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.”

New Miami-Dade School board member: Let’s focus on fixing failing schools

Update: The Miami-Dade School Board Wednesday unanimously approved a new plan to improve failing schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

The proposal, introduced by board member Steve Gallon, also gained the backing of residents and community leaders in the northwest section of the county. School Board Chair Larry Feldman said he hoped the strong showing of support by the board and the community will result in an initiative that will become “blue print” for the improvement of failing schools everywhere.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo:CBS4Miami

Photo:CBS4Miami

 

Newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon is proposing to focus the district’s attention on improving failing schools in some of the county’s poorest locations, often in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Gallon, who campaigned on a promise to throw a spotlight on failing schools, has an item on Wednesday’s School Board agenda to address schools that have received repeated “F” ratings as well as those that have received a “D” under the state’s rating system.

The new school improvement proposal for failing schools is reminiscent – on a much smaller scale – of an initiative undertaken while Rudy Crew was superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade more than a decade ago.

Crew’s effort, which began in the second half of the 2004-2005 school year, entailed a large number of schools, with substantial district funding, during a period of intensive state scrutiny of failing schools. Known as the School Improvement Zone, the plan was abandoned after several more years with questionable results.

Gallon’s proposal, which makes no mention of specific funding support, calls on the Miami-Dade School Board to actively monitor the progress of the undertaking through the review of plans and programs, and other actions to bring about improvement.

While acknowledging that “the district as a whole has done well,” Gallon said in an emailed response to questions about his proposal, “there remain pockets of persistent underperformance in certain sectors of the community.”

He said his item was not “to indict the District for past performance” but “seeks to serve as a renewed call for action” for improving “F” and “D” schools.

A number of those failing schools are in District 1, which Gallon represents, and District 2, represented by board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Gallon pointed to the following schools needing attention: Carol City Middle which has received five consecutive “F” grades; Brownsville Middle, which has received three “F” grades in a row, and North Dade Middle, which has received two consecutive “F” grades.

He listed four other schools with “F” grades: Skyway/Dr. Frederica S. Wilson Elementary; Poinciana Park Elementary, and Earlington Heights Elementary.

All seven schools are in School Board Districts 1 and 2.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency around addressing the needs of these schools in the areas that were enumerated and must include strategies that are inclusive of parents and stakeholders in the broader community,” Gallon said in his written response.

“This item is not simply about District 1 and 2,” said. “This item is about the collective responsibility and commitment of a united School Board that is charged with educational oversight of a unified school district. The approval of this item will further bolster the Board’s conversation and commitment to all schools and all children irrespective of voting districts or zip codes.”

Gallon called for a “review of the resource allocations in schools to ensure equity and the support structure to ensure effectiveness and impact.”

The School Board, he said, should “play a role” in monitoring the initiative “because what gets monitored gets done.”

Gallon’s item, which seeks board support for enactment, calls for the Superintendent to:

*Provide a status update, at the Feb. 15, 2017 School Board meeting, on the Districts’ F schools, including improvement planning, intervention and support, leadership, teacher quality and support, professional development, curriculum, resource allocation, technology and parental and community partnerships;

*Provide monthly status updates to the School Board on the progress of the F school improvement plan; and

*Initiate a framework and process to establish a District Advisory Board to provide input and support to the schools that earn two or more consecutive letter grades of F based on the annual state assessment.

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.

Lawsuit: Rescind variance for ex-U.S. Rep.’s Hollywood charter school

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org

Rooftop "vegetation" atop Hollywood's Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

Rooftop “vegetation” atop Hollywood’s Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

The city of Hollywood violated municipal law when it approved a request by the controversial Ben Gamla middle-high school to stop maintaining a rooftop vegetation area that was a key consideration for a zoning exception allowing the school in a residential neighborhood.

This and other allegations made in a lawsuit filed by the Citizens For Responsible Development Inc. ask the Broward Circuit Court to rescind a Hollywood Planning and Development Board-approved variance for the school to operate without the rooftop green space at the facility headed by former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL).

The school, which has drawn neighborhood opposition since it was proposed and opened during the past three years, was able to build a larger complex on its property at 2648 Van Buren St. by pledging to provide green area on the school’s roof rather than creating an open space recreational area elsewhere on its property, according to the complaint.

The school “should stick to” maintaining the rooftop green space, said Mark Schubert, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives near the school. The concern in the neighborhood, he added, is that Ben Gamla will abandon the rooftop green space and consider enclosing it for possible expansion, adding to existing traffic problems in the area just west of I-95 and south of Hollywood Boulevard.

“We believe it was clear the application [for the school] failed to meet the requirements of the city code” for the variance, said Michael Dutko, attorney for Citizens.

The planning board decision, the lawsuit said, has created “a concrete jungle to which Ben Gamla is contributing with its lack of open space and additional traffic which a larger school will create.”

Deutsch defended the planning board decision. “The planning board didn’t see it that way,” said Deutsch. “The board listened to testimony and rejected the pleas to deny.”

A zoning exception

In late 2013, the same city Planning and Development Board approved a zoning exception for Ben Gamla to build a middle-senior high school on 1.52 acres, with numerous conditions, including a commitment to provide and maintain a green space vegetation area on the roof.

The rooftop green space, the lawsuit said, provided about 10,000 square feet to meet the open space requirements under the city code. This also allowed the school to have a larger building footprint on the property, the complaint stated.

Deutsch said the grassy space on the roof was not self-imposed by the school, but was required by the city. The lawsuit, however, said that nothing in the city code required the school to have a green vegetation area.

But after the school opened in the fall of 2015, Ben Gamla officials “decided to abandon the green roof because it proved impractical and difficult to maintain,” the lawsuit stated.

Because the school was already constructed and it could not provide the needed open space on the property, the lawsuit stated, it sought a “hardship variance” to relieve it of some of the open space requirement.

The lawsuit says that at the June 9, 2016 hearing before the Planning and Development Board, city planners told board members that because the rooftop vegetation space was “self-imposed” by the school, city code does not permit the issuance of a variance. City staff urged denial.

City attorney Jeffrey Sheffel, according to the lawsuit, reiterated that the board could not issue the variance if the grassy rooftop was self-imposed. Sheffel did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Board issues variance

Nevertheless, the planning board voted 6-3 to issue the variance, leading the citizens group to file the lawsuit in July.

If the variance withstands the legal challenge, Deutsch said, the school plans to clean up the rooftop and create a play field for students. Currently, he said, they are playing on a parking lot area at the rear of the property.

If the variance is blocked the school would have to look at some other solution or stay with a limited physical activity program in the parking lot area. 

In its petition for a variance, the school stated, that it was entitled to a variance because the proposed change does not materially alter aspects of the already-built facility — height and setbacks remain the same and the facility will continue to provide educational services. Shifting the play area to the rooftop will lessen noise in the neighborhood, the application stated.

Deutsch said the city commission, in effect, supported the planning board variance when it later rejected pleas for the commission to review the decision. In Hollywood, planning board decisions are not automatically reviewed by the city commission unless a majority of the commission wants to do so.

Deutsch also called neighbors’ fears that Ben Gamla plans to expand the middle-high school “absurd.” Residents, however, have expressed suspicions because – after winning approval for a two-story school – Ben Gamla representatives met with city officials about enclosing the rooftop area to add a third floor. The matter did not advance, but representatives linked to the school also have been connected to property acquisitions near Ben Gamla.

The former congressman was also critical of city commissioner Peter Hernandez, saying he had a part in the legal action challenging the city approved variance. “Commissioner Fernandez is trying to hurt Ben Gamla,” Deutsch said.

Hernandez declined to comment on the issue, including his membership (as stated in the complaint) in the group that filed the lawsuit. Hernandez represents the neighborhood that includes the Ben Gamla school. He has said that he has no objection to the students, just that the school was overwhelming for the residential neighborhood.

The lawsuit also complained that the city failed to provide adequate advance notice of the planning board’s hearing and backup information to the community. Residents received as little as a day or two notice before the hearing, giving them little time to prepare a response. Also, residents were limited to a few minutes each to speak.

The city of Hollywood, which has hired an outside law firm in the matter, is expected to respond to the complaint by Dec 31. Ben Gamla has formally intervened in the lawsuit, Deutsch said.

Legal cases challenging planning and zoning decisions by municipal agencies are heard by a three-member panel of judges that may rule based on documents filed or it may hear arguments by the parties.

Two Miami-Dade charter schools loaned $900K in taxpayer funds to sister schools

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two Miami-Dade charter schools illegally transferred taxpayer funds by lending a combined $912,094 to sister schools outside the county, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Education has determined.

As a result, Miami-Dade Public Schools auditor Jose Montes de Oca is recommending the district initiate efforts to recoup the money even as a representative for one of the charter schools claims no law was broken.

On Dec. 6, Montes de Oca will brief the school board audit and management committee on what steps the district can take to recoup the funds used for the loans.

In an Oct. 21 letter to school district attorney Walter Harvey, education department general counsel Matthew Mears said Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead and BridgePrep Academy in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood were prohibited from making loans to affiliated schools not in Miami-Dade.

“Funds that are appropriated to a local school district are for the education of the students within the school district,” Mears wrote. “For this reason, the transfer of appropriated funds across district lines, with or without interest, is not authorized.”

Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Keys Gate disputed Mears’ conclusion that the $700,000 loaned to Clay Charter School in Middleburg, Florida, is illegal. Keys Gate and Clay are operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the country’s largest charter school management companies, under a contract with the foundation.

“We have not received any direction or concern regarding this issue,” Reynolds told Florida Bulldog. “However, we believe we are in full compliance with the law.”

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Juan Carlos Quintana, a principal with S.M.A.R.T. Management, the company that developed and operates BridgePrep Academy, did not return three phone calls and an email message seeking comment about the $212,094 loan given to an unidentified affiliated school in another county. Two other Miami-area charter schools under the BridgePrep name also had loaned a combined $18,949 to sister schools outside the county, but those funds have already been paid back, according to a Sept. 12 Montes de Oca memo to the audit committee.

The dispute over the use of district school funds for loans initially arose in May when Montes de Oca notified the school board’s audit and management committee about the problem following his review of annual financial statements for 2015 submitted by Keys Gate and BridgePrep. At the time, Keys Gate had loaned Clay Academy $750,000 with zero interest. Since then, the loan was paid back, but Keys Gate issued another loan for capital improvements at Clay Academy. This second loan is for $700,000 with a five percent interest rate and a term of five years, according to Montes de Oca’s September letter.

Opinon sought

The school board attorney sought an opinion from Mears after Keys Gate officials informed Montes de Oca that the loans were acceptable under state law, according to a Nov. 30 letter by the school district auditor.

Mears’ response that the loans are illegal prompted Montes de Oca to recommend that the money be returned. “The district administration plans to formally notify these schools of the state’s guidance and that the loan funds must be repaid,” Montes de Oca wrote.

Charter school watchdogs told Florida Bulldog the loans illustrate a total disregard for taxpayer funds diverted from public schools to private educational institutions. Lisa Guisbond, executive director for Citizens for Public Education, an organization that advocates against charter schools and standardized testing in Massachusetts, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should be held accountable for the mishandling of school district funds.

“It seems bizarre that a charter school would have an extra $750,000 to loan out when so many public schools are scraping by to meet the needs of their students,” Guisbond said. “That kind of blows my mind. It’s outrageous, even.”

Carol Burris, executive director for the New York-based Network for Public Education, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should not have given out the loans in the first place.

“In the case of these charter schools, their allegiance to their sister charters was greater than their allegiance to the children of Miami-Dade County they are supposed to serve,” Burris said. “They put the needs of the charter schools ahead of the needs of the kids. That is a problem.”

It’s a good thing both schools were caught, she added. “Hopefully, it will discourage other charters from doing the same,” Burris said. “And I hope the citizens of Miami-Dade have all of their tax dollars returned.”

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.

Broward Health data breach released patient information to tax fraud ring

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBullog.org bhmcentrance

For the second time in three years, a data breach at Broward Health has caused the release of personal patient information in what one district executive called “a ring of thugs.”

Broward Health disclosed the breach on its website last month, saying it was advised by “law enforcement authorities” on May 12 that “patient information was discovered at an individual’s home during a routine investigation.”

Broward Health’s internal investigation later determined the sensitive patient information “was taken from Broward Health Imperial Point” in Fort Lauderdale by “an unidentified individual.”

The stolen information were hospital Facesheets that contain a patient’s full name, date of birth, address, phone numbers, Social Security number, primary insurance provider, insurance guarantor, reason for visit, emergency contact/next of kin information.

“The data removal is believed to have occurred between November 2011 and March 2012. We have notified 126 former patients or their listed next of kin of the privacy breach by mailing a letter to their last known address on September 23, 2016,” Broward Health’s disclosure said. “We also offered them an identity theft protection service at no cost.”

No explanation was given for the gap in time between the breach and the date it was discovered. Broward Health, however, said it has completed its internal probe and is “reviewing and enhancing safeguards to better ensure the security of patient information.”

Doris Peek, Broward Health’s senior vice president and chief information officer, said the breach is the latest in a series of data thefts at Florida hospitals, including Fort Lauderdale’s Holy Cross, Hollywood’s Memorial Regional and the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

‘Busted last year’

“This ring of thugs got busted last year,” said Peek. “They send in tax information to the IRS about persons to get their tax refund. They targeted the older and sick population.

Peek said the identity theft ring has paid hospital registrars, among the lowest paid of hospital workers, to provide them with printed copies of the Facesheets.

Police in Coral Springs, responding to a domestic violence report, found the Broward Health Facesheets, and turned them over to Broward Health’s security department, said Peek.

Broward Health disclosed a larger data breach in 2013 at Broward Health Medical Center, the hospital district’s flagship in downtown Fort Lauderdale. That time Broward Health sent letters to approximately 960 former patients notifying them of the breach involving their personal information.

Again the breach involved misappropriated Facesheets. However, Broward Health managed to identify the culprit as “an employee who no longer works at the hospital.” The ex-employee was not named. The breach was said to have occurred between October and December 2012.

In September 2013, Holy Cross notified 9,900 former patients that a former employee had wrongly accessed their personal information. CBS Miami reported then that an investigation by the hospital found “the employee may have wanted the information to file fraudulent tax returns.”
Holy Cross suffered another breach in 2010 when an identity theft ring obtained emergency room files to steal Social Security numbers and other information of about 1,500 patients, according to a report in the Sun-Sentinel. Four people were arrested, including an emergency room employee.

In 2012, Memorial Healthcare System notified about 9,500 patients of an investigation into two ex-employees who improperly accessed patient records. The former employees were apparently using the private information in those records to file false tax returns, according to a story at the time by Modern Healthcare.

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