Miami judge rules out FOIA trial, says FBI document on 9/11 funding to remain secret

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. Photo: Federal Bar Association, South Florida Chapter

Secret FBI information about who funded the 9/11 attacks will remain hidden indefinitely after a Miami federal judge reversed herself last week and decided that the FBI was not improperly withholding it from the public.

At the same time, Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled out holding a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) trial to evaluate the need for such continued secrecy nearly 16 years after the 9/11 attacks. A trial would likely have included testimony from government witnesses in support of continued secrecy as well as others like Bob Graham, the former Florida senator who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 and believes the FBI documents should be made public.

“The court sees no need for further facts to be elicited at trial,” Altonaga wrote in her seven-page order granting the FBI’s request to keep secret large portions of an FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI had argued the information was exempt from public disclosure because it “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

Altonaga’s decision reversed her May 16 order that the 60-page document – referred to in court papers as “Document 22” – that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014, should be largely opened for public inspection. The commission is also known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, Reagan-era attorney general Ed Meese.

Florida Bulldog attorney Thomas Julin said the judge “should have ordered the FBI to stand trial for its decision to withhold information about its investigation.” He added that an appeal is being considered.

“The order requires the FBI to release information that was illegally redacted. That information will shed light on 9/11, but we did not get everything we wanted,” said Julin. “Much of what we did get confirmed the Bulldog’s reporting about Sarasota has been 100 percent correct and the FBI lied to the public about that. This case may be headed to the Supreme Court.”

Graham disappointed by ruling

Sen. Graham was disappointed by the judge’s ruling. He said the FBI’s 9/11 overview likely contains “important information relating to the funding of 9/11 and presumably the role of Saudi Arabia in doing so. Knowledge of these facts could change public opinion and governmental actions as to the liability of the Saudis as allies and the wisdom of us supplying them with hundreds of billions of dollars of military armaments.”

Bob Graham

Graham said, “The court essentially accepted without detailed substantiation the FBI’s assertions that techniques and procedures would potentially be compromised. I believe a trial was needed at which those unsubstantiated statements would be challenged with questions such as, ‘Over the 16 years since the events of 9/11 occurred have these techniques and procedures which proved to be so ineffective in preventing 9/11 been continued?’”

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported in September 2011 about a secret FBI investigation into a Saudi family living in Sarasota who abruptly departed their home in an upscale, gated community about two weeks before the 9/11 attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator. A senior counterterrorism agent said authorities later found phone records and gatehouse security records that linked the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji to 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta.

The FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade. Former Sen. Graham has said the FBI did not disclose it to either the Joint Inquiry or the original 9/11 Commission.

An April 2002 FBI report released by the FBI during the litigation confirmed that account, saying agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI has since sought to discredit that report, saying the unnamed agent who wrote it had no basis for doing so.

The lawsuit forced the FBI to review 1,858 pages of records and to release parts of 713 pages. The FBI withheld 1,145 pages.

“The FBI violated FOIA by failing to respond to the Bulldog’s request for the Meese Commission records,” said Julin. “The Bulldog would not have gotten any of the records if it had not filed the lawsuit.”

The FBI PowerPoint pages Judge Altonaga has now ruled should remain under wraps include:

  • Two pages titled “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding”
  • Pages titled: “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-pilots arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases”; “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • Four pages titled “Ongoing Investigation”

Who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks is the central question at issue in complex civil litigation in New York in which 9/11 victims – survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 dead and businesses that suffered property damage – are seeking enormous damages from the oil-rich monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The country has denied any role in funding the September 11 attacks.

Seeking 9/11 Review Commission files

Florida Bulldog, through its corporate parent Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016, seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission, a congressionally authorized body whose duties included reviewing new evidence not considered by Congress or the original 9/11 Commission. The Review Commission, whose members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI, issued its report in March 2015.

The FBI released a heavily redacted copy of its 9/11 Overview in February. The FBI cited national security, privacy and other reasons to withhold much information, including Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects law enforcement “techniques and procedures.”

On May 16, Judge Altonaga ruled that the FBI had “failed to meet its burden in establishing Exemption 7(E) applies to the redacted information” in the 9/11 Overview because “much of it does not discuss any FBI investigative techniques and procedures; instead the material often encompasses facts and information gathered FBI suspects.”

In early June, the FBI asked Altonaga to reconsider her ruling, arguing that while the overview doesn’t “discuss techniques and procedures, the information contained in the document could still reveal” them. For example, the FBI said it had withheld a photograph taken by a security camera because its release “would disclose the location of the security camera,” possibly enabling future terrorists to circumvent detection.

Attorneys for Florida Bulldog countered that security measures have changed “immensely” since 9/11 and the government had not shown that security measures “that supposedly would be revealed would be of any utility to future terrorists.”

Altonaga’s new order doesn’t address that argument, but nevertheless sided with the FBI, saying the redactions are “necessary to prevent disclosure of FBI techniques or procedures.”

Former Sen. Graham said what’s happened, including the FBI’s resistance to disclosing classified information about 9/11 and who was behind it, is evidence that the Freedom of Information Act needs significant reform.

“The most fundamental question now is whether the Freedom of Information Act as currently written and administered is a barrier to Americans’ fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” Graham said.

Judge Altonaga’s order requires the government to draft a proposed final summary judgment order for the court’s consideration by July 11.

 

FBI asks Miami judge to reconsider, keep secret ‘sensitive details’ about 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 9/11 hijackers

The FBI is pushing back against a federal judge’s findings that certain classified details about the funding of the 9/11 attacks and the 19 al Qaeda suicide hijackers should be made public.

Specifically, the government is asking Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to reconsider her May 16 ruling that would largely open for public inspection a 60-page FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI showed the overview to the 9/11 Review Commission in secret on April 25, 2014.

The FBI released some of the overview’s pages in full earlier this year, but many more were either partially blanked out or withheld completely for privacy or other reasons. The overview and numerous other FBI records are the focus of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog one year ago.

Here’s what an FBI official told the court last week about four blanked-out PowerPoint slides regarding “the transfer of money prior to and funding of the attacks”:

“The release of this information would reveal sensitive details about how much money was being moved around, when it was being moved, how it was being moved, the mode of transfer and locations the FBI had detected movements in. Disclosure of this information would provide a playbook to future subjects on how much money one can move around in certain forms without attracting attention,” FBI record chief David M. Hardy said in his sixth declaration in the case.

Questions about who financed the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of sprawling civil litigation brought against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others by survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day. The plaintiffs and their lawyers contend that the kingdom, its official charities and others were responsible. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Florida Bulldog’s Miami FOIA case seeks records of the 9/11 Review Commission. The Bulldog also sued the FBI in 2012 in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records about its 2001-2002 Sarasota investigation of a Saudi family who moved abruptly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal possessions. The probe was triggered by neighbors’ calls to authorities, but the FBI never disclosed its existence to Congress or the original 9/11 Commission.

Six months after that initial FOIA case was filed, the FBI released a small batch of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and the hijackers. In 2014, the FBI told the 9/11 Review Commission in closed session that the agent who wrote the 2002 report had no basis for doing so, but did not further explain or identify the agent.

Also in 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to produce its records about the matter. The FBI turned over all classified records about 9/11 maintained in its Tampa field office — 80,000 pages. The judge continues to review those documents for possible public release.

Trial date sought

Judge Altonaga’s order last month granted in part and denied in part an FBI motion for summary judgment, notably on the lawfulness of the FBI’s redactions of certain information from several records that it has produced. The FBI, however, has not restored any of those redactions, and attorneys for the Bulldog have asked the judge to set a date for trial this summer.

“At trial, the FBI will be required to offer admissible evidence through witnesses – not through inadmissible hearsay by declaration – to attempt to sustain the redactions,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin in a June 2 “Joint Status Report” to the court. “The Bulldog will have the opportunity, in accordance with due process, to cross-examine any FBI witnesses presented.”

The government asked Judge Altonaga to reconsider her prior ruling the same day. The judge has not yet decided whether an FOIA trial is needed, but if one does happen it would be highly unusual.

Hardy, who heads the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS), went on in his most recent declaration to discuss other redacted pages in the 9/11 Overview. He said they were withheld to protect FBI “techniques and procedures not well-known to the public as well as non-public details about the use of well-known techniques and procedures.” Hardy’s descriptions shed some light on what’s in those records.

One page, withheld in full, “is a photo taken by a security camera.” The FBI does not identify the photo’s subject, the date it was taken or its general location.

“This was withheld because the release of this picture would disclose the location of the security camera at the site where the photo was taken. The disclosure would allow future subjects to know where to find the security camera so as to avoid the area in which the camera points, thereby circumventing detection or the ability for the FBI and law enforcement to try to obtain an image of the subject.”

Two more pages from the overview section about the FBI’s “ongoing investigation,” also completely withheld, contain “information about a conspirator and his actions taken in preparation for the attacks. This is sensitive information, which if revealed, would put at risk the collection techniques used to obtain such information. It also reveals sensitivities that future subjects could exploit in the future while planning and performing an attack.”

‘Under the radar’

Another page the FBI wants to remain hidden “contains specific factors deemed pertinent in the analysis of the actions of the hijackers’ concerning financial transactions before September 11, 2001. Disclosure of this information would reveal what the FBI already knows about the hijacker’s [sic] financial actions and how they were able to stay ‘under the radar.’”

The FBI’s Hardy similarly advocates for secrecy regarding:

  • The kinds of weapons and identification the conspirators carried.
  • Information about the arrival of the pilots, intended pilots and conspirators in the U.S.
  • Information about when the conspirators moved to their respective departure cities and the timing of their plane ticket purchases.
  • “A timeline of telephone records and money transfers between conspirators.”
  • Information about “previous flights the conspirators took before the attacks to include the collection and timing and locations of flights.”

Finally, Hardy said that information about “investigative leads derived from forensic analysis” and “leads and the sources of data the FBI finds useful to or significant in its analysis” should also remain veiled.

“The places the FBI does not look for information can be just as telling as the places it does look for information,” Hardy wrote.

In responding to Hardy’s assertions in court papers filed Monday, attorneys for Florida Bulldog noted that the “referenced techniques apparently are those techniques that the 9/11 hijackers evaded on September 11, 2001. One would hope that different techniques are in place today.”

“If anything, the PowerPoint slides might reveal outdated, failed law enforcement acts or omissions,” wrote attorney Julin. “The 9/11 attacks on the United States are a consequence, at least in part, of the failure of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to detect and halt them.”

The government has until Monday, June 19 to file a reply. The judge will then decide whether the case will go to trial.

Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York World Trade Center’s North Tower ablaze on Sept. 11, 2001

In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.

At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.

A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.

Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.

Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).

“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”

Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:

‘Significant public interest’

“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”

The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.

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

Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.

Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”

The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:

  • “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
  • “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.’’
  • “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided.”
  • “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”
  • “July – August 2001: Knife purchases”
  • “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
  • “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
  • “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.

Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.

A future king’s involvement

Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.

The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”

Saudi King Salman presenting President Trump the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal on Saturday at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Photo: Al Arabiya English

Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.

The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.

Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

Smoke rising after the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Val McClatchey

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.

Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.

After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.

FBI tries to discredit own report

In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.

Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.

One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.

The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.

In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”

The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.

Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”

On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.

“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”

Mysterious Saudi businessman in 9/11 puzzle surfaces – online

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City, September 11, 2001

A mysterious figure at the center of the puzzle about an apparent Sarasota-area support network for 9/11 hijackers is a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.

Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, son of a former Saudi ambassador, stepped from the shadows recently when he posted a website publicizing his extravagant design work for Saudi royalty and details about his background. He did not, however, respond to Florida Bulldog emailed requests for comment.

State records show that Ghazzawi, 66, and his American-born wife, Deborah, owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota that became the focus of an FBI investigation after neighbors reported that its occupants — Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud and his son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji — had abruptly moved out and returned with Ghazzawi to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the terrorist attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.

Authorities later obtained security records from the gated community and determined that cars driven by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the al-Hijjis’ residence. A heavily-censored April 2002 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation says FBI agents found “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI, however, kept those findings secret from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.

(The FBI disavowed its 2002 report in 2014, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the agent who wrote it had no basis to do so. The FBI did not identify the agent or further explain the bizarre turn of events. FBI Director James Comey, fired Tuesday by President Trump, publicly mischaracterized the Review Commission as an independent body when in fact he chose its three members and the FBI paid them.)

A decade passed before the FBI’s Sarasota investigation became public when Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, reported it in September 2011. The FBI soon confirmed the existence of the investigation, but said it found no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. Agents also said the Sarasota probe was reported to Congress.

The newly posted information shows that Ghazzawi is a commercial landscape and interior designer whose companies have handled multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia. Until July 2001 he was also an advisor to Prince Fahd Bin Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud (Prince Fahd), an ex-classmate and eldest son of King Salman, who died that month of heart failure.

Bush, Bhutto and John Major

His website, esamghazzawidesigns.com, features photographs of Ghazzawi’s luxurious designs that have “transformed homes into palaces.” Magazine articles from the early 2000s show him meeting world leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major, the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President George H.W. Bush. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi Best Wishes, George Bush.”

Esam Ghazzawi shaking hands with George H.W. Bush in an undated photo signed by the former president. The photo was taken during one of Bush’s visits to Saudi Arabia, according to the Arab language magazine “The House”

An English-language article describes Ghazzawi as a father of five who graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and attended college in the U.S., obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Chapman College in Orange, CA. “Mr. Ghazzawi maintains residences all over the world – the family’s primary residence (which is a sprawling beach house) is in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf. (He) also has a large city penthouse in Riyadh and other secondary residences” in London, Sarasota and Arlington, VA, says the article in On Design magazine. 

Ghazzawi was described as providing turnkey design services “primarily for grand scale residential interiors within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” His clients were said to be “well educated, well-traveled and very affluent. To date, most have been high-ranking government hierarchy in his home country.”

Ghazzawi, through his Esam Arabia Projects Est. and the Luxury Home Collection Ltd., boasted a “full-time staff” of architects, draftsmen, artists and CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) operators. “It is not unusual for Mr. Ghazzawi to have hundreds of workers on site at one time,” the article in On Design says.

An example is Esam Arabia’s 1998-2001work as the principal contractor on a $28-million landscape and lighting project to create a “paradise-setting” at Yamama Palace in Riyadh, the residence of Prince Abdul Azziz bin Fahd, son of then King Fahd. California-based Lee-Wolfe and Associates provided project management. Company co-owner Paul L. Wolfe said he knew Ghazzawi, but declined to be interviewed.

Former British Prime Minister John Major with Prince Fahd bin Salman, center, and Esam Ghazzawi in an undated photograph.

The FBI closely guards its files on Ghazzawi and has steadfastly refused to release even his name – except once in an apparent oversight while processing documents for release to Florida Bulldog.

The documents were a copy of a letter and a list of phone numbers received by the FBI on July 23, 2002. Details about the letter and the list were blanked out, but the “title” of the file into which they were placed – Esam Ghazzawi – was not.

The FBI’s interest in Ghazzawi, while cryptic, is longstanding. In 2003, according to Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, an FBI agent sought to enlist McKay’s help in convincing Ghazzawi to return to Florida to sign legal documents regarding his Sarasota property. The ploy failed.

Ghazzawi on FBI watch list

In 2011, a counter-terrorism agent told author Summers, who with Robbyn Swan wrote the 9/11 history The Eleventh Day, that Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on an FBI watch list and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

The government’s pre-9/11 interest in Ghazzawi likely included his ties to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), or as it came to be known by law enforcement, the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.”  Ghazzawi had three accounts at BCCI’s London branch worth about $400,000, according to a 1996 appeals court ruling published in The Times of London.

Bank liquidators contended Ghazzawi was a nominee owner of the funds and that the true owner was his employer at the time, Prince Fahd. The liquidators had claimed the funds pursuant to a guarantee the prince had given regarding an overdrawn account.

Esam Ghazzawi posing in an undated advertisement for his Saudi company, Luxury Home Collection, in the Arab language magazine, The House.

Ghazzawi is today a member of the board of directors of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, a Saudi company that sponsors multinational companies in Saudi Arabia, including United Parcel Service (UPS).

The investigative website Who.What.Why. has reported that Ghazzawi’s brother, Mamdouh, is the executive managing director the parent firm, EIRAD Holding Co. Ltd.

According to The House of Saud in Commerce, a detailed study of Saudi royal entrepreneurship published in 2001 prior to 9/11, EIRAD was headed by Prince Fahd until his death later that year.

EIRAD had ties to the U.S. intelligence community. “In June 1995, the U.S. government approved a business venture between Orbital Imaging Corp. of the USA and EIRAD International for the supply of satellite images to the government and commercial customers in the Middle East,” the book says.

Orbital Imaging, later known as GeoEye, had contracts to provide reconnaissance for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The company is now owned by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.

Business ties to Bin Laden family

The book says Prince Fahd’s other business interests included Saudi Ceramics Co., whose “prominent Saudi partners” included the Bin Laden family. Today, EIRAD’s chairman is another son of King Salman, Prince Sultan bin Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the former pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force who in 1985 was an astronaut payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Court papers filed last month by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog in its FOIA litigation argue that it “is now clear that substantial evidence exists that Esam Ghazzawi was not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen, but rather was (and is) an uber-wealthy Saudi whose father, Abbas Ghazzawi, had been a Saudi ambassador and close associate of at least three Saudi kings.” Photographs of Abbas Ghazzawi in an article posted on his son’s website reportedly depict him with Saudi Kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd.

Abbas Ghazzawi in undated photos with Saudi King Faisal, left and King Fahd.

Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi, 84, is a Saudi diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, as recently as a decade ago, was ambassador to Germany, according to Who’s Who in the Arab World. Declassified diplomatic cables posted by the State Department show that in 1979 Ghazzawi, was political counsel for the Ministry for Eastern Affairs, represented Saudi Arabia in sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats regarding Soviet military units in Afghanistan, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and terrorist incidents inside Saudi Arabia.

Esam Ghazzawi’s son, Adel Ghazzawi, 46, is also prominent. He is a prior board member at the East-West Institute, the New York think tank whose board members include ex-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Adel Ghazzawi is the founder of Conektas, a company based in the United Arab Emirates that helps foreign companies establish businesses in the Middle East.

According to Relationship Science, which bills itself as the world’s “most powerful database of decision makers,” Adel Ghazzawi is on the board of directors of Arabtec Saudi Arabia LLC. Arabtec Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, set up its Saudi subsidiary in 2009 as a joint venture with CPC Services (Construction Products Holding Company), a member of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, and Prime International Group Services.

At the time, Emirates Business quoted an Adel Ghazzawi, whom it identified as Prime International’s chief executive officer. Ghazzawi told the news service that he began discussions with Arabtec. “We initiated discussions two months ago and have been working very closely with Arabtec Holdings on moving their business into Saudi along with the Bin Laden Group.”

Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.

Panama Papers

Curiously, Prime International surfaced last year in the Panama Papers case, the trove of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing private financial information about hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Such entities are legal, but have been used to commit fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.

The website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies Prime International Group Services Ltd. as having been established in 2004 in the British Virgin Islands, and as being beneficially owned by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, the former astronaut. Its intermediary is listed as the Fahad Al-Nabet law office in Riyadh, and its overseas agent as the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That firm’s founders, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, were arrested in February on money-laundering charges.

About two years after the al-Hijjis moved out their Sarasota home, Adel Ghazzawi tried to get a homeowner’s association lien removed so the house could be sold. The discussions proved to be contentious, according to then-property manager Jone Weist.

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

The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that while the al-Hijjis lived in the Prestancia development, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi were frequent visitors to the home they shared with their small children. Florida Bulldog recently has learned that in the summer of 2001 Anoud al-Hijji’s 18-year-old brother, Salman Ghazzawi, also lived at the home.

In 2013, the newspaper interviewed Carla DiBello, who knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi several times. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” DiBello said.

Florida Bulldog’s court papers contend that evidence of contacts between Ghazzawi’s family and 9/11 hijackers provide “additional evidence…of possible Saudi support for the 9/11 attacks…and should have triggered a full-scale and thorough investigation by the FBI.” Instead, the FBI “deliberately concealed” those contacts from congressional investigators to protect the Ghazzawis or “negligently failed to conduct a proper investigation of the possibility of complicity of Ghazzawi family members in the 9/11 attacks,” the court papers say.

FBI records that have been released indicate that as of 2004, the FBI apparently had not interviewed Ghazzawi about what happened in Sarasota.

Florida Bulldog’s attorneys Thomas Julin, Raymond Miller, Kyle Teal and Anaili Cure of the Gunster law firm argued the FBI is today “improperly” withholding records “not because those records would harm national security” or otherwise cause harm, but “rather because disclosure…would result in valid, important public criticism of the actions that the FBI took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

The lawyers asked Miami U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga to set the case for trial “to determine whether the FBI has conducted an adequate search and whether it has properly withheld and redacted responsive records.”

The government, however, has asked the judge to rule on those issues without a public trial, which would likely include testimony by former Sen. Graham, who has accused the FBI of covering up for the Saudis.

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.

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘many connections’ FBI report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altonaga’s order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payments to staff

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

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

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

FBI Director James Comey

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

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

The 2002 report, released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid a separate and ongoing FOIA lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale, corroborated earlier reporting by the Bulldog in collaboration with Irish author Anthony Summers that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. That reporting showed that the FBI began its probe after being summoned by neighbors who told them that Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji had moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings. The home was owned by Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to the late Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a nephew of former King Fahd, and eldest son of Saudi Arabia’s current monarch, King Salman. The prince died in July 2001 at age 46.

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

The Sarasota Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heavily redacted Memorandum for the Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raurell did not identify those 27 government agencies.

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

Records of ‘paramount’ importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual affair between Miami judge, witness alleged amid tainted U.S. court proceedings

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

A dozen years ago, Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sentenced Martin Chambers to 15 years in prison after a two-week trial at which a jury found him guilty in a scheme to launder millions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel. Chambers, a Canadian, remains imprisoned today.

For years, hushed allegations have swirled that Judge Ungaro slept with the government’s key witness in the case – a dashing Royal Canadian Mounted Police undercover agent

Ungaro’s ex-husband, who claims the affair ruined his marriage, first made the scandalous allegations along with related assertions about alleged misconduct by an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor.

Later, the alleged affair was cited as evidence of judicial bias in Canadian court proceedings that sought to win Chambers’ release. The allegations also were briefly a focus of the FBI in Miami, which appears to have done little to investigate them despite a referral from then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta.

The allegations, too, were the subject of tainted U.S. court proceedings before Judge Ungaro herself.

Records show that Chambers, acting as his own lawyer, sought a hearing in March 2012 after learning of Ungaro’s alleged “sexual affair” with William “Bill” Majcher, an important investigator in the case against him.

Judge Ungaro, however, dismissed the case without a hearing less than a month later. She did so even though Chambers’ petition was all about her alleged misconduct, and how her actions may have corrupted the trial or sentencing.

Further, Ungaro ruled after having twice before disqualified herself from hearing matters involving Chambers. Five months later, she would recuse herself a third time after Chambers raised the matter again.

JUDGE  UNGARO ISN’T TALKING

Ungaro’s orders do not say why she recused herself, and she did not respond to detailed requests for comment by FloridaBulldog.org. Federal judicial canons, however, require judges to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Asked about the matter, Chief Judge K. Michael Moore declined to comment.

Martin Chambers  Photo: CBCNews

Martin Chambers
Photo: CBCNews

The story of the relationship between the federal judge and the Royal Canadian Mountie, and its possible impact on justice in the case of Martin Chambers, got limited media attention in Canada in 2012, but has remained largely under wraps in South Florida where Chambers was convicted in a high-profile FBI-led sting operation, “Bermuda Short,” that targeted money laundering and securities fraud.

While Ungaro would not comment, Majcher, who lives in Hong Kong and states on his Linkedin profile that he retired from the RCMP in 2007, denied any impropriety.

“I will be very clear…there was zero relationship between myself and Judge Ungaro during trial, or before sentencing,” Majcher said in an email. “For the record, I became friends with Judge Ungaro the year after the Chambers trial when I was in Miami for trial preparation on an unrelated accused in front of a different judge.”

FBI agents twice interviewed Judge Ungaro’s ex-husband, former Miami lobbyist Michael Benages, in July 2008. Among those agents was then Miami Special Agent-in-Charge Jonathan I. Solomon.

FBI 302 reports of those interviews, with some redactions, were released later to Benages in response to his Freedom of Information request. Benages provided copies to FloridaBulldog.org and other news organizations.

In an interview, former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said Benages first came to him. “He did bring this to my attention and I referred him to the FBI to make sure it got seriously vetted,” said Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.

The trial of Martin Chambers on five counts of money laundering began on Aug. 21, 2003 and a jury found him guilty on all counts two weeks later. Judge Ungaro sentenced Chambers to 188 months in jail on December 5, 2003.

In an interview, Benages said he does not know precisely when the affair occurred, but believes it happened after the trial, but before sentencing. “But the courting started before,” he said.

BENAGES TALKS TO FBI

Benages told the FBI agents that around Christmas 2003, shortly before she moved out of their home, Ungaro admitted to an affair with a Mountie, who was a witness in a money laundering trial, calling it a “mistake.” Ungaro later told Benages the Mountie had informed her that an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and an FBI agent said Benages “was about to be indicted,” the report says.

Benages did not recall the Mountie’s last name. But he said Ungaro soon filed for divorce even though the story about his impending indictment proved to be untrue.

Michael Benages

Michael Benages

“Approximately three or four months later, [Name Redacted] told Benages that the [Redacted] admitted to her that the FBI and the AUSA had told him that it was all a joke and Benages was not really going to be indicted. [Redacted] stated that she knew who the FBI agent was, however, did not provide Benages with the name,” according to a July 30, 2008 FBI report.

Benages filled in the blanks in a recent interview. He said he told the FBI that it was Ungaro who told him that Mountie Majcher had informed her that talk of an indictment was a “joke.”

At the time, Benages didn’t know the names of either Majcher or Chambers and he wanted the FBI to investigate. The reports make clear, however, that the FBI was more interested in asking Benages about any corruption he might have witnessed during his work as a lobbyist.

“Why wasn’t this investigated more seriously?” asked Benages’ attorney Joseph Carballo.

Miami FBI spokesman Jim Marshall said, “We have no further comment/information on this matter.”

The FBI reports say Benages offered the “theory” that he was specifically targeted by the false story of his imminent indictment. Benages speculated to agents that it was Marcos Jimenez, Miami U.S. Attorney from 2002-2005, who was responsible.

Benages explained to the FBI that Jimenez had had trouble getting confirmed as U.S. Attorney because of an incident between Jimenez and his wife, and Jimenez knew that Benages was privy to an FBI background report about that incident.

“Benages stated that [Redacted] lied twice on his FBI report. Benages explained that the FBI report had been provided to his wife and that she had told him about the report in bed. Benages stated that he had not seen the FBI report, however, that Ursula told him that [Redacted] had denied in the report that he had beat his wife with a hammer, which had caused her to admit herself into the hospital under a false name,” the report says.

AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE?

“The FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney knew about the inappropriate relationship and exploited it to cause a rift between my wife and myself and intimidate me into staying quiet about what I knew about their boss, Marcos Jimenez,” Benages said in related paperwork filed later with the Department of Justice.

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Ungaro and Benages divorced in 2004. In August of that year, after Chambers appealed his conviction, Ungaro signed an “order of recusal as to Martin G. Chambers.” The case was reassigned to Miami U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.

Court records show that Ungaro’s recusal didn’t keep her from ruling against Chambers three years later, on Aug. 27, 2007, after his Miami attorney, Gerald Houlihan, asked the court to vacate Chambers’ sentence.

Ungaro disqualified herself again six months later, Feb. 4, 2008, a few days after Houlihan asked the court for “compassion” and support for Chambers’ application to be transferred to a Canadian prison so he could “serve the remainder of his sentence close to his family.”

Ungaro again gave no reason for her recusal, but it caused the clerk’s office to reassign the case again, this time to Judge Cecilia Altonaga.

The twin recusals meant that two federal judges, Altonaga and Martinez, were now assigned to Chambers’ case. The unusual result: two separate judicial rulings on the same motion. Martinez denied the motion seeking support for a mercy transfer on Feb. 5, 2008. Altonaga denied it again on March 28, court records show.

Four years later, on March 26, 2012, Chambers went back to court as his own attorney after learning of Benages’ accusation that Judge Ungaro had had a “sexual affair” with Majcher “during the pendency of my criminal case.”

“The validity of the entire investigation was based on the credibility of RCMP Officer William Majcher, the individual who had this alleged relationship with the judge,” wrote Chambers. “It is absolutely essential that the petitioner be given a hearing to be able to establish the nature of the relationship between the trial court and the chief RCMP investigator, and the time-frame within which that relationship occurred.”

Like the prior motion to vacate sentence, Chamber’s motion citing newly discovered evidence was immediately given a new case number by the clerk’s office and assigned to Judge Ungaro.

Two days later Magistrate Patrick White recommended the motion be denied on technical grounds. On April 19, 2012, Ungaro adopted White’s recommendation and signed an order closing the case without a hearing. It was the second time she ruled against Chambers after disqualifying herself.

UNGARO UPHELD ON APPEAL

Ungaro’s ruling was upheld a week later by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that even if true “the newly discovered evidence” of a sexual affair between the trial judge and a government witness “has no bearing on Chambers’ actual guilt or innocence in the money-laundering offenses.”

The court did not address whether it was proper, or legal, for Judge Ungaro to rule in the case after having disqualified herself.

On May 29, 2012, again from his prison cell, Chambers petitioned the district court for what’s known as a writ of error coram nobis, claiming Ungaro was biased against him, the government failed to disclose its knowledge of the alleged affair and that he was denied due process.The clerk’s office again assigned the case to Ungaro despite her prior recusals.

Ungaro dated her third unexplained recusal order on Aug. 1, 2012, though it was not docketed until two days later. In between, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales filed court papers opposing a hearing and calling the matter “a delayed regurgitation of gossip”.

Chambers’ “claim only rises to the level of hearsay that, even if true, would merely establish an appearance of bias or impropriety,” Morales wrote.

Magistrate White again recommended the case be dismissed. Judge Martinez adopted the recommendation and closed the case on Sept. 28, 2012.

While Chambers attempted to litigate in court, Benages pursued an unsuccessful $5.5 million damages claim at the Justice Department starting in 2009. The alleged damages included the cost of his divorce, the loss of marital assets and related health ills that led to “the demise of my lucrative lobbying business and consulting law practice.”

The complaints contain additional details, including Benages’ assertion that “in the second half of 2003” he and his wife dined with Majcher and another Mountie at a local restaurant. Before the dinner, he said, “Ursula received a gift of an authentic Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat.”

In other interviews, Benages narrowed the time of the dinner as in September or October of that year.

FBI “BLACK BAG OPERATIONS”?

Benages also accused the FBI in a July 2012 complaint of twice conducting “black bag operations” against him during the previous year “in preparation for what they expected would be litigation on my part.”

Benages claimed to have spotted an FBI car parked near his home in Coral Gables, then discovered that supporting documentation for his claim “had disappeared.” He said a similar incident occurred after he moved to Wilton Manors.

Benages’ lawyer said in a recent interview that about the same time documents relating to Benages that he kept stored on his computer also went missing.

“It could have been that they were wiped clean by mistake, but I doubt it,” said Joseph Carballo, who at the time had an office at 717 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. “I didn’t realize it had happened until months later when Michael Benages asked me for a copy of the file and I went to look for it and it wasn’t there.”

“I recall seeing emails from his ex-wife where they were smoking gun type emails…that suggested, that kind of corroborated that she was having an affair with someone in the time frame that he’s talking about,” said Carballo.

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Martin Chambers remains at a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas. His scheduled release date is Sept. 7, 2016.

Chambers’ attorney is John W. Conroy of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Conroy said recent efforts on Chambers’ behalf have focused on getting him transferred back to Canada rather than building a case for judicial bias.

“We were trying to find out what happened from the RCMP. We believe Majcher was disciplined in some way, but we were unable to get to the truth,” said Conroy.

Conroy said that both the U.S. and Canada have now agreed to transfer Chambers to Canada, where he would be eligible for immediate release under Canadian law. Chambers could be returned to Canada as soon as next month.

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