City were actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support to the 9/11 hijackers and other crimes.

The suspect’s identity and many details of the New York investigation are blanked out of a FBI summary report that discusses “Updates and Initiatives (as of 5 October 2012)” about 9/11. The document was released to Florida Bulldog amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation that seeks access to records of the 9/11 Review Commission.

The report was heavily redacted for national security, privacy and other reasons. But the report’s declassified portions indicate the New York investigation targeted an apparent U.S. support network for two of the 9/11 suicide hijackers – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

“This has never been disclosed before and it’s to the contrary of everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks. “It’s interesting that it took them 11 years to get there, and a FOIA to get this information to the public.”

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 report, originally classified secret, is marked “declassify on 12-31-2037.”

Sean Carter, a Philadelphia attorney who represents numerous victims of 9/11 in a massive lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, called the release of the 2012 FBI report “a powerful and important disclosure.”

“We’ve been repeatedly told by U.S. officials that all questions of Saudi involvement were resolved by the 9/11 Commission and now you have confirmation that there was an active investigation happening years after the 9/11 Commission shut its doors” in August 2004.

Said Graham: “What we don’t know now is what’s happened since 2012. If the decision was not to proceed, why? And if it was to proceed, what’s the status?”

The FBI declined to comment about its New York investigation or its October 2012 report. “We do not have anything to add to the 9/11 Review Commission report,” the FBI’s National Press Office said last week. Click here to view the 2012 FBI Summary report.

Representatives of Saudi Arabia have long maintained the kingdom had no involvement in 9/11. Over the summer, Congress overwhelmingly overrode President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), allowing 9/11 victims and their kin to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts.

So sensitive even report’s title is a secret

The newly released 2012 FBI report, emblazoned with a logo that depicts the Twin Towers inside a pentagon against a backdrop of an American flag, is mentioned fleetingly in a footnote in the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report. It is so sensitive that even its title is classified “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.” Similarly, the FBI censored from a synopsis the investigation’s code-name citing the same national security exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

“[Redacted] is an investigation into individuals known to have provided substantial assistance to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar during their time in California,” the synopsis says.

The report lists three of the “main subjects” of the probe – the name of one, however, was censored for national security. Fahad-al-Thumairy was a Saudi diplomat and imam at Los Angeles’ King Fahd Mosque when the two future hijackers, who spoke little or no English, first arrived in the U.S. in January 2000. The report says Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of them during their time in Los Angeles.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

Omar al-Bayoumi, the second subject, was a suspected Saudi agent who befriended Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California. The report says Bayoumi “was living in San Diego on a student visa, despite not attending classes, and receiving a salary from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for job duties he never performed.” Bayoumi has told authorities he accidentally met the two hijackers at a Los Angeles restaurant shortly after their arrival.

Like in the case of the identity of the third subject, a sentence or two mentioning Thumairy and Bayoumi were also redacted. Still, the final sentence of the synopsis offers a teaser that indicates the third individual was highly placed: “There is evidence that [redacted] and tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers.”

The four-page report goes on to say that the trio “provided (or directed others to provide) the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licenses. [Redacted] seeks to prove these subjects provided such assistance with the knowledge that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were here to commit an act of terrorism.”

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

The 9/11 Review Commission, which disclosed the existence of the 2012 FBI summary report, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and to evaluate new evidence. Its final report, in March 2015, said its work included a review of the FBI’s ongoing effort to probe “lingering allegations that the circle of 9/11 conspirators may be wider.” The Review Commission ultimately concluded, however, that it saw nothing “to change the 9/11 Commission’s original findings regarding the presence of witting assistance” to Hazmi and Mihdhar.

The 9/11 Review Commission’s public report, however, does not mention the existence of the federal criminal investigation in New York, its status at the time, or a variety of related matters cited in the 2012 FBI report.

According to the partially declassified report the New York investigation was discussed at a Sept. 24, 2012 meeting at the FBI’s New York City office. Present were FBI agents, an unidentified a Manhattan Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and a Department of Justice attorney.

The report says that at the request of an unnamed official, the New York prosecutor “will explore potential charges for [redacted], including providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers, as well as lesser crimes, which investigators could present at a future interview with [redacted].”

Copenhagen connection

The report then discusses assistance provided two weeks earlier of the FBI’s legal attaché in Copenhagen. Much of the discussion was excised, again for national security considerations, but the missing information appears to be about a U.S. request to the Danish government for cooperation and/or extradition.

“Legat Copenhagen advised that [redacted]. Upon resolution of the claim and its likely rejection [redacted] will coordinate with SDNY [the Southern District of New York.]”

scotlandyardThe action that month followed a June 2012 visit to London by a team that included New York FBI agents, analysts from FBI headquarters in Washington and the assistant U.S. attorney. The trip’s purpose: “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England, the 2012 report says.

British authorities arrested Bayoumi on an immigration charge for a few days shortly after 9/11. The FBI has said agents found nothing then to connect Bayoumi to terrorism and no evidence that his assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar “was witting.” The 9/11 Commission reached a similar conclusion in 2004.

Other statements about the London trip are mostly censored, once again for reasons including national security. One short segment, however, says the Bayoumi evidence included documents that officials were having translated “to determine relevancy.” Apparently, those records went untranslated by law enforcement for more than a decade.

The report contains several bullet points about individuals with ties to Hazmi and/or Mihdhar. All of the names are redacted, but one name is discernable from the available information: former Tampa resident Osama “Sam” Mustafa.

Prior to 9/11 Mustafa owned a gas station in a suburb of San Diego where future hijacker Hazmi worked for about a month in the fall of 2000. Mustafa previously had been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation that yielded no evidence of criminal conduct, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report.

The 2012 FBI report recounts Mustafa’s May 15, 2012 arrest in Tampa for Treasury check fraud filed by a U.S. Attorney in Virginia. Court records say the case involved a $17 million tax-refund fraud scheme, and that Mustafa was found guilty in April 2013. Four months later, while out on bond, Mustafa removed a monitoring bracelet and vanished. In June 2014, Mustafa was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison. He remains a fugitive.

Tampa man denied knowledge of terrorism

According to the report, federal authorities in Tampa had offered Mustafa a deal on Sept. 17, 2012. “During the proffer [Mustafa] echoed [a] previous statement he had made, denying any knowledge of the hijackers’ terrorist affiliation and providing no additional details of use to investigators. [Mustafa] seemed optimistic about the charges he was facing. [Redacted] investigators anticipate future proffer sessions with [Mustafa] on the [Redacted] national security issues.”

One bullet item in the FBI report is entirely censored. Others with declassified information:

  • On Sept. 24, 2012, two or more individuals were sentenced in federal court in the Southern District of California to five years’ probation and a $2,500 fine each. All information identifying those individuals, explaining what their case was about and how they are tied to 9/11 was blanked out, mostly for privacy considerations.
  • In August 2012, Los Angeles’ Joint Terrorism Task Force confirmed the address of an unidentified individual “who was known to have extremist views, and was identified as having met with Omar al-Bayoumi in private on the same day as Bayoumi’s alleged ‘chance’ first meeting with 9/11 hijackers” Hazmi and Mihdhar. “[Redacted] planning to approach [redacted] for an interview of his role aiding Bayoumi in facilitating the hijacker’s arrival and settlement in California, for which [redacted] has never provided an adequate explanation.”
  • The FBI wanted to interview another subject who helped facilitate “the day-to-day life” of Hazmi and Mihdhar in San Diego. The subject “is reported to be very concerned about his presence on U.S. no-fly lists.”

The 2012 FBI report takes a longer look at Mohdar Abdullah, who “played a key role facilitating the daily lives and assisting future Flight 77 hijackers.” His story is recounted in a section of the report titled “Details on Mohdar Abdullah and his connection [redacted].” National security is cited for that redaction, and for much of the first couple of sentences in the section.

Also removed from the report are several sentences detailing “the immediate goal of” investigating Abdullah, whom the 9/11 Commission Report previously said worked at the gas station where Hazmi was employed.

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002 Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002
Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

According to the 9/11 Commission, Abdullah was a Yemeni student in his early 20s who was “fluent in both Arabic and English,” sympathetic to extremist views “and was perfectly suited to assist the hijackers in pursuing their mission.” When FBI agents searched his possessions after the attacks, they found a notebook “belonging to someone else with references to planes falling from the sky, mass killing and hijacking,’’ the 9/11 Commission report says. Abdullah was detained as a material witness and later “he expressed hatred for the U.S. government and ‘stated that the U.S. brought ‘this’ on themselves.’ ”

Newly declassified information in the 2012 FBI report says that shortly after Feb. 4, 2000, Abdullah was one of two individuals tasked by Bayoumi to assist the two future hijackers. A partially censored sentence then says, “Anwar Aulaqi and they may have spent time together with the hijackers.”

Aulaqi, also known as Anwar al-Awlaki, was an American who was imam of the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque in San Diego, where Hazmi and Mihdhar worshipped. U.S. officials later identified him an al Qaeda recruiter who helped plan terrorist operations. Aulaqi was killed in Yemen in September 2011 by a U.S. Hellfire missile drone strike.

Man allegedly bragged about helping hijackers

The 2012 FBI report says, “After September 11, 2001 Mohdar (Abdullah) was investigated by the FBI for assisting the hijackers. On September 19, 2001 he was arrested by FBI San Diego on charges of immigration fraud for his claim of being a Somali asylee (Mohdar is Yemeni.) Mohdar pled guilty to the immigration charges and was deported to Yemen in 2004.

“While Mohdar was detained in an immigration facility he bragged to two fellow inmates that he assisted the hijackers. The FBI and the SDNY have debriefed these individuals. Both are cooperative, but there is some prosecutorial concern about their value as witnesses,” the report says.

Much of the rest of the section about Mohdar Abdullah is blanked out citing a FOIA exemption that protects confidential sources and personal privacy.

The 2012 FBI report was among about 200 pages of 9/11 Review Commission records recently released to Florida Bulldog. On Nov. 30, the Bulldog reported that records showed agents investigating 9/11 did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that the hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family. A story last week reported how the FBI had censored its documents to remove information about how much it paid the Review Commission’s three members and staff.

The FBI’s information release included two other documents describing briefings given to the Review Commission. One involved a Feb. 25, 2014 Washington Times story that said the FBI had “placed a human source in direct contact” with Osama bin Laden in 1993 and learned bin Laden was looking to finance attacks against the U.S. The heavily censored document recounts statements by retired FBI agent Bassem Youseff, who explained the source did not have direct contact with bin Laden.

The second document recounts a briefing by FBI agents titled, “Overview of Additional Evidence Regarding the 9/11 Attacks.” “It was explained that in preparation for trials of individuals held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the FBI has gone back to review evidence/information already in hand to see if additional evidence can be found for the prosecutions of these individuals.”

Most of the two-page report was censored for national security and other reasons, except for this sentence, “None of this identifies new participants in the 9/11 attacks but hardens the existing known connections to the plot.”

FBI scrubs contracts to hide how much it paid 9/11 Review Commission members

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The award notice and signature page of the FBI's personal services contract with 9/11 Review Commission member Ed Meese.

The award notice and signature page of the FBI’s personal services contract with 9/11 Review Commission member Ed Meese.

The three men who served as members of the 9/11 Review Commission were on the FBI’s payroll, but the bureau is refusing to say how much they were paid.

Florida Bulldog obtained copies from the FBI of its personal services contracts with the commissioners and staff during ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.

Scrubbed from the contracts, however, are all details about financial compensation terms – hourly rates of pay, contract maximums – for both the commissioners’ services and travel for as long as two years. The FBI did not make public invoices submitted by the commissioners or its own paymaster records.

Congress authorized the 9/11 Review Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. The contracts, however, make clear that the Review Commission was instead under the FBI’s direction and control.

“The contractor [each commissioner and staffer signee] agrees that the performance of services … shall be subject to the supervision, inspection and acceptance of the FBI,” the contracts say.

The 9/11 Review Commission members were Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, former ambassador and congressman Timothy Roemer and Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman. In an apparent oversight, the FBI released only two pages of Meese’s contract, and in place of the rest of Meese’s contract enclosed a second copy of Hoffman’s contract.

Meese, Roemer and Hoffman signed their contracts with the FBI on Jan. 22, 2014. The contracts required them to submit their report to the FBI by Dec. 15, 2014 for “appropriate classification and legal review.”

Top Secret clearance

The three commissioners and staff were required to have Top Secret security clearance and what the FBI calls “Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)’’ access. SCI clearance has been called “above Top Secret,” according to Wikipedia.

The 9/11 Review Commission staffers whose contracts were released are: Executive director John Gannon, a former deputy director of the CIA; L. Christine Healey, a senior counsel and team leader for the 9/11 Commission; Caryn A. Wagner, a former Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security; Jamison Pirko, an ex-staff assistant at the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism; and William E. Richardson.

According to the Review Commission’s final report, the commissioners traveled to eight FBI field offices and six FBI legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid. Travel invoices submitted by commissioners and staff have not been made public.

9/11 suicide hijack pilots Mohamed Atta, right, and Ziad Jarrah. The two men apparently visited the home of Saudis living in the Sarasota area.

9/11 suicide hijack pilots Mohamed Atta, right, and Ziad Jarrah. The two men apparently visited the home of Saudis living in the Sarasota area.

As described in the contract, the Review Commission’s duties included assessing “any evidence now known to the FBI that was not considered by the 9/11 Commission related to any factors that contributed in any manner to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

One matter the Review Commission took a limited look at was the FBI’s investigation more than a decade earlier of Saudis living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, lived in the gated community of Prestancia 13 miles north of Venice Municipal Airport, where Mohamed Atta and two other 9/11 hijack pilots trained. The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors alerted authorities that they’d suddenly moved out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture, food in the refrigerator and other personal belongings.

The home at 4224 Escondito Circle was owned by Anoud’s father, 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.

According to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and others, the FBI did not disclose its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington or to the subsequent 9/11 Commission. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry. In its public statements, the FBI has disputed that – saying both 9/11 panels were informed of its Sarasota investigation.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. Among other things, the story reported that investigators had found evidence in Prestancia’s gatehouse security records that showed Atta and other terrorist figures had visited the al-Hijjis’ home.

What 9/11 Review Commission didn’t do

The 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, made public in March 2015, did not seek to determine whether the FBI did or did not notify Congress and the 9/11 Commission about Sarasota. Likewise, it did not speak with witnesses in the case or examine evidence other than an April 2002 FBI report.

The report, released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid other FOIA litigation, said that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota hijackers and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” – flatly contradicting FBI public statements that its once-secret Sarasota inquiry had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission’s inquiry was confined to recounting the efforts of unidentified FBI officials to discredit the April 2002 report. They called it “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated” and said the unnamed agent who wrote it could not justify doing so.

The FBI has declined to explain its findings or make available the agent who wrote the report to request, unsuccessfully, that a more urgent investigation of the Sarasota Saudis be opened.

Florida Bulldog sued the FBI and the Justice Department in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking records generated by the 9/11 Review Commission. Last month, the FBI released about 200 pages of material – including the personal services contracts and several highly redacted reports.

Meanwhile, the Bulldog’s 2012 FOIA lawsuit seeking the FBI’s files on its Sarasota investigation remains pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch.

In 2014, Zloch decided that the FBI had done an inadequate search of its records before declaring that it could find no records responsive to the Bulldog’s request. In response to Zloch’s order, the FBI produced 80,000 pages of records from its Tampa field office for his inspection and possible public release. The judge’s inspection is ongoing.

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.”

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