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.”

U.S. judge asked to okay deposition of FBI agent in Sarasota Saudi probe

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

The FBI should be ordered to publicly identify and make available for questioning under oath the special agent it says authored a “wholly unsubstantiated” 2002 report that connected a Sarasota Saudi family to 9/11 terrorists, newly filed court papers say.

The 9/11 Review Commission cited without explanation the FBI’s controversial assertion in a report last month that sought to discredit the 2002 document and damage the credibility of the unnamed agent. The commission members were paid by the FBI and chosen by FBI Director James Comey.

The document, parts of which were redacted citing national security, was released to FloridaBulldog.org in March 2013 amid the news organization’s ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit against the FBI. The document said the FBI’s investigation of the Saudi family “revealed many connections” between the family “and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

On Wednesday, the Bulldog’s attorneys asked Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch to allow them to depose the FBI agent and to inspect documents cited in the 9/11 Review Commission’s report concerning the FBI’s once-secret investigation of the Sarasota Saudis.

“In light of the central importance of this agent and the lack of any independent, direct examination of the agent about the findings,” wrote attorneys Thomas Julin and Paulo Lima, “a deposition of the author of the (2002 FBI report) and access to the relevant records of the 9/11 Review Commission will shed significant light.”

Judge Zloch was asked to intervene after Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee informed the attorneys that the government opposed their request to depose the agent. Lee likewise rejected a request for access to the Review Commission’s supporting documents.

The 9/11 Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence in the case. It held no public hearings and relied heavily on the FBI for information, staffing and administration.

One subchapter of the commission’s report addressed FloridaBulldog.org’s story about the Sarasota Saudis, who sources and documents say abruptly moved out of their home in the gated community of Prestancia about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture, a refrigerator full of food, clothes and other goods.

While ignoring a variety of new information reported by the Bulldog – like interview-based stories about how gatehouse security records showed the home was visited by vehicles used by hijackers and another about a 2004 law enforcement report tying the home’s occupant, Abdulaziz al-Hijji, to al Qaeda figure Adnan Shukrijumah – the commission’s report focused on the credibility of the 2002 report, saying the FBI called it “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” the report says.

AGENT INSTRUCTED NOT TO TALK?

According to attorneys Julin and Lima, however, the failure of the Review Commission’s report to identify either the agent or the FBI personnel who questioned him or to explain the FBI’s conclusion that the 2002 report is fatally flawed, is problematic.

“These omissions leave open the possibility that the author 0f (the report) had been instructed by the FBI or by other agencies not to explain why he wrote the document as he did, as well as the possibility the agent simply forgot why he wrote it as he did. The latter possibility seems implausible, however, in light of the startling substance of the document,” they told Judge Zloch.

A year ago, noting that previous records searches were inadequate, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records responsive to FloridaBulldog.org’s FOIA request. Ultimately, the FBI turned over more than 80,000 pages housed in its Tampa field office. Zloch is reviewing those records in order to decide what may be publicly released.

The government provided the judge with three CD-ROMs containing scanned copies of all 80,000 pages. In response to the judge’s specific instructions, the FBI also compiled 27 boxes of paper documents and planned to provide them in sets of four boxes – the maximum capacity of a high-security safe the FBI had installed in the judge’s chambers.

According to prosecutor Lee, the government delivered the first four boxes on May 1, 2014. “I have not received further directions from the court to deliver additional boxes,” Lee wrote in an email.

Thus, it’s unclear how far along Judge Zloch is in evaluating the crush of documents, all of which have been labeled “classified” by the FBI.

Attorneys Julin and Lima requested a status conference with the judge and suggested Zloch consider appointing a special master, or them, to assist in completing the document review.

9/11 Review Commission under the FBI’s thumb

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

New York’s World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

A secretive blue-ribbon panel formed by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance – and to assess new evidence – was largely under the sway of the very agency it was tasked to examine.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission originally was envisioned as something very different: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would hold public hearings, take testimony, receive evidence and compel government agencies to turn over information from their files.

Proposed legislation called for a chairman and vice chairman to be appointed by the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, respectively. Staff would be hired without outside interference. The General Services Administration would provide support services.

That’s not what happened.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission, which issued its final report March 25, held no public hearings and had no subpoena power. It was largely spoon-fed information by the FBI, whose personnel was on the commission’s staff and helped edit the final report to improve its “accuracy and clarity,” the report says.

The commission’s interviews and proceedings, its “Memorandums for the Record” and other documents on which the report is based were not made public.

FBI CHIEF PICKS 9/11 REVIEW PANEL

FBI Director James Comey, not the Speaker or the Majority Leader, chose the 9/11 Review Commission’s three members. The report says Comey did so “in consultation with Congress.”

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

The FBI paid the trio – former Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer, and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman –under personal services contracts that also were not made public.

The commissioners selected John C. Gannon as their executive director. Gannon is a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and ex-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The commission and Gannon, “coordinating with the Bureau,” assembled a staff of 12. “All staff members reported administratively to the FBI,” the report says.

The commission’s 127-page report, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the Bureau needed to accelerate its implementation of reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.

The day the report was released, FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a Washington press conference that he was pleased with the commission’s work.

“I think this is a moment of pride for the F.B.I.,” Comey said, according to The New York Times. “An outside group of some of our nation’s 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 those “outsiders” weren’t independent contractors. Rather, they were de facto FBI employees under the Bureau’s supervision and control, according to federal regulations governing the purchase of goods and services.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), section 37.104, says government personal services contracts create an “employer-employee relationship” in which contractors “are subject to the relatively continuous supervision and control of a government officer or employee.” Supervision can be direct or indirect, but is used to “adequately protect the government’s interest” or “retain control of the function involved,” the regulation says.

The FBI made no one available for an interview about the 9/11 Review Commission. When asked by email if the commission’s proceedings would be made accessible to the public, spokeswoman Kathryn D. Ballew said, “You will need to submit a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.”

A FOIA request seeking that information was filed Wednesday.

9/11 PANELISTS NOT TALKING

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: "I'm not interested in talking to you."

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: “I’m not interested in talking to you.”

Despite repeated requests, none of the commissioners would be interviewed about their report or the commission. Spokespersons for Meese and Roemer said they were not available. Hoffman, reached at his Georgetown office, said, “I’m not interested in talking to you” and hung up.

The Georgetown Security Studies Review interviewed Hoffman on March 27. Hoffman called the FBI “immensely supportive” of the commission.

“They didn’t make one change at all to the findings and recommendations,” said Hoffman. “They really changed very little in the report and in fact only classified slightly more than a dozen pages in a nearly 130 page document.”

However, it is not apparent from reading the report that any pages were classified and omitted from publication.

Commission Executive Director Gannon did not respond to phone or email messages.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chairman of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has accused the FBI of a coverup that has protected Saudi Arabia. He called the idea of an FBI performance review “meritorious,” but said the lack of access to supporting documentation prohibits a public examination of the commission’s work.

“This secret process, the composition of staff and the lack of public hearings to secure a broad range of evaluation of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance raises questions as to whether this report achieved its objective of a thorough and balanced examination of America’s domestic intelligence agency,” Graham said.

Transparency was on the mind of Rep. Peter King, R-NY, when in July 2011 he sponsored the 9/11 Review Commission Act (HR 2623) which sought to create an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold open hearings, compel needed testimony and retain experts and consultants.

The bill went nowhere and died at the end of 2012. Three months later, a provision for a watered-down 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.

All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been stripped out.

House appropriations subcommittee member Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a co-sponsor of King’s bill, inserted the language that established the Review Commission. Wolf, who retired in January, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Kevin Fogarty, an aide to Rep. King, explained that King and Wolf “determined it was more feasible and expedient to move the FBI-focused review” via the appropriations bill. Fogarty did not explain why the new measure gave the FBI funding for and authority over the commission.

“Rep. King has the option of reintroducing HR 2623 should he feel it necessary in the future,” Fogarty said via email.

Following delays caused by sequestration, the 9/11 Review Commission was established in January 2014. While still not fully staffed, commissioners appeared before Wolf’s subcommittee the following March to explain how they planned to operate under their $1 million budget.

COMMISSION RELIED HEAVILY ON FBI

The commission’s report shows it relied heavily on the FBI for information and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. Intelligence Community. In addition to CIA boss John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the approximately 30 interviewees included former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met several times with Director Comey.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

The commission’s work was also informed by travel to eight FBI field offices and six FBI legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, the report says.

At FBI headquarters, commissioners were given more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics ranging from the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code-name for its 9/11 investigation, and the “Sarasota Family.”

The Sarasota family refers to Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, Saudis who became the focus of an FBI investigation shortly after 9/11 when it was learned they’d moved abruptly out of their home in an upscale, gated community south of Sarasota two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.

FloridaBulldog.org, working with Irish author and journalist Anthony Summers, first reported about that investigation, and how the FBI had not disclosed it to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry or the 9/11 Commission, in September 2011.

The story cited a senior counterterrorism agent and a security administrator at the gated community, Larry Berberich, who said that sign-in logs and photos snapped of license tags of entering vehicles fit information on 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, both of whom had attended a flight school about 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport.

The counterterrorism agent also said an analysis of phone records for calls to and from the al-Hijji’s home dating back more than a year found ties to Atta, Jarrah and other terrorist suspects, including former Miramar resident and alleged al Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah.

The FBI acknowledged the probe and said it had found no ties to terrorism, but declined to explain or release additional information.

The FBI’s denial was later contradicted by its own documents that were made public two years ago amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by Broward Bulldog, Inc., FloridaBulldog.org corporate parent. One FBI report, dated April 16, 2002, said investigators determined that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

FBI DISAVOWS OWN SARASOTA DOCUMENT

The 9/11 Review Commission, tasked to examine new evidence, obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file and was briefed by the FBI, which disavowed its April 2002 report saying it was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” the report says.

The report does not name the agent, but its language suggests the commission accepted the FBI’s statements without challenge. The report does not address why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation a secret from two federal inquiries into 9/11.

Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter represents plaintiffs pursuing claims against Saudi Arabia and others for allegedly providing material support to al Qaeda in the years before 9/11. He said the Review Commission failed to seek out new evidence compiled in that civil case, including jailed former al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui’s highly publicized statement in which he accused Saudi Arabia’s royal family of bankrolling the terrorist group.

“To the extent that they were interested in looking at new evidence you would have expected them to reach out to us, and they never did,” Carter said.

Sen. Graham suggested two ways to alleviate concerns about the integrity of the 9/11 Review Commission’s work.

The FBI should “release all material relating to the commission except those that represent a legitimate national security concern.” And Congress, when it receives the commission’s report, should “do so in an open hearing with the opportunity for testimony by other Americans and a full examination of the commission’s procedures, structure and conclusions, Graham said.

Slain al Qaeda chief tied to 9/11; Key figure in FBI’s once secret probe of Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

A top al Qaeda operative reportedly shot dead in a weekend raid by the Pakistan army was a key figure in the FBI’s Sarasota investigation of a Saudi couple that declassified FBI documents say had “many connections” to the 9/11 hijackers.

Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who attended Broward College in the late 1990s, was killed early Saturday morning in a helicopter gunship assault on a hideout in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.

Described by authorities as al Qaeda’s chief of global operations, Saudi-born Shukrijumah was a fugitive from a 2010 federal indictment in New York for his alleged role in plots to attack New York’s subway system and London’s Underground. The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

At the time of his death, the U.S. was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Shukrijumah’s capture. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

BrowardBulldog.org, working with Irish journalists and authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, first reported in September 2011 that Shukrijumah was among a number of terrorist figures that a law enforcement source has said were identified by the FBI as having visited the Sarasota area home of Abdulazziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, prior to September 11, 2001.

They included 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who were at the controls of the passenger jets that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and Ziad Jarrrah, who crashed another jetliner into a Pennsylvania field. Also allegedly at the residence was Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta and three other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

TIE TO SAUDI ROYAL FAMILY

The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their home under suspicious circumstances about two weeks before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The owner of the home at 4224 Escondito Circle was Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a member of the Saudi royal family.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation of the al-Hijjis was never disclosed to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

When the matter finally became public in 2011, FBI officials in Tampa and Miami acknowledged the investigation, but said it had turned up no connection to 9/11 – statements later contradicted by a handful of FBI records made public in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org.

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge is currently reviewing for possible public release more than 80,000 additional pages of classified 9/11 records he ordered the FBI to produce for his inspection last spring.

Sen. Graham said Monday that Shukrijumah’s death forecloses one avenue for learning more about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

“This is another price we’re paying by delaying full disclosure of what happened before and after 9/11,” said Graham. “Had information about what happened in Sarasota been made available a decade ago it might have resulted in our aggressive attempts to interrogate Shukrijumah.”

While the 9/11 Commission found nothing to firmly connect Shukrijumah to the September 11 plot, it did note he was a “well-connected al Qaeda operative” known as “Jafar the Pilot” and that he apparently accompanied Atta on a May 2, 2001 visit to the Miami District Immigration Office. Also present that day was a third man that the commission concluded was United 93 hijack pilot Jarrah, for whom Atta was seeking a visa extension.

“75 PERCENT SURE”

An immigration inspector who dealt with the trio readily remembered Atta when interviewed later. And after looking at Shukrijumah’s Most Wanted photo, she told authorities “she was ‘75 percent sure’ that she could identify the man who was with Atta as Shukrijumah.”

A report by commission staff titled “9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” also noted that “Shukrijumah’s father is a well-known imam in south Florida, having testified on behalf of Sheikh Rahman during his trial for the conspiracy to destroy New York landmarks” in 1995. Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, is serving a life sentence.

Gulshair Shukrijumah, once a prayer leader at a Brooklyn mosque where Rahman preached, moved his family to Miramar in the mid-1990s and became a religious leader at the Masijid al Hijra. He died in 2004.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law also tie Shukrijumah to al-Hijji and pre-9/11 events in Sarasota.

Wissam Hammoud, identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “international terrorist associate,” told an FBI agent and a Sarasota County Sheriff’s detective in April 2004 that al-Hijji introduced him to his “friend” Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001.

Hammoud also told the agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the 9/11 hijackers, the records say.

Hammoud is currently serving 21 years in prison after his 2005 guilty plea in Tampa to federal weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. He reaffirmed his previous statements to the FBI in 2012 interviews. His wife and sister-in-law also corroborated Hammoud’s account.

Al-Hijji, who in 2012 lived in London where he worked for Aramco Overseas – the European subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, told the Daily Telegraph then that Hammoud was his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said by email. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

SHUKRIJUMAH ‘DOESN’T RING A BELL’

In a brief interview outside his office, al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

The FDLE previously declined to release its file on Shukrijumah, a citizen of Guyana.

Shukrijumah’s movements around the time of 9/11 are unclear. The Miami Herald reported in 2011 that the FBI said he’d left the country in the weeks before 9/11. ABC News reported a decade ago that the FBI said Shukrijumah was in the U.S. until shortly after 9/11.

Whatever the truth, Shukrijumah appears to have quickly risen through the ranks of al Qaeda, eventually assuming a position that NBC News reported was once held by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Pakistani forces reportedly caught up with Shukrijumah early Saturday morning in an an area that until recently was a key Taliban stronghold in Pakistan, according to the London Daily Mirror.

“In an intelligence borne operation, top al-Qaeda leader Adnan el Shukrijumah was killed by (the) Pakistan Army in an early morning raid in Shinwarsak, South Waziristan today,” the military said in a statement, the Mirror said. The remote region borders Afghanistan.

“His accomplice and a local facilitator were also killed in the raid,” the statement said.

Reuters reported that in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, all phone lines and mobile phone signals were shut down overnight and the roads were blocked in anticipation of the army’s strike.

A military official told the Mirror that security forces first heard that Chinese hostages were held at the location where the assault took place, learning only later about Shukrijumah’s presence and planning a larger operation.

The Mirror reported that two intelligence officers said militants opened fire on the Pakistani military and Shukrijumah was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Shukrijumah’s wife and four children were reportedly taken into custody.

One soldier was killed and another wounded, the paper reported.

FBI publicly releases a few more pages about Sarasota Saudis; 80,000 pages given to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 9-11 pentagon

The Justice Department late Friday made public four new, heavily censored documents confirming that by 2002 the FBI had found “many connections” between 9/11 terrorist figures and the Florida family of “an allegedly wealthy international businessman” with ties to the Saudi Royal family.

“On or about 8/27/01 his family fled their house in Sarasota leaving behind valuable items in a manner indicating they left quickly without prior preparation,” says an FBI “case narrative” written on April 16, 2002.

The name of the international businessman, Esam Ghazzawi, is blanked out in the narrative. Ghazzawi’s name, however, is included on another page – an FBI form that accompanied a letter acquired by FBI agents in Tampa as “evidence” in July 2002. Details about the letter were not released.

The release of Ghazzawi’s name is the first time the government has confirmed Ghazzawi’s involvement in the FBI investigation that lasted until at least 2004, yet was never disclosed to the 9/11 Commission or congressional investigators.

Ghazzawi, adviser to a senior Saudi prince, owned the upscale south Sarasota home where his daughter, Anoud, and her husband, Abdulaziz al-Hijji lived prior to 9/11. Law enforcement sources have said that after 9/11 investigators found evidence – telephone records and photographs of license tags and security gate log books – showing that hijack pilot Mohamed Atta, former Broward resident and fugitive al Qaeda leader Adnan Shukrijumah and other terror suspects had visited the home. The home is about 10 miles from the Venice airport, where Atta and the two other hijack pilots trained.

The four pages were released amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by BrowardBulldog.org after the FBI declined to release any records about the matter.

In April, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records to identify documents about the once secret probe. The judge said the Justice Department had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior searches had been adequate.

With Friday’s release, a total of 39 pages have been released since the lawsuit was filed in September 2012. That includes four pages that were completely censored.

The FBI withheld certain information from the just-released documents, saying disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or reveal techniques and procedures of law enforcement

The four pages released Friday were all declassified shortly before their release.

FBI records chief David M. Hardy said in a declaration under oath that the Bureau has processed the Tampa field office’s complete “sub file” on 9/11 and is in the process of turning it over to the judge as ordered. Hardy said the files consists of 80,266 pages which was divided into 411 “individual documents section” that were burned onto three CDs in a searchable format.

The documents, and parallel hard copies, were provided for Judge Zloch’s private inspection. He will then decide whether any of those documents are releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

More secret 9/11 documents identified, but FBI has yet to turn them over to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org crumble

Contradicting an earlier assertion made under oath by a senior FBI official, an attorney for the Justice Department said Wednesday that the FBI has identified four more boxes of “classified” 9/11 documents held by its Tampa field office.

The government, however, has yet to comply with a federal judge’s orders that it turn over, by last Friday, copies of that massive 9/11 file – now said to total 27 boxes – for his personal inspection.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch issued those orders this month in a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org seeking records about the FBI’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In an email to the news organization’s attorney, Thomas Julin, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee said the government was prepared to file the documents with the court last Friday “as ordered.” The Justice Department, however, determined that Zloch’s chambers do not have a safe with “storage capability for classified documents.”

“The plan at present is to deliver the safe (which holds four boxes) on Thursday, May 1, 2014, along with the first four boxes of classified materials,” Lee said. “When the court has completed its review of the four boxes, chambers will be contacted and I will deliver four more boxes, as well as retrieving the material already reviewed.”

Lee said, too, that he will deliver to the court on Friday as ordered CD ROMs containing scanned versions of the classified documents.

RECORDS DELAYS?

The government’s piecemeal document delivery plan deviates substantially from Zloch’s orders, which require the production of photocopies of the FBI’s entire 9/11Tampa file all at once. If approved, it would delay the production of records to the judge for inspection by weeks or months.

The existence of four additional boxes of 9/11 records could add to any delay.

Lee’s disclosure about the additional four boxes calls into question the accuracy of the sworn declaration submitted to the court two weeks ago by FBI Records section chief David M. Hardy.

Hardy told the court that the entire Tampa 9/11 “sub file” was “comprised of 23 boxes of records” including “a substantial, but undetermined amount of material classified at the ‘secret’ level.”  Prosecutor Lee did not explain why the file is now said to be 27 boxes.

The FBI probe that is the focus of the Freedom of Information lawsuit investigated a Saudi family with ties to the Royal Family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and former Broward resident and currently suspected al Qaeda leader Adnan Shukrijumah.

The investigation began after neighbors in the upscale south Sarasota gated community of Prestancia called authorities to report that Abulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, had suddenly moved out of their home two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

Sources have said agents later found gatehouse logs and photographs of license tags and phone records, showing that Atta, Shukrijumah and others had visited the al-Hijji’s home.

Al-Hijji, who later worked for the European subsidiary of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, told London’s Daily Telegraph last year that he condemned the terror attacks and had no involvement in them. The FBI has said publicly that its Sarasota investigation found no evidence connecting the family either the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

The FBI, however, kept the investigation secret until BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed it in September 2011.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, has said that the FBI did not disclose the existence of the Sarasota investigation to either the Joint Inquiry or the subsequent 9/11 Commission.

The FOIA lawsuit was filed in September 2012 after the FBI denied administrative requests for the release of its records about the matter. In March 2013, the government unexpectedly released more than two-dozen heavily censored records that nevertheless undercut the Bureau’s previous public denials.

The documents state that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” One document lists three individuals, with names blacked out, and ties them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Last week, the government provided 27 pages of classified documents to Judge Zloch that bear the blanked out case number affixed to the April 16, 2002 FBI report disclosing the family’s “many connections” to terrorists.

The judge’s order directs the government to immediately produce any documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request. Attorney Julin has asked the government to say whether any of those 27 pages are responsive and nonexempt, and if so to make them public.

Prosecutor Lee said he’s working with the FBI to respond to Julin’s inquiry.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

FBI’s attempt to water down judicial order denied; 9/11 documents begin to flow to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers fbitower.jpg

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.

Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private, or “in camera,” inspection.

The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.

The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

NEIGHBORS CALL THE AUTHORITIES

Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al Hijji’s home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the Bureau never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince him that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.

The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.

Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI. He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.

But the government pushed back.

GOVERNMENT SEEKS MORE TIME, LESS REQUIREMENTS

On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay – until May 2 – to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.

Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled secret, and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa (9/11) sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”

The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format.  He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.

Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.

“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.

Finally, Judge Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al Hijj and his father-in-law Esam Ghazzawi, once an adviser to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.

The government has contended the privacy interests of al Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

A conservative judge rebukes FBI as he orders it to find and turn over 9/11 documents

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch has a reputation as a no-nonsense, conservative judge who can be short on patience, but is long on courtroom preparation and does not recoil from speaking his mind.

On Friday, after months of legal wrangling, Zloch spoke his mind for the first time on the FBI’s handling of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by BrowardBulldog.org that seeks records from the Bureau’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In a stinging, 23-page order, Zloch told the Department of Justice that it had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior records searches had been “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents,” as courts have said the law requires.

Zloch ordered the FBI to do something it had not done: use its sophisticated, $440 million Sentinel case management system to lead the search for relevant documents while adhering to various court-ordered conditions, including specific automated text searches. The judge gave the Bureau until April 18 – two weeks – to produce photocopies for his private inspection of all documents it identifies.

Zloch’s ruling is a “strong, clear directive to the FBI,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who in 2002 chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and has pushed Washington to release the FBI’s files about what happened in Sarasota.

“Since 2002 many sources, including the U.S. Senate, have been attempting to get information such as that which is likely to be disclosed under Judge Zloch’s order made available. This is the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving that objective,” said Graham.

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

Further, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a manual review of all documents in its Tampa field office regarding the Bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, code-named PENTTBOM. He gave the FBI until June 6 to complete that more time consuming task.

The Department of Justice has opposed any additional search. In court papers filed last August, it argued that a manual review would require “extraordinary effort, time and resources to conduct.”

“The manual review which plaintiffs are requesting is not reasonable; nor is it warranted,” the department argued in court papers filed in August. “The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation.”

Zloch disagreed. He decided a more thorough search is necessary due to “inconsistencies and concerns” about the government’s searches to date, as well as his need to assure himself that “the documents in dispute exist.”

Zloch noted, too, that early FBI assertions that its initial searches had yielded no responsive documents were followed months later, after the lawsuit was filed, by the release of 35 heavily redacted pages. Those pages, some partially blacked out on grounds of national security, contained no investigative reports yet did include some summary information that contradicted prior FBI public statements about the findings of its Sarasota investigation.

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” the order says.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the non-profit news organization, said it appears Judge Zloch “definitely wants to get to the bottom of this and doesn’t like the fact that the FBI put out public statements trying to discredit the Bulldog’s reporting…His order makes it sound like he believes the government may be deliberately covering up.”

Zloch’s order goes beyond instructing the FBI to search and produce its own investigative reports. It also requires both the Justice Department and the FBI to “advise the court of any documented communications between defendants and other government agencies concerning the investigation” of the Sarasota Saudis. Again, Zloch wants that information by June 6.

“He’s showing real sensitivity to the likelihood that the FBI is acting under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency,” said Julin. “If the FBI is simply following orders then he is telling the FBI he wants to know what those orders are and from who they are coming, whether it’s the CIA, the NSA or the President.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2012, after the FBI denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the agency’s reports about its Sarasota investigation.

A year earlier, BrowardBulldog.org had first disclosed the existence of the investigation in a story that reported how Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple, had abruptly moved out of their home in Sarasota’s Prestancia development and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before September 11, 20001.  Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Law enforcement focused on the al-Hijjis after suspicious neighbors called following the attacks to report that the couple had appeared to depart in haste, leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothing and even food in the kitchen.

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

The story reported that agents who later searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found evidence in logbooks and snapshots of license plates that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s home. A law enforcement source said an analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and former Broward resident Adnan Shukrijumah, a fugitive and alleged al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stated that a now imprisoned terrorist figure, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who prior to 9/11 had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Al-Hijj was interviewed last year by the London Telegraph. He acknowledged knowing Hammoud, but denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terror attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, ex-Sen. Graham has said.

In his order, Judge Zloch explained that his doubts about the quality of the FBI’s prior records searches was rooted in part in the “gaps and inconsistencies” he observed in the handful of documents the FBI has produced to date.

He noted, for example, that one FBI document written after the Sarasota story broke in 2011 states that the investigation found no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers while another, dated April 2002, says authorities found “many connections” between the family and  “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“These statements seem to be in conflict, and there is nothing in defendant’s 35 produced pages that reconciles this stark contradiction,” the order says.

Skeptical U.S. judge gives FBI two weeks to conduct better search of 9/11 records

 

fbilogo

UPDATE 4/4/14 — Troubled by “inconsistencies” and the government’s sometimes “nonsensical” legal arguments, a federal judge on Friday ordered the FBI to conduct a detailed search of its records for information about apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, saying the Justice Department had failed to show that the FBI satisfied the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, gave the FBI precise instructions as to how the search is to be conducted, right down to the text terms to be used and the databases to be queried.

The judge also imposed a tight deadline. The FBI must conduct the search and produce photocopies of all documents it finds to him by April. 18, two weeks from the date of his order.

A full story about this significant development in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA lawsuit seeking information about a local Saudi family’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers will be published this weekend.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

April 1 – A federal judge Monday ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its vast files to identify documents about its once secret investigation of terrorist activity in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch’s order also rejected a request by the Department of Justice to throw out the Freedom of Information case filed by BrowardBulldog.org in September 2012. Justice has argued that the release of certain information about the matter “would reveal current specific targets” of national security investigations.

The suit alleges the government has improperly withheld information about a local Saudi family’s apparent connections to terrorists including 9/11 hijack pilot Mohamed Atta and Adnan Shukrijumah, the former Broward resident and alleged al-Qaeda figure who’s got a $5 million federal bounty on his head.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the four-year-old news organization. “The decision tells the FBI that this federal judge wants to make sure that the truth comes out.”

In his four-page order, Judge Zloch said he would issue a separate order detailing steps the FBI must take to comply with his order requiring the additional records search.

BrowardBulldog.org asked the court in July to compel the additional document search. The suit was filed after the FBI denied the news organization’s record requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI RECORDS CONTRADICT PUBLIC STATEMENTS

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the Bureau unexpectedly released 35 heavily redacted pages, including four pages that were completely blanked out, and asserted it had no more responsive documents to produce. The declassified pages flatly contradicted earlier public statements by FBI agents in Sarasota and Miami that the decade-old investigation had found no evidence of terrorist activity.

In his order, Zloch noted the government has provided him with un-redacted copies of those pages “for the court’s inspection.”  Whether that information played a role in the judge’s decision is not known.

The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in a friend of the court brief last week, argued to the court, “The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate (record) searches.

In the motion requesting a better search, attorney Julin proposed a number of measures the FBI could take to identify records: Use its $440 million Sentinel computer system, employ better word searches and conduct a manual review of all 15,342 documents about its 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOM, said to be stored in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

The FOIA lawsuit seeks FBI records about its investigation of “activities at the residence at 4224 Escondito Circle in the Prestancia development near Sarasota, Florida prior to 9/11/2001 The activities involved apparent visits to that address by some of the deceased 9/11 hijackers.”

TIES TO TERRORISTS, TIES TO ROYALS

The address was the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji until August 2001, when the couple quit their home and returned to Saudi Arabia –leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other items. Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, the al-Hijji’s neighbors began calling the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to tell them about the couple’s abrupt departure.

BrowardBulldog.org first disclosed the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story reported how agents who searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found logbooks and snapshots of license plates that provided evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including Atta, had visited the home. An analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and Shukrijumah, according to a law enforcement source.

An FBI informant later reported that prior to 9/11 al-Hijji had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Records obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show the FBI continued to investigate until at least 2004, when the informant was interviewed. The Bureau, however, never disclosed the existence of its investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

Graham has accused the FBI of impeding Congress’s inquiry into 9/11.

The 31 pages of FBI records released one year ago say that the Sarasota Saudis who “fled” their home before the attacks had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The records list three individuals, including one identified as a relative of the al-Hijjis, but their names were blanked out. All three, however, were tied to the Venice, Fl. flight school where Atta and fellow hijack pilot Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Attorney Julin said Monday’s federal court ruling could lead to a better public understanding of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

“Maybe now we’ll get a chance to find out what the FBI knew about the Sarasota Saudis and why it did not tell Congress,” said Julin.

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Citing broad public interest, newspapers ask judge to deny U.S. bid to block 9/11 lawsuit

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
BrowardBulldog.org 911weremember

Two Florida newspapers have asked a Fort Lauderdale federal judge to deny the Justice Department’s effort to shut down a Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records from an FBI investigation into apparent terrorist activity in Sarasota shortly before 9/11.

BrowardBulldog.org filed the suit in September 2012 alleging the government was improperly withholding records on the matter. The government, after unexpectedly releasing 31 highly censored pages last spring, argued the court should end the case due to national security considerations and asserted that a “reasonable search” had determined “there are no agency records being improperly withheld.”

Court papers filed Tuesday by attorneys for The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune say they were intervening “to stress that the outcome of this case is a matter of intense interest to the media and the public generally.” The newspapers also argued that “government officials charged with investigating terrorist connections in our state must also be held fully accountable.”

“The Broward Bulldog has provided this court with ample evidence establishing that the FBI could not have possibly conducted adequate searches in response to its federal Freedom of Information Act request,” said the joint brief filed by Tampa attorneys Carol LoCicero, Rachel Fugate and Mark Caramanica. “The stakes are simply too great to accept as a matter of law the government’s vague, often second hand conclusions as to the adequacy of its document searches.”

The newspapers’ friend-of-the-court brief asks U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch not to be “too quick” to accept an agency’s claim that it conducted “an appropriate search,” citing examples where records that should have been produced were not.

One cited case involves the conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, which sued in 2012 seeking records about the Obama Administration’s alleged coordination with the producers of Zero Dark Thirty, the motion picture about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Allegations had been made that the White House provided the filmmakers with access to highly sensitive national security records in order to burnish President Obama’s reputation prior to the 2012 election.

A judge ordered the CIA to produce records about the matter, “but it was only months later that additional ‘overlooked’ documents were produced that included illuminating correspondence among the White House, the Department of Defense and the CIA suggesting a coordinated effort to provide a heightened level of access to the filmmakers and a desire that the administration be portrayed positively.”

Broward Bulldog.org, represented in the suit by Miami attorney Thomas Julin,  first disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011.

The story reported how, a decade earlier, the FBI had found direct ties between 9/11 hijackers and a young Saudi couple, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who appeared to have hurriedly departed their upscale home in a gated community in the weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing, a refrigerator full of food and an open safe in the master bedroom.

Anoud al-Hijji is the daughter of the home’s owner, Esam Ghazzawi, a long-time adviser to a senior Saudi prince. Ghazzawi was also a focus of FBI interest after 9/11 when agents sought to lure him back to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia to close the transaction when the home was sold, according to a lawyer for the homeowner’s association.

Agents searched gatehouse logbooks and license plate snapshots and found evidence that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home, according to a counterterrorism agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. A sophisticated analysis of incoming and outgoing phone calls to the home also established links to Atta and other terrorists, including Adman Shukrijumah, the agent said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident, is currently on the FBI’s “most wanted” list and the State Department is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The FBI publicly acknowledged its investigation but said it had found nothing connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired Congress’ Joint inquiry into the attacks, has said the FBI never informed Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation.

The story has taken several twists since news of the investigation first broke.

In February 2012, Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained using the state’s public records law showed that in April 2004 Wissam Hammoud, a now imprisoned “international terrorist associate” then under arrest in Hillsborough County, told the FBI that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers who trained at a flight school in Venice, about 10 miles from the al-Hijji residence. Hammoud also told the FBI then that al-Hijji had  introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a local mosque prior to 9/11. Hammoud confirmed making those statements in an interview.

Al-Hijji was reached in London in 2012 where he worked for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company. He told The Telegraph that he knew Hammoud, but denied any involvement with terrorists. He called 9/11 “an awful crime.”

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

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

One year ago, six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI suddenly made public 31 redacted pages about its Sarasota investigation. The records flatly contradicted the Bureau’s earlier public statements that it had found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers. Instead, the FBI records said the family had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The declassified documents tied three individuals, with names blanked out, to the Venice flight school where Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi trained. One of those individuals was described as a relative of the al-Hijjis, whose names were also redacted.

Last June, the Justice Department moved to end the lawsuit, citing national security. A senior FBI official told the judge disclosure of certain classified information about the Sarasota Saudis “would reveal current specific targets of the FBI’s national security investigations.”

The FBI did not explain how an investigation that it previously said had found no connection between those Saudis and the 9/11 attacks involved information so secret that its disclosure “could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.”

Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of The Eleventh Day, an account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.

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