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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Releasing “in context”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery of Sarasota Saudis deepens as Justice moves to end FOI lawsuit citing national security

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

Sept. 11, 2001 Photo: National Park Service

Sept. 11, 2001 Photo: National Park Service

A senior FBI official has told a Fort Lauderdale federal judge that disclosure of certain classified information about Saudis who hurriedly left their Sarasota area home shortly before 9/11 “would reveal current specific targets of the FBI’s national security investigations.”

Records Section Chief David M. Hardy’s assertion is contained in a sworn 33-page declaration filed in support of a Justice Department motion that seeks to end a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed last year by BrowardBulldog.org.

The government’s latest court filings, thick with veiled references to foreign counterintelligence operations and targets, deepen the mystery about a once-secret FBI investigation of Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi and their tenants, son-in-law and daughter, Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.

The filings by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole M. Fernandez also seek to justify in the name of national security numerous deletions of information from FBI records about the decade-old investigation that were released recently amid the ongoing litigation.

They do not, however, explain why an investigation the FBI has said found no connection between those Saudis and the Sept. 11th attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people involves information so secret its disclosure “could be expected to cause serious damage to national security.”

The investigation, which the FBI did not disclose to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, was first reported in a September 2011 story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald.

It began after neighbors in the gated community of Prestancia reported the al-Hijjis had suddenly departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle about two weeks before the attacks. They left personal belongings and furniture, including three newly registered cars – one of them brand new.

According to a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia’s former administrator Larry Berberich, gatehouse log books and photographs of license tags were later used by the FBI to determine that vehicles used by the hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.

The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no evidence connecting the Ghazzawis or the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

RECORDS CONTRADICT DENIALS

The newly released FBI records contradict the FBI’s public denials. One dated April 4, 2002 says the investigation “revealed many connections” between the Saudis who fled Sarasota and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The report goes on to list three of those individuals and connect them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The names of those individuals were not made public.

The FBI removed additional information in the report, citing a pair of national security exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

In his declaration to U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, the FBI’s Hardy sought to explain those deletions and others. He said information was withheld “to protect an intelligence method utilized by the FBI for gathering intelligence data.” Such methods include confidential informants.

Hardy, who stated that he has been designated a “declassification authority” by Attorney General Eric Holder, said redactions regarding the Sarasota investigation were also made to protect “actual intelligence activities and methods used by the FBI against specific targets of foreign counterintelligence investigations or operations.”

“The information obtained from the intelligence activities or methods is very specific in nature, provided during a specific time period and known to very few individuals,” Hardy said.

DAMAGE TO NATIONAL SECURITY?

No details were provided, but Hardy said the information was “compiled regarding a specific individual or organization of national security interest.” He added that its disclosure “reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.”

Disclosure would reveal the FBI’s “current specific targets” and “allow hostile entities to discover the current intelligence gathering methods used and reveal the criteria and priorities assigned to current intelligence or counterintelligence investigations,” Hardy said.

“With the aid of this detailed information, hostile entities could develop countermeasures which would, in turn, severely disrupt the FBI’s intelligence gathering capabilities” and damage efforts “to detect and apprehend violators of the United States’ national security and criminal laws.”

For months, the FBI claimed it had no responsive documents regarding its Sarasota investigation. But on March 28, Hardy unexpectedly announced the Bureau had located and reviewed 35 pages of records. It released 31 of them.

Prosecutor Fernandez now contends the FBI conducted a “reasonable search” and that “no agency records are being improperly withheld.”

Her motion asks the court to grant summary judgment in the government’s favor.

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.

 

New questions about FBI probe of Saudis’ post-9/11 exodus

By Robbyn Swan, Special to BrowardBulldog.org

A departure board at South Carolina's Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport shows cancelled flights around the country on September 11, 2001

The FBI mishandled its investigation of the travel of a Saudi prince and his companions out of Florida within days of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, new interviews, 9/11 Commission documents and FBI files reveal. And its detailed report on the matter, drawn up for members of Congress and President George W. Bush, was inaccurate.

The new reporting springs from suspicions that a well-connected Saudi living in Sarasota, Fla., may have associated with the 9/11 hijackers. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, has suggested that the FBI’s investigation of the Sarasota matter “was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI. An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as fact.”

These concerns have led to a re-examination of the efforts to get out of the U.S. immediately following the 9/11 attacks by a Saudi royal, Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and several companions.  Their travel began in Tampa, a short drive from Sarasota.

The review of how the FBI dealt with and reported on the travel of the Florida-based Saudis, and their subsequent departure from the United States with other Saudis, shows that the FBI failed to interview principal witnesses; relied on erroneous second-hand information; misinterpreted the orders under which the FAA managed the closure and subsequent reopening of U.S. airspace after the 9/11 attacks; misreported the means of travel; and even got Prince Sultan’s identity wrong.

The FAA grounded all flights less than an hour after the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center, and reopened U.S. airspace to commercial and charter air traffic only at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13. By then, with Saudi-born Osama bin Laden fingered as the principal suspect in the attacks and 15 of the 19 hijackers identified as Saudi citizens, panicked Saudis were doing their utmost to get out of the country.

Sometime on the day following the attacks, Prince Sultan, a grandnephew of the late King Fahd and a student at the University of Tampa’s American Language Academy, began trying to leave Florida, according to 9/11 Commission files. He did so on the instructions of his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi media baron and fabulously wealthy racehorse owner who was in Lexington, Ky. for the annual yearling sales. According to a Lexington police officer – his name is redacted in FBI documents –  who coordinated security for the younger prince’s travel from Tampa, Ahmed told Sultan to get to Lexington and join him on a flight out of the U.S. 

Reportedly scared by what he considered a hostile atmosphere in the wake of the attacks, Sultan requested and received a guard detail from the Tampa Police Department. A Tampa police officer, John Solomon, later told the 9/11 Commission that he contacted Dan Grossi, a former policeman turned private investigator, to accompany the Saudis on the planned flight to Lexington. Grossi, in turn, contracted retired FBI agent Emanuel “Manny” Perez, to partner with him on the assignment.

The closure of U.S. airspace, meanwhile, led briefly to talk of Prince Sultan and his companions instead making the 700-mile journey to Lexington by car. But an FAA Notice to Airmen – a “NOTAM” – that U.S. airspace would reopen to domestic commercial and charter flights at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13, cleared them to fly, FAA records show.

At about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, Grossi met the prince and his party of four – later named as Fahad al-Zied, Ahmed al-Hazmi (the fact that this is the same last name as two of the 9-11 hijackers may well be mere coincidence) and Talal al-Mejrad, son of a Saudi army officer – at Raytheon Services, away from the main Tampa airport terminal. With the Saudis and the security men on board, a cream-colored Lear Jet supplied by the Fort Lauderdale charter company Hop-A-Jet lifted off at 4:37, FAA records and Tampa Airport data show.

Prince looked ‘like a kid who was scared’


Perez, the security man, said that only on landing around 6 p.m. at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport did he realize the flight had been very sensitive – that one of his passengers was a Saudi royal. They were greeted, he recalled in an interview, by a phalanx of security men and a flurry of hand-kissing for young Prince Sultan, who was then in his early 20s.

Lt. Mark Barnard of the Lexington Police Department, who worked liaison at the Kentucky end, would later tell the 9/11 Commission that the prince seemed to him just  “like a kid who was scared,” escorted the young Saudi and his companions to his uncle Prince Ahmed’s hotel, and the two princes and twelve companions left three days later aboard a chartered Boeing 727 en route to Saudi Arabia.

Two years after 9/11, in a Vanity Fair story titled “Saving the Saudis,” author Craig Unger raised numerous questions about the role the FBI had played in facilitating that and various other flights involved in the panicky Saudi exodus from the United States. The article obscured the facts on the travel from Tampa, unfortunately, with a claim that the flight had been allowed to take place “when U.S. citizens were still restricted from flying.” In fact, as the FAA record makes clear, the flight took place several hours after the FAA had opened airspace to charter flights.

In the wake of the Vanity Fair story, when U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John Kyl raised questions, the FBI prepared a 40-page response for the senators and the White House addressing all Saudi travel out of the U.S. after 9/11. What it reported on the Tampa-Lexington flight, however, was not true.

Instead of just noting that the FAA record showed the travel occurred after U.S. airspace was reopened, the FBI said Sultan and his three companions “had arrived in Lexington from Tampa by car.”

“The four individuals,” the report went on, “had disobeyed the Prince [Ahmed] by traveling by car instead of by jet as the Prince had instructed them.”

FBI insistent: ‘No flights arrived’
The FBI insisted that “No flights arrived” in Lexington on the day in question. The assertion that there had been an incoming flight from Tampa, the FBI claimed, had been “perpetuated” by “hired security personnel” – a clear reference to the Saudis’ escorts, former policeman Grossi and former FBI agent Perez. “One of the members of the private protection detail,” the bureau’s response claimed, “had confidentially told FBI agents in Kentucky the truth about how they arrived in Lexington.”

A 9/11 Commission analysis and FBI documents, however, show  that the FBI’s inquiry into the Tampa flight had relied on a lone source, a  Lexington police officer whose name is also redacted in the released documents. He had merely “hemmed and hawed” when an FBI agent doubted his belief that the Saudis had traveled by air – then suggested the men had in reality traveled by car. The police officer, however, had no first-hand knowledge of the event. The FBI did not at the time interview Grossi or Perez, the security escorts who had flown with the Saudis from Tampa. It interviewed Perez only years later and has never interviewed Grossi.

An FBI departmental memo dated 2003, meanwhile, shows why the bureau was reluctant to believe there had been a flight from Tampa. Having failed to check aviation records that would have shown when exactly the men had flown, it believed “such a flight on 9/13/2001 would have been in violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight ban.”

As early as four days after the flight, however, the bureau had had good reason to realize that the flight had occurred. Other FBI documents, obtained by the public interest group Judicial Watch, make clear that one of the bureau’s own agents in Lexington had the information as early as Sept. 17. That fact, it seems, was filed and forgotten.

Hillary Clinton presents the 2001 Belmont Stakes winner's trophy to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of Point Given

The now-retired FBI special agent-in-charge in Tampa, Robert Chiaradio, did not respond to a request for an interview. His counterpart in Lexington, retired Supervisor Robert Foster, agreed last month to discuss these events by email. Of Prince Sultan and his party’s travel from Tampa, Foster said, “We didn’t question the passengers about how they arrived in Lexington.” His agents’ assignment, Foster said, was to identify each passenger leaving the U.S. and “determine if they were on any watch or no fly list prior to their boarding.”

Watch lists aside, the security check was complicated, Foster wrote, because Prince Ahmed had “given an interview to a local TV station attesting to the fact that he was a cousin of Osama bin Laden.” There is no known evidence that Ahmed was in any way related to bin Laden, and no such interview has ever surfaced. If he did make that comment, however, one would have expected it to have alerted the FBI at both local and headquarters level. Apparently it did not. “We did not interview him,” Foster said in his email last month, “I did not investigate his claim to be related to bin Laden. … I did furnish this information to FBI HQ. I do not recall having discussions with FBI HQ regarding not allowing him to leave the U.S.”

The 9/11 Commission later established that none of the 14 Saudis who left for home from Kentucky was interviewed by the FBI before they were allowed to depart. According to the files, moreover, the bureau did not even figure out who Prince Sultan actually was. A Tampa police document had his name correctly as “Sultan bin Fahd,” which  translates as “Sultan son of Fahd,” one of the king’s nephews. Yet FBI documents repeatedly described Sultan as the son of Prince Ahmed, who was his uncle.

Asked to comment on the catalog of apparent errors and omissions reported in this article, FBI spokesperson Kathleen Wright said on Tuesday that the matter was complex and “would be reviewed  for consideration of a response.”

 A senior bin Laden aide now in Guantanamo, Abu Zubaydah, is said by sources – including John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who led his capture, who said he got his information from CIA documents and colleagues –  to have stated under questioning that al-Qaida had been in contact with Prince Ahmed before 9/11. The prisoner, Kiriakou said, raised the names of Ahmed and two other royals as if to indicate “he had the support of the Saudi government.”

There is a link, too, between Prince Sultan and the post-9/11 investigation in Sarasota. Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime adviser to Sultan’s father, Prince Fahd, owned the Sarasota home suspected of having been visited on multiple occasions by hijack leader Mohamed Atta and several of his accomplices. 

Prince Ahmed died aged 43 in July, 2002, in circumstances that remain unclear. Prince Fahd, 46, had pre-deceased him, dying seven weeks before 9/11. A 2009 report described Prince Sultan as having become chairman of Eirad, a Saudi holding company.

Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden.”

Classified documents contradict FBI on post 9/11probe of Saudis, Graham says

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog on Feb. 20. As on Monday, we are re-posting our coverage of the 9/11 investigation after it was picked up today, March 13, by MSNBC.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers

Former Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota. (more…)

FBI informant says Sarasota Saudi praised bin Laden; knew Broward Qaeda suspect

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog and the London Daily Telegraph on Feb. 18. We are re-posting it here after it was picked up today, March 12, by MSNBC and NBC News4 New York.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers 

A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004. (more…)

Graham: FBI’s public statements are in conflict with still secret records of Sarasota 9/11 probe

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers

Former Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota.

Graham would not disclose the content of the documents, which are marked “Secret,” but said the information they contain is at odds with the FBI’s public statements that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis then living in Sarasota.

“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.

“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” Graham said. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”

Whether the 9/11 hijackers acted alone, or whether they had support within the U.S., remains an unanswered question – one that began to be asked as soon as it became known that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. It was underlined when Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry, which Democrat Graham co-chaired, released its public report in July 2003. The final 28 pages, regarding possible foreign support for the terrorists, were censored in their entirety—on President George W. Bush’s instructions.

Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who had participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”

Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, only to find the man had been instructed by FBI headquarters not to talk.

LICENSE PLATES TIED TO HIJACKERS

The FBI-led investigation a decade ago focused on Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia and left the country in the weeks before 9/11. The couple, who had lived there since about 1995, left behind three cars and numerous personal belongings such as furnishings, clothes, medicine and food, according to law enforcement records. A concerned neighbor contacted the FBI.

Analysis of Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle, according to a counterterrorism officer – speaking on condition of anonymity – and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.

The home was owned by Mrs. Al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd and a noted racehorse owner. Prince Fahd died in July 2001.

Al-Hijji, who now lives and works in London, this month called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.

The FBI backs up al-Hijji. After initially declining to comment, the Bureau confirmed that it did investigate but said it found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.

The FBI reiterated its position in a February 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.

Wissam Hammoud

Newly released Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents, however, state that an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, the ex-Broward resident and suspected al Qaeda operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

In 2003, the FBI asked Sarasota lawyer Scott McKay, who was involved in the sale of the property, to convince al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Ghazzawi, to return to the U.S. to sign documents. The ploy, intended to get Ghazzawi back for questioning, failed when Ghazzawi instead signed the sale documents at the American consulate in Beirut.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI. The agent believed that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds had been interested in both men even before 9/11.

The FBI interviewed Al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and her American-born mother, Deborah Ghazzawi, when they returned to Sarasota briefly in 2003. The women denied involvement with the 9/11 terrorists, and said the couple’s 2001 return flights to Saudi Arabia had been booked well in advance.

Al-Hijji told London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, that he returned to the U.S. for two months in 2005 to study in Houston, but was not questioned by the FBI. Asked why federal agents had questioned his wife and mother-in-law, he said he had “no idea.”

GRAHAM ASKS FOR HELP

Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.

That prompted Graham to ask the FBI for assistance in locating in the National Archives the Sarasota-related files that were allegedly turned over to Congress. Instead, after what Graham said were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, the Bureau suddenly turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.

Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, which responded by setting up a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Joyce told Graham he “didn’t want to talk” about the Sarasota episode. Graham was assured, however, that he would shortly be shown material that supported the FBI’s denials, and a further meeting was arranged with an FBI aide.

In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.

9/11 Commission co-chairs Lee Hamilton (left)and Thomas Kean

Graham said the Joint Inquiry was not the only national investigative body kept in the dark about Sarasota. He said the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have told him they also were unaware of it.

Kean, a former New Jersey governor, told Graham the Commission would have “worked it hard,” because the hypothesis that the hijackers completed the planning alone was “implausible.”

Kean did not return several phone messages seeking comment. But Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, confirmed this month that he learned nothing about the Sarasota matter while serving as vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Graham sees the information now emerging about Sarasota as ominously similar to discoveries his Inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from another Saudi, one of whom helped Mihdhar and Hazmi find an apartment. Multiple sources told investigators they believed the latter helpful Saudi had been a Saudi government agent.

Later, when 9/11 Commission staff gained limited access to these individuals in Saudi Arabia, the aides’ reaction was caustic. One memo described the testimony of one of them as “deceptive…inconsistent…implausible.” The testimony of another displayed an “utter lack of credibility.”

TWO HIJACKERS LIVED WITH FBI INFORMANT

Graham is troubled by what he sees as FBI headquarters’ persistent apparent effort to conceal information, including the fact that Mihdhar and Hazmi lived for months in California in the home of a paid FBI informant. Even when that emerged, the FBI denied his Inquiry access to the informant. Graham wonders if that was merely because of the Bureau’s embarrassment, or because the informant knew something that “would be even more damaging were it revealed.”

The newly surfaced FDLE documents containing Hammoud’s troubling 2004 information about al-Hijji have reinforced Graham’s concerns because they conflict with the FBI’s public statements.

Hammoud’s statement that al-Hijji introduced him to Broward’s own Saudi terror suspect, Shukrijumah, is consistent with the report that Prestancia gate logs showed Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji house – and buttresses longstanding official suspicion that he was linked to the hijackers. When Mohamed Atta visited a federal immigration office in Miami to discuss a visa problem in May 2001, a 9/11 Commission footnote reports, a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah accompanied him.

Graham sees what he believes to be the suppression of evidence pointing to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers as arising from the perceived advantages to the West, at the time and now, of keeping Saudi Arabia happy.

In late December, the U.S. announced a new $30 billion defense deal with the Saudis.

“This agreement serves to reinforce the strong enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. “It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security.”

Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.

“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

FBI informant says Sarasota Saudi praised bin Laden; knew Broward Qaeda suspect

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers 

A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004.

The informant also told authorities that Abdulazziz al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah — the former Miramar resident and suspected al Qaeda leader who today has a $5 million bounty on his head.

The FBI and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Wissam Taysir Hammoud at the Hillsborough County Jail on April 7, 2004. Broward Bulldog obtained Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports about the interview and the investigation using the state’s public records law.

Hammoud, 46, who once owned a cell phone business in Sarasota, is serving 21 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in an earlier case against him. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons classifies him as an “International Terrorist Associate,” court records show.

Hammoud reaffirmed his previous statements about al-Hijji to the FBI in recent interviews.

Al-Hijj’s name made headlines in September when Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald reported on a counterterrorism source’s disclosure of a previously unknown FBI-led probe that followed the attacks on New York and Washington — one that pointed to a possible Saudi support operation for the hijackers in Florida.

A decade after the nation’s worst terrorist attack, which claimed the lives of 3,000 people, al-Hijji has now been found to be living in London where he works for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company. His job title is career counselor.

Al-HIJJI RESPONDS

In an email to London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, al-Hijji acknowledged Hammoud had been 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. “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.”

Al-Hijji’s account is supported by the FBI, which has stated: “At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers…and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot.”

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.

While living in Florida, al-Hijji attended Manatee Community College (now the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota) and, from January 2000 until April 2001, the University of South Florida. He earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in management information systems awarded in August 2001.

In the weeks before 9/11, al-Hijji — then 27 — and his wife Anoud, daughter of an adviser to a member of the Saudi royal family, departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the upscale gated community of Prestancia and returned to Saudi Arabia They left behind three cars and “numerous personal belongings including food, medicine, bills, baby clothing, etc,” according to the FDLE documents which state the family departed on Aug. 27, 2001.

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

Al-Hijji denied having abandoned his home in haste, explaining: “No, no, no. Absolutely not true. We were trying to secure the [Aramco] job. It was a good opportunity.” He said his wife and children followed him out to Saudi Arabia a few weeks after he left Sarasota.

An alarmed neighbor contacted the FBI. When several weeks passed without action, Prestanica resident and administrator Larry Berberich alerted local law enforcement. Authorities, including the FBI, moved in.

The investigation led to a stunning development, according to Berberich and a counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The car registration numbers of vehicles that had passed through the Prestancia community’s North Gate in the months before 9/11, coupled with the identification documents shown by incoming drivers on request, showed that Mohamed Atta and several of his fellow hijackers – and another Saudi terror suspect still at large – had visited 4224 Escondito Circle on multiple occasions,” the source said.

The others included Marwan al-Shehhi, who plowed a United Airlines jet into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Ziad Jarrah, who crashed another United jet into a Pennsylvania field and Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Also identified as having visited: Saudi-born fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah.

The source said law enforcement “also conducted a link analysis that tracked phone calls – based on dates, times, and length of phone conversations to and from the Escondito house – dating back more than a year before 9/11. And the phone traffic also connected with the 9/11 terrorists – though less directly than the gate logs did.”

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks, called news of the Sarasota investigation the “most important” development on the background to the 9/11 plot in years. He added that Congress should have been told about it.

Soon after the story broke, however, the FBI poured cold water on it. It acknowledged that there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.

The FBI reiterated that position in a letter this month denying a Freedom of Information Act request for records of its investigation.

The FDLE records suggest such a finding may have been wrong. For example, one report that recounts what Hammoud said during the 2004 interview states, “The following information, in particular the information by Wissam Hammoud, is being followed up on internationally.”

DETAILS FROM FDLE REPORT  

The FDLE reports buttress key elements of the story, while providing new details:

Hammoud, who said he met al-Hijji through relatives, said the two men worked out together at Shapes Fitness in Sarasota and played soccer at the local Islamic Society. He told the FBI Al-Hijji was “very well schooled in Islam” and that “Osama bin Laden was a hero of al-Hijji.” He added that Al-Hijji showed him a “website containing information about bin Laden,” and spoke of “going to Afghanistan and becoming a freedom fighter.” Al-Hijji also tried to recruit him, Hammoud said.

According to Hammoud, al-Hijji also talked of “taking flight training in Venice.” He said he believed “al-Hijji had known some of the terrorists from the September 11, 2001 attacks” who were students at an airport there.

Hammoud said al-Hijji “entertained Saudis at his residence” at “parties” that he himself did not stay for because – unlike al-Hijji as he remembered him – he “did not drink or smoke cannabis.” One Saudi Hammoud identified as an al-Hijji “friend” he brought to a soccer game at the Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001 was Shukrijumah.

Hammoud’s wife and sister-in-law confirmed during recent interviews that they too knew the al-Hijjis and are familiar with elements of Hammoud’s account. Mrs. Hammoud, who asked that her full name not be used, got the impression from comments al-Hijji made that he was “anti-American.” Hammoud himself, speaking from prison in recent days, said al-Hijji “had a lot of hatred towards everyone in America.” He said he had thought al-Hijji “nuts” when he asked him to go fight in Afghanistan.

Al-Hijji, while confirming he used to work out with Hammoud, described his life in Sarasota as quiet, centered on his wife and children.

“My friends were very limited,” he explained. “Normally, I don’t hold parties in the house because I have little kids. I was not a frequent to any bars.”

HAMMOUD SEEN AS TERRORIST ASSOCIATE 

Prison officials have put Hammoud under heightened security measures due to his classification as a terrorist associate. Court records state the classification is based on what authorities said was Hammoud’s “support and membership” in a “Palestinian-related terrorist organization.”

Hammoud denies involvement with the group and has sought – so far unsuccessfully – a court order to overturn that classification. While representing himself, he filed documents that reveal a history of mental problems caused by a serious brain injury he suffered in a car accident in 1990.

After Hammoud’s first conviction in 2002 for selling illegal weapons to an undercover federal agent, an FBI agent wrote: “Hammoud is now claiming diminished capacity because of an auto accident in an effort to be sentenced to less time…There is speculation on the part of law enforcement that this was merely an attempt to gain sympathy from the sentencing judge…”

Hammoud was found to be competent by a judge before he was allowed to plead guilty to more serious charges arising from his 2004 arrest. The guilty plea and sentence were later upheld on appeal.

Hammoud’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer, would not comment. But his appellate attorney, Tampa’s Bruce Howie, remembers his former client as “not delusional or wacky…I think he has his share of paranoia. But he’s not a liar. He didn’t make it up as he went along.”

For his part, Hammoud has named several FBI agents that he claims to have dealt with while attempting to assist the government in its fight against terrorism. One was Miami Special Agent Kevin Griffin, best known locally for undercover work that put former Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in prison in 2010.

Hammoud’s current attorney, Detroit’s Sanford Schulman, said FBI agents have met with Hammoud on multiple occasions.

“There have been about 10 different agents, and that’s just the ones that I’ve been involved with. They were not two minute meetings either,” said Schulman, who did not attend but was notified of the meetings.

Hammoud may have known more than is revealed in the new FDLE documents.  A Sarasota Herald-Tribune story about him based on an FBI agent’s affidavit filed at the time of Hammoud’s arrest in January 2004 has this ominous reference:

“In September 2001, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed Hammoud because someone had anonymously called saying Hammoud had made a comment that the Oklahoma bombing was going to be small compared with what was coming.”

In a recent email, Hammoud denied having made such a remark.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

Bob Graham says FBI has not proved that it disclosed all it knew about 9/11 to Congress

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

In September, news about a previously unknown FBI investigation that found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family living near Sarasota led the FBI to deny there was any connection and assert that it made all of its files available to congressional investigators a decade ago.

But two months on, the FBI has been unable or unwilling to substantiate that it disclosed any information regarding its Sarasota investigation to Congress, says former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

“My suspicion is that either, one, the documents don’t exist; two, that if they do exist they can’t find them; or three, they did find them and they did not substantiate the statements that they’ve made and that they are withholding them,” said Graham. He has long contended the FBI stonewalled Congress about what it knows about possible Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers.

The FBI investigation began shortly after 9/11 when residents of the gated community of Prestancia, south of Sarasota, called to report the abrupt departure from their luxury home of a Saudi family about two weeks before four passenger jets originating in Boston, Newark and Washington were hijacked. The family left behind a Chevy Blazer in the driveway, a Chrysler PT Cruiser in the garage, clothes in the closet and a refrigerator full of food.

Neighbors said agents searched the house and hauled away bags of belongings. But the most important information came when the FBI examined gatehouse security logs and photographs of license plates, according to then-homeowner’s association administrator Larry Berberich and a counterterrorism agent involved in the investigation.

They said the security records revealed that the home was visited by vehicles used by 9/11 terrorist leader Mohamed Atta and fellow hijacker-pilot Ziad Jarrah. Atta piloted the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Jarrah was at the controls when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

The counterterrorism agent, who asked that his name not be disclosed, said an analysis of phone records found additional links between the residence and other hijackers and terrorist suspects, including Adnan Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

FBI DENIES TIES BETWEEN FAMILY AND HIJACKERS

Stories about the Sarasota investigation were published jointly by Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald in September. The Justice Department initially declined to comment. Later, FBI agents in Tampa and Miami issued separate statements denying that any connection existed between the family and the terrorists.

“There was no connection found to the plot,” Tampa FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Steven E. Ibisen said in a statement released to the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 15. No details were provided.

Graham, a Democrat who also served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987, has said that he and other members and staff of the Joint Inquiry were not made aware of the Sarasota investigation by the FBI. He said in September that news of it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.”

With the assistance of the Senate Intelligence Committee he once chaired, Graham asked the FBI in September to provide him with file numbers about the Sarasota inquiry and the dates that those records were provided to congressional investigators. With that information, the committee’s records custodian could locate them in the National Archives.

At one point, Graham said, FBI agents produced 10 file numbers. But when intelligence committee personnel reviewed those files “it was their determination that there was no information in any of the 10 files that was relevant” to the Sarasota investigation, he said.

Bob Graham

After failing to meet several subsequent self-imposed deadlines, Graham said, “The FBI asked (that) instead of finding the documents could they brief us instead. I said, ‘No, that would not be acceptable.’”

FBI agent David Couvertier, a spokesman for the Tampa office, did not respond when asked Monday to explain why the agency has yet to provide Graham with the information that’s needed to locate the Sarasota records in the Joint Inquiry’s old files.

The FBI also denied a recent Freedom of Information request by Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald that sought agency records about agents’ findings in Sarasota.

“The release of records…would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” of the Saudi nationals who owned or lived at the home, said the Oct. 6 denial letter signed by David M. Hardy, an official in the FBI’s Records Management Division.

The Saudis who lived in the Prestancia home at 4224 Escondito Circle were Abdulaziz A. Al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud, and their small children. The home was owned by Anoud’s parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Ghazzawi was described as a middle-aged financier and interior designer. Deborah Ghazzawi was born in the United States.

Sarasota County records show the Al-Hijjis were married in May 1995 and that the Ghazzawi’s purchased the home the following September.

Al-Hijji attended a local junior college and, at age 26, enrolled at the University of South Florida in January 2000. University records show he attended continuously until April 27, 2001 and was awarded a bachelor of science degree with a major in management information systems on August 10, 2001.

The counterterrorism agent said the Al-Hijji’s later traveled from South Florida to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia via the Washington, D.C. area and London. The agent said Ghazzawi and Al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI.

AN FBI PLOY

After property fees went unpaid, the homeowner’s association filed a lien on the home to try and collect.  Association attorney Scott McKay said that during the subsequent litigation and sale of the property in 2003 the FBI asked him to try and convince the Saudis to return to the U.S. The ploy didn’t work.

The discovery a decade after the fact of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation has reinforced Graham’s belief that the U.S. has engaged in a coverup of information to protect America’s relationship with the oil-rich kingdom.

“The thing that has made me leery of what the FBI now says is the way they handled the San Diego events,” he said, referring to the fact that the FBI failed to share with the Joint Inquiry’s investigators information it had learned about connections between local Saudis and two Saudi-born 9/11 hijackers – Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.  Congressional investigators chanced to find that “treasure trove of information” on their own, he said.

Events in Sarasota share a “common outline” with contemporaneous events in Southern California involving al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi, Graham said.

The Joint Inquiry report and the 9/11 Commission report both describe how another Saudi living in San Diego, Omar al-Bayoumi, provided extensive assistance to the hijackers, including housing. The report says al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported that he thought al-Bayoumi was an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The report said the FBI also learned that al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements.” Bayoumi left the U.S. two months before the attacks.

Graham said congressional investigators also established that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and alleged al-Qaeda commander who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Yemen on September 30, was an Imam to some of the hijackers.

After news about the Sarasota investigation broke, Graham contacted the White House in hopes of getting some answers. What he got instead was an email from David Turk, a special assistant to the president, informing him that chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan “had asked the FBI about his inquiry and was told that the 9/11 Commission was well aware of the Sarasota house/occupants and chose not to include it in the final 9/11 Commission’s report because it ‘didn’t stick to the wall.’

Graham said, “I was disappointed and somewhat surprised, given the FBI’s reputation (for) not being as transparent as it should be in areas where’s there’s no national security concerns, that the White House would have accepted what the FBI said with apparently no questions.”

Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director, said Monday that he does not recall anything about the Sarasota investigation.

 

FBI says again it found no ties between Sarasota Saudis and 9/11 hijackers; won’t release details

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Tampa FBI Agent- in-Charge Steven E. Ibisen

A top Florida FBI agent said Thursday that members of a Saudi family living quietly near Sarasota were questioned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but no evidence was found that linked them to the hijackers.

A week after Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald published a story showing ties between the family and some of the terrorists, Tampa’s head FBI agent, Steven Ibison, released a statement Thursday saying the FBI investigated “suspicions surrounding” the Sarasota home, but never found evidence tying the family members to the suspects.

“There was no connection found to the 9/11 plot,” said the statement, released to the St. Petersburg Times. The prepared statement provided no details.

The agency’s statement “to correct the public record” comes just days after Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor asked for a House investigation into the events surrounding the Sarasota family, which abruptly left the home days before the 9/11 attacks, leaving behind three vehicles, food in the refrigerator and toys in the pool.

The FBI’s official version, the second in a week, conflicts sharply with reports from people who worked at the homeowners’ association and a counter-terrorism officer who joined the investigation.

A senior administrator at the luxury community told reporters that cars used by the 9/11 hijackers — the tag numbers noted by security at the gate — drove to the entrance requesting to visit the family at various times before the terrorist attacks. One of the cars was linked to terrorist leader Mohamed Atta, said administrator Larry Berberich.

In addition, a counterterrorism officer who requested anonymity said agents also linked phone calls between the home and known hijacking suspects in the year before the attacks.

The FBI’s response to the discovery has drawn criticism from U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who said he was never told of the Sarasota investigation when he was co-chair of the congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Thursday’s FBI statement said the agency provided all the information to the congressional inquiry.

“Nobody I’ve spoken with from the Joint Inquiry says we got any information on this,” Graham said. “It’s total B.S. It’s the same thing we’ve been getting from the FBI for the past 10 years.”

Graham, who appeared on national television this week, added that the FBI failed to provide information in the years after 9/11 linking members of the terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

“It was not because the FBI gave us the information. We had a very curious and effective investigator who found out,” Graham told MSNBC.

In an appearance Monday on MSNBC, Graham said he spoke with President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He said he has gone to the White House’s chief of counterterrorism to ask that the administration look into the Sarasota case.

The FBI, which has not released any results of its investigation, said family members who lived in the home owned by Saudi financier Esam Ghazzawi were tracked down and interviewed about the case after the terrorist attacks.

It wasn’t clear from Thursday’s statement whether the FBI or Saudi intelligence conducted the interrogations. The family was believed to have flown to Saudi Arabia after briefly stopping in Virginia days before 9/11.

The Joint Inquiry shut down at the end of 2002, apparently without ever hearing about this from the FBI. But Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, who represented the Prestancia homeowners’ association in a claim for unpaid dues when the property was sold in 2003, said the FBI asked him to try and get the Saudis to return to Sarasota so they could be questioned.

McKay said he tried on behalf of the agency, but Ghazzawi was able to sign his name under a notary at the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003.

 

U.S. Rep. Castor calls for investigation of 9/11 Sarasota connection; Graham prods White House

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor

Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor Monday called on the House Intelligence Committee to investigate why the FBI did not disclose to Congress information it learned about a Saudi couple living in southwest Florida with ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

The Saudis came to the FBI’s attention after neighbors reported they’d suddenly fled their home near Sarasota two weeks before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“One of the great criticisms of the pre-9/11 intelligence operations,” Castor wrote in her letter to the committee’s two senior members, “was the lack of cooperation and information sharing among agencies.”

Castor’s district includes Sarasota.

“I encourage you to investigate the matter and determine exactly what was investigated and reported to Congress in 2001 and during the years of inquiry thereafter regarding these individuals,” she wrote.

The letter was sent to Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan and ranking Democrat Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation into what went on at the three-bedroom luxury home at 4224 Escondito Circle in a gated-community near Sarasota was disclosed in simultaneous reports in Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald on Thursday.

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired a bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said the FBI never disclosed that probe to Congress, but should have. He said the news about Sarasota “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.”

The FBI’s Miami office released a brief statement Friday confirming the investigation, and stating that no relation to the events of 9/11 was found. The statement provided no details, but added that  the bureau had disclosed to Congress everything it knew about 9/11. Graham later called that assertion “total B.S.”

On Monday afternoon, in an appearance on the Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC Graham announced that he spoke with President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor.

“I laid out what we now know about what occurred in Sarasota and urged him to pursue an investigation in this matter, both in Sarasota and elsewhere,” Graham said.

In an earlier in interview with Broward Bulldog, Graham said he intended to specifically alert Obama’s top counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan.

The home the agents raided in October 2001 when it was owned by a Saudi couple, Esam Ghazzawi and his American born wife, Deborah. The residents were their daughter, Anoud, and her husband Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii. The house was sold in 2003, records show.

Two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the al-Hiijjii’s hurriedly left their luxury home – leaving behind a brand new car in the driveway, a house full of furniture, a refrigerator full of food, clothes in the closet — and an open, empty safe in the master bedroom.

A security administrator for the Prestancia development, Larry Berberich, and a counterterrorism agent said that checks of license plates and phone records linked 9/11 hijackers, including leader Mohamed Atta.

On Monday, Graham told a nationwide audience that the FBI also did not disclose to the Joint Inquiry information about another pre-9/11 incident involving local Saudi support for a pair of Saudi-born hijackers – Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi – in San Diego, Ca.

“It was not because the FBI gave us the information. We had a very curious and effective investigator who found out,” Graham said.

The Joint Inquiry report and the 9/11 Commission report describe how Omar al-Bayoumi, who Graham said the FBI had labeled a Saudi “agent,” provided extensive assistance to the hijackers, including flight training. The Joint Inquiry report says al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported that he thought al-Bayoumi was an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The report said the FBI also had determined that al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements.”

Graham said President Obama must find out what the FBI know about possible support contacts between Saudis and the 19 hijackers in other places they operated, including Phoenix, Az; Arlington, Va., Paterson, N.J. and South Florida. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

“What was happening in those places?” Graham said. “I believe these are questions for which there are definitive answers, and that we have been denied that information.”

 

 

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