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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Tampa Field Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Censored on the CIA’s orders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claim of privacy hides names of FBI agents

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

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

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

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

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

9/11 terrorists, submersibles and an untold Fort Lauderdale story

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

On September 12, 2001, Fort Lauderdale businessman Bill Brown’s morning routine began like most others. After dropping his young daughter off at day care, the widower drove to work at his marine accessories store, The Nautical Niche.

What Brown says happened next was anything but ordinary. The parking lot of his store at 2301 S. Federal Highway was filled with federal agents and police.

“As soon as I arrived, they asked if we could go inside and talk,” said Brown. “They gave me a name and asked me who the person was. I wasn’t familiar with the name and I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ An agent said that he and several other men were the ones who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” the day before.

Confused, Brown replied that he knew nothing about the attacks. “Well, your phone number was the most prominent on his call list and it looks like you had a substantial relationship together,” an agent said. “We want to know his association with you.”

Agents from the FBI, CIA, U.S. Customs and Immigration were present that morning, but it was the FBI that took the lead, Brown said. They copied his sales records and later had Brown take a lie detector test in which he was asked only a couple of questions about his patriotism.

“I gave them complete access to our computer and anything I had,” Brown said. “We come to find out…they were customers of mine.”

Bill Brown

Bill Brown

Brown said it was determined that one or more hijackers had purchased between four and eight K-10 hydrospeeder submersibles in multiple transactions at a cost of $20,000 apiece. The now-retired Brown, 60, recalled that one or two of those high performance diver propulsion vehicles was shipped to Singapore, while another was sent to a location in the Northeast U.S. He recollects that shell companies were used in some transactions.

“They were sent all over,” said Brown, who told the South Florida Business Journal in 2002 that his store, which catered to the desires of super-rich yacht owners, had gross revenues of more than $6 million in 2000.

Brown, who Florida corporate records show sold his business in 2007, does not recall the shipping addresses, or the names of the recipients for those pre-9/11 transactions. Nor does he remember the name of the hijacker(s) who purchased them, either in person or via the internet.

A ‘significant cell’ broken

Brown does remember, however, that an FBI agent later told him the Singapore sale was traced back to its recipient and that “a significant cell” of terrorists was broken up as a result.

The FBI in Miami declined a detailed request for comment. Instead, a spokesman suggested that a reporter file a Freedom of Information request, a process that can take years.

The matter remained out of public view for 15 years until Brown came forward after seeing an advance newspaper article about Thursday’s 9/11 panel discussion at Nova Southeastern University hosted by the Florida Bulldog. He said investigators from the 9/11 Commission, or its predecessor, Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, never contacted him.

The Joint Inquiry’s co-chairman, former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham, said in an interview that he was unaware of the FBI’s 15-year-old investigation of the submersibles purchase by a 9/11 hijacker.

“This is potentially significant. Why were we not made aware of this? You’ll need to ask the FBI why they didn’t feel, as they apparently felt with information about what happened in Sarasota, that this wasn’t worthy of sending up the line.”

Graham referred to an FBI investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota who moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Florida Bulldog, working with author Anthony Summers, disclosed the existence of that investigation in September 2011, and reported that agents found evidence – including gatehouse entry logs and photos of license plates – that Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited the residence of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji. Reports later released by the FBI said the family had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.

The FBI quickly identified the hijackers using flight manifests, information in recovered baggage and documents found where the hijacked jets crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Some names, like that of ringleader Mohamed Atta, appeared in news stories the next day.

What plans the al Qaeda hijackers or their leaders had for the submersibles is not known. However, in 2003 the Christian Science Monitor reported that “one of the biggest concerns” of U.S. officials at the time was that terrorists were targeting ports and ships. The newspaper cited a Department of Defense exercise “Impending Storm” that simulated several types of ship-borne attacks on U.S. cities.

al Qaeda and mini-subs

In 2013, CNN reported about a 17-page letter found at Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound that laid out a detailed al Qaeda strategy for attacking targets in the U.S. and Europe. The letter was written to bin Laden in March 2010 by senior al Qaeda planner Younis al-Mauretani, and among other things discussed using “mini-submarines” to plant explosives on undersea pipelines, CNN said.

Brown kept no business records after he sold The Nautical Niche, and his story is not documented in local public records. For example, Fort Lauderdale police have no record of a service call to The Nautical Niche on September 12, 2001. A department records official, however, said that back then calls to assist another agency were sometimes not documented.

Brown has talked privately about his experience over the years.

“He told me about the incident that happened to him back then,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly. “His dad worked in the Kennedy Administration.”

Donnelly was the prosecutor who tried and convicted Robert Stapf in September 2001 for the 1998 stabbing murder of Brown’s wife, Caron.

“I was on the witness stand in trial,” said Brown. “Someone came crashing in the courtroom’s back door screaming, ‘We’re under attack! Someone flew into the World Trade Center!”

Donnelly recalled that Judge Dan True Andrews quickly suspended court for the rest of the day. The next morning, the feds were waiting for Brown at The Nautical Niche.

Brown’s former bookkeeper and sales assistant, Adelle Savage of Delray Beach, said he told her what happened shortly after she began working at The Nautical Niche in 2002 or 2003.

‘I can attest to that’

“In the course of conversation…he told me about how when he arrived that morning all the cops and agents were there. They thought he was connected before they realized that he had no idea who he was selling to,” said Savage. “I can attest to that.”

Savage also said that on several occasions Miami FBI agents David Grazer and George Nau came to the store to see Brown. Brown identified the same agents in a separate interview, saying he “maintained a relationship with the FBI handlers who kept on eye on me.”

“Obviously, my life was at risk for cooperating with the feds. We didn’t know if some of these people were still down here or what,” Brown said.

Brown described The Nautical Niche, which displayed a yellow submarine in its front window, as a kind of Sharper Image for yacht owners. The Business Journal’s 2002 story reported The Travel Channel had “included The Nautical Niche on its list of places for a show called, ‘How to Spend a Million.’ ”

Brown said his clientele were often billionaires, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and included various Middle Eastern royalty, including members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud.

The Nautical Niche’s sale of the submersibles that interested federal agents, however, was different from the company’s other large transactions because the purchasers paid cash. “They would go to my bank and make counter deposits,” said Brown. The amounts deposited were about $5,000, low enough to avoid federal reporting requirements.

At the time of the sales, Brown didn’t question the transactions. “In the yachting business there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t ask questions. People like their privacy.”

The release of the 28 pages isn’t the last word in the search for who was behind 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

It took 13 1/2 years and enormous public and political pressure to force President Obama to order today’s release of the suppressed chapter from Congress’s Joint Inquiry report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 suicide hijackers.

The pages, however, were not released in full. Nearly every page is speckled with black marks where information was redacted. In some cases, those deletions are of entire paragraphs, almost certainly meaning that controversy about the 28 pages will continue.

Those 28 pages, however, aren’t nearly the last word about the people and events behind 9/11. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of additional U.S. government investigative documents about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks remain classified.

“I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and has long advocated for the public release of the chapter that was withheld from publication at the direction of President George W. Bush.

The declassification process that led to today’s release of the 28 pages was first sought three years ago by the Florida Bulldog and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, represented by Miami attorney Thomas Julin. The Joint Inquiry’s 838-page report described the hidden chapter as being about “specific sources of foreign sources of support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In September 2014, in response to criticism that President Obama had failed to keep his promise to 9/11 family members that he would release the 28 pages, the White House announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “coordinating the required interagency review” of the 28 pages for possible declassification.

The declassification review, however, did not include a review of numerous other secret government documents about 9/11 generated by the FBI, CIA, Treasury and State departments and the National Security Agency – or even the 9/11 Commission itself.

The FBI alone has acknowledged that a single field office in Tampa holds 80,000 classified pages about 9/11. Those records are being reviewed for possible public release by the presiding federal judge in a Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent in 2012.

The suit seeks the release of FBI files about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to the hijackers who abruptly moved out of their home and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other possessions.

Last month, 19 survivors and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11th sent a letter to President Obama asking him to designate for “prompt declassification” nine categories of documents “relevant to responsibility for the events of 9/11.”

“We hope and trust that you regard the release of the 28 pages as only a first step in responding to the public calls for transparency and accountability,” the letter says.

The records requested for declassification are:

  • Documents about the involvement of government-sponsored Saudi religious institutions in supporting al Qaeda. The letter identified 10 organizations that should be subject to declassification review, including the Muslim World League, Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Saudi Red Crescent Society and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
  • Documents concerning further investigations of the transactions, relationships and issues discussed in the 28 pages.
  • Unreleased records of the 9/11 Commission. In 2004, the Commission had urged that all of its records, to the greatest extent possible, be made publicly available by January 2009. “More than seven years after that target date, the bulk of the Commission’s records have not been processed for declassification at all, and the limited records that have been released are in many cases so heavily-redacted as to be of little use to the American public,” the letter says.
  • Documents relating to the activities, interactions, relationships, contacts and financial transactions of the 9/11 hijackers in Florida and other areas of the United States.
  • Documents about al Qaeda’s wealthy Gulf donors and support by Islamic banks and financial institutions. Those listed are: Al Rajhi Bank, National Commercial Banks, Saudi American Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, al Shamal Islamic Bank, Faisal Finance and al Baraka.
  • Records relating to Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to promote Wahhabi Islam” and the “relationship between those efforts and terrorist activity, fundraising and recruitment.” Those records are “especially pertinent” because employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Saudi Embassy and in consulates “were implicated as possibly having provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.” Also, records about “as many as 70” Saudi diplomats associated with Islamic Affairs whose credentials were revoked in the aftermath of 9/11.
  • Records about other investigations of al Qaeda attacks and operations. The letter seeks the “long overdue” release of records involving the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Bojinka plot and numerous other incidents.

The victims and relatives, who for years have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for damages, expressed concern in their letter that the Obama Administration’s public response to calls for transparency “have focused narrowly on the 28 pages alone.”

“Any meaningful effort to provide the American public with the truth concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the emergence of al Qaeda and the events of 9/11 must encompass the full spectrum of evidence bearing on questions of Saudi culpability, not merely the 28 pages,” the letter says.

saudiarabiamap“By all public accounts, the 28 pages focus on a very discrete set of relationships and transactions relating to Saudi support for two of the 9/11 hijackers once they were already in the United States,” the letter goes on. “While this evidence is critically important, the broader issue, and the one principally raised by our lawsuit against the Kingdom, is the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding and patronage of al Qaeda, and role in spreading the jihadist ideology that gave rise to bin Laden’s organization during the decade leading up to the attacks.”

Efforts to obtain access to other, still-secret 9/11 information are underway. For example, the Florida Bulldog has a number of outstanding Freedom of Information requests that seek FBI and terrorism task force records about the activities of the suicide hijackers in South Florida, northern Virginia and northern New Jersey.

More recent federal documents that may shed light on 9/11 are also being sought for public disclosure.

On June 16, Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records by and about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

The Review Commission was established a decade after the 9/11 Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings and released no transcripts or documents to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 report. The commission’s members and executive director were paid by the FBI in still-secret personal services contracts.

The lawsuit seeks to obtain those records to assess the basis for reliability of the Review Commission’s findings and recommendations, notably its conclusions about a remarkable April 16, 2002 FBI report. That report, released by the FBI after the initial lawsuit was filed, reported that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The FBI report corroborated witness statements that were the basis for a Sept. 8, 2011 story in the Florida Bulldog that first reported the story of the Sarasota Saudis, including the existence of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that the FBI never disclosed it to Congress. It was also a major embarrassment for the Bureau, flatly contradicting the FBI’s public statements that agents had found no connections between the family and the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission concluded that the FBI report was “unsubstantiated” based on statements by unidentified FBI officials calling the report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

FOIA lawsuit disputes 9-11 Review Commission effort to discredit sensational FBI report

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

Two blue ribbon government panels on 9/11, two approaches to public accountability.

The 9/11 Commission held a dozen public hearings before issuing its 567-page report to the nation in 2004. While many of its records remain classified, the commission also made public additional staff studies with detailed information about terrorist financing, terrorist travel and immigration and border security.

The lesser-known FBI 9/11 Review Commission was established a decade later to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings, released no transcripts of its proceedings and provided no supplementary documentation to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 final report.

For more than a year, the FBI has declined to make public any additional information about the 9/11 Review Commission. On Wednesday, for the second time in four years, the FloridaBulldog.org’s nonprofit corporate parent sued the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice – this time using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to seek records about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued in 2012 for access to FBI records about its once- secret investigation of a Saudi family living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. Since 2014, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale has been reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 documents produced by the FBI for possible public release.

Wednesday’s complaint seeks to discover the basis for and the reliability of the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings and recommendations.

Specifically, the lawsuit focuses on the Review Commission’s conclusions about a sensational April 16, 2002 FBI report that investigators found contained “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The report also said a Saudi family member had attended a flight training school attended by the terrorists.

The Review Commission, after reviewing unspecified FBI records and being briefed by the FBI, found that allegations the Saudi family was connected the 9/11 plot were “unsubstantiated” and called the FBI report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Review Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

The “9/11 Review Commission’s finding is false, unsupported by credible evidence, and intended to discredit truthful facts that were accurately reported in the April 16, 2002 FBI report,” says the new FOIA complaint prepared by Miami attorney Thomas Julin.

FBI investigation made public after a decade

The Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota probe days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks in September 2011. Neighbors of Abdulaziz and Anoud al Hijji called authorities after the couple moved abruptly out of their home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said the FBI did not disclose the Sarasota probe to Congress. The matter was also not addressed by the 9/11 Commission.

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

Inside the former home of Abulaziz and Anoud al Hijji at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota

The FBI later acknowledged its investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI also claimed it disclosed its Sarasota investigation to Congress.

In response to the Bulldog’s repeated FOIA requests, the FBI offered no responsive records. Six months after the first lawsuit was filed, however, the FBI released a copy of its April 2002 report, heavily censored for reasons of national security. The report contradicted FBI public statements downplaying the significance of its Sarasota investigation and corroborated the accounts of a counterterrorism officer and others that were the basis for the original news story.

The new FOIA suit comes 14 months after the Bulldog’s initial FOIA request for access to 9/11 Review Commission’s records, including an April 30, 2014 “Memorandum for the Record” about the FBI’s disputed 2002 report.

The FBI has produced no documents in response to those requests nor cited any reason to justify the lack of disclosure. Federal law requires government agencies to determine whether to comply with a FOIA request in 20 working days.

The 9/11 Review Commission was originally proposed by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, as an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold public hearings, compel testimony and retain experts and consultants. After that idea died, a plan for a 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been removed.

FBI Director James Comey later appointed the commission’s three members – Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former 9/11 Commission member and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University security studies professor Bruce Hoffman.

How much did FBI pay commissioners?

The FBI paid the commissioners and commission executive director John C. Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, under personal services contracts that made them de facto FBI employees. Those contracts are among numerous documents sought in the new FOIA suit.

Meese, Hoffman, Roemer and Gannon each declined to be interviewed about the Review Commission.

Congress appropriated a total of $2.5 million to the FBI for the review process. Commissioners were guided by the FBI and, their report makes clear, relied heavily for information on the Bureau and interviews with other government intelligence sources, including CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Transcripts of those interviews are also among the documents the FOIA lawsuit seeks to make public.

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

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

 

The 9/11 Review Commission released the unclassified portion of its 127-page report in March 2015.

The report devotes three pages to its review of the Sarasota probe whose disclosure Sen. Graham has said “opens a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.” The review was confined to its analysis of the April 2002 FBI report, which stated that the FBI said the special agent who wrote it was “unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

The FBI did not identify the agent or explain how he could have made such a serious error. Nevertheless, the agent’s “unsubstantiated” information was repeated in other FBI reports the Bureau subsequently made public.

The FOIA suit seeks a variety of records about the 9/11 Review Commission, including its transcripts, memoranda for the records, personal services contracts with commissioners and staff, draft copies of the final report, FBI briefings titled “Sarasota Family” and “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” and an FBI summary report regarding Fahad al Thumairy.

Thumairy was a diplomat with the Los Angeles Saudi Consulate’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs from 1996-2003. Thumairy, who was also a prayer leader at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, was expelled from the U.S. due to suspected ties to terrorists.

The Bulldog’s complaint asks the court to hear the case quickly and order the defendants to release the requested documents or be required to submit them to the court for review. If the documents are not released, the complaint asks the court to require the government to provide what’s known as a Vaughn index, showing the author, recipients, date and subject of each document.

Finally, the judge was asked to determine if any FBI or DOJ personnel acted “arbitrarily or capriciously” in withholding records. If so, attorney fees and costs can be assessed against the government and those responsible could be punished for contempt and face disciplinary actions.

Its spy vs spy as CIA directors differ on making public 28 hidden pages of 9-11 report

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

CIA Director John Brennan, right, and former CIA Director Porter Goss

CIA Director John Brennan, right, and former CIA Director Porter Goss

Two CIA directors. Two conflicting opinions.

On Monday, former CIA director Porter Goss strongly disagreed with current CIA chief John Brennan’s assertions on Meet the Press as to why President Obama should keep secret 28 classified pages from a 14-year-old congressional report about 9/11 said to implicate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the terrorist attacks.

“I favor full declassification of the 28 pages unless there is a national security reason not to,” Goss told FloridaBulldog.org. “If there is such a reason, I feel the Administration should tell us specifically what it is. I will not settle for generalities about ‘offending allies.’ ”

Brennan, who has been CIA director since 2013, told TV interviewer Chuck Todd Sunday the top secret 28 pages contain information that was “thoroughly investigated” and in some cases found to be inaccurate by the subsequent 9/11 Commission and last year’s lesser-known 9/11 Review Commission.

“I think some people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there that was basically just a collation of this information that came out of FBI files and point to Saudi involvement which I think would be very, very inaccurate,” Brennan said.

The Obama Administration’s Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which includes the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is reviewing the hidden chapter in the 838-page congressional report about “specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.”

The review process for the 28 pages has been underway since June 2013 when the Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., invoked what’s known as the Mandatory Declassification Review process. James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, told reporters last week that an “interagency position on the declassification of the 28 pages” is ongoing and that a decision on whether to release the 28 pages was likely by June.

Goss, who helped write the 28 pages, believes the government will act soon, yet will continue to withhold some information they contain from the public.

“My guess is that some of the 28-page material will be released soon, but some bits will still be redacted. Thus the speculation will continue. I think this will all be settled about the same time everyone agrees about the Kennedy assassination,” Goss said.

Goss, the CIA director from 2004 to 2006, was a veteran Republican congressman from Southwest Florida and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence when in 2002 he was tapped to help lead Congress’s Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. His co-chairman was Florida Sen. Bob Graham, the Democrat who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Rebuffed by the FBI director

Graham has been a leading figure in calling publicly for the release of the 28 pages. In a recent 60 Minutes report, Goss told how Graham and he met with then-FBI Director Robert Mueller before the Joint Inquiry’s report was released to secure declassification of the 28 pages, but were rebuffed.

“I distinctly recall that after Bob [Graham] and I were turned down by Bob Mueller at FBI, we both were disappointed and a bit puzzled about ‘why.’ We were under some time constraints to get our Joint Inquiry Report out and we had the option of handing off the material to the 9/11 Commission for further attention – which we did,” Goss said in an email. “I have never had a satisfactory explanation of why this material has not been declassified – though there may be one.”

The 9/11 Commission’s final report later stated that while “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding … we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)”

As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, Saudi King Salman “actively directed” one Saudi charity that court papers filed by 9/11 victims and their families say was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.”

Goss said he hasn’t “pushed as hard as Bob on this, possibly because I do not think there was any official Saudi State complicity in the 9/11 attacks …

Obviously there could have been a rogue ‘official’ or misguided ‘Royal’ in the mix, but even that is uncertain.

“For me the salient point today is just how tolerant are we as a civilized society to allow exploitation of our freedoms by foreigners who deliberately want to undermine those freedoms with systematic violence and malevolent propaganda,” Goss said.

“I am not sure why the Obama Administration thinks the Radical Islamists are rational enough to negotiate with or emotionally stable enough to live peacefully among us. The concept of trying to appease those who have no interest in anything less than a whole new Caliphate is dangerously foolish. Using mosques as forward based platforms to preach and perform violence is a reality that far outstrips my understanding of Freedom of Religion,” Goss said.

Goss called the continued classification of the 28 pages “a minor irritant compared to the idiocy of ‘over-tolerance’ and mishandling of the real threat by the current (and likely next) Administration.”

“If you surmise that I have low confidence the Administration will tell us the truth, you have a high perception,” said Goss. “I guess they could send [National Security Advisor] Susan Rice out to the Sunday Talk Show Circuit to explain it.”

A stonewall of secrecy hides many 9-11 records on 14th anniversary of terrorist attacks

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Osama bin Laden, left, with his successor as al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Osama bin Laden, left, with his successor as al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri

Seven weeks after the end of the massive cleanup at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in 2002, a legal investigator for the families of 9/11 victims requested a copy of an arrest warrant issued by Interpol for fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Here’s the reply she got from the Justice Department’s Interpol-U.S. National Central Bureau:

“Release of information about a living person without that person’s consent generally constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. You must submit an authorization (privacy waiver) signed by Usama bin Laden, consenting to the USNCB’s release to you of any record that it may have pertaining to him.”

The Justice Department’s assertion of privacy rights for bin Laden is a small rock in the stonewall of official secrecy that continues to hide 9/11 documents held by the FBI, CIA and other government entities on the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Lately, the public focus has been on the 28 blanked-out pages in Congress’s 2002 Joint Inquiry into the attacks regarding “foreign support for the hijackers” – read Saudi Arabia. The pages, withheld by President George W. Bush and kept hidden by President Obama, have been the subject of recent stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times and others. On Capitol Hill, pending bills in the House and Senate seek to open those pages to the public.

Yet hundreds, likely thousands, of significant records about what the 9/11 Commission called “a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States” remain off limits in whole or significant part. The result: an incomplete public understanding of events behind the attacks, and a denial of evidence to 9/11 victims still seeking a measure of justice in the courts.

‘LET OUR PEOPLE KNOW’

“Thousands of pages, photographs and tangible evidence have been withheld, much of which from my personal knowledge has nothing to do with keeping America safer but rather protects incompetence or relations with perfidious foreign governments,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks and helped write the 28 pages.

Bob Graham

Bob Graham

“The United States has paid a high price in justice to injured Americans, national security and confidence in government by this secrecy. It is time to let our people know,” Graham said.

Many hidden 9/11 records are years, even decades old. But some like the classified files and memoranda of the FBI’s secretive 9/11 Review Commission were produced in 2014 and 2015.

The Review Commission, charged with investigating the FBI’s performance and evaluating new information about the attacks, went out of business in March after issuing a 127-page report. The FBI has yet to release any other commission material – transcripts, memos and the like – sought in a Freedom of Information request filed by FloridaBulldog.org in April.

Perhaps the largest untapped source of information about events leading up to 9/11 is the raw intelligence files about al Qaeda and terrorist threats gathered by the eavesdropping National Security Agency.

In his 2008 book “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation,” former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon said Commission investigators neglected to examine that “gold mine” of NSA 9/11 data until days before the commission’s final report was due.

Found in that limited time, and noted in the commission’s report, was “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers…We believe this topic requires future investigation by the U.S. government.”

“There’s a massive amount of information,” Shenon said in an interview last week. “That’s always been on the top of my list of documents I’d like to see.”

Suppressed records are plentiful and easy to locate in the reports of the Joint Inquiry and the footnotes of the follow-up 9/11 Commission. Aside from the notorious 28 pages, the Joint Inquiry’s report contains numerous other blanked-out parts, including six heavily censored pages regarding covert action ordered against bin Laden by President Clinton.

The National Archives manages the 9/11 Commission’s files and maintains an online list of about 1,200 fact-finding interviews, nearly 200 of which the public cannot access because they are classified. Hundreds more released documents have redactions ranging from minimal to heavy.

911datasets.org, a group that makes available raw information obtained by 9/11 researchers, says the National Archives has released about a third of the commission’s files. Many records within those files are nevertheless withheld citing national security.

‘NO EVIDENCE’ AGAINST SAUDI GOVERNMENT

The 9/11 Commission reported finding “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” had funded al Qaeda. The official veil of secrecy over its records, however, continues to obscure how it reached that controversial conclusion.

Hidden from public view are commission interviews with White House staff, FBI agents, CIA employees and officials with other agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency, State Department, Treasury Department and Federal Aviation Administration. Also secret: interviews with government officials from Great Britain, Canada, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

One intriguing 2003 interview was with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. who met with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House two days after 15 of his countrymen helped carry out passenger jet attacks on New York and Washington.

Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, made payments to a man the Joint Inquiry identified as a “Saudi extremist and a bin Laden supporter.” The man, Osama Bassnan, also apparently had contact with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Midhar, who were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it slammed into the Pentagon.

Time Magazine reported that from January 1999 to May 2002 the princess made monthly payments of $2,000 to Bassnan’s wife, who was said to suffer from a severe thyroid condition. The payments totaled as much as $73,000, The New Yorker reported last year.

Key documents by the CIA and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control relating to terrorist financing are also under wraps.

For example, while representing 9/11 victims, New York’s Kreindler & Kreindler law firm filed a Freedom of Information request for a copy of a May 2000 memo about a meeting OFAC officials had with two of Osama bin Laden’s half-brothers, as well as a subsequent letter about the meeting from the Saudi Binladin Group, the large construction conglomerate founded by Osama bin Laden’s father. Both documents are cited in the 9/11 Commission’s report.

OFAC denied the 2009 request saying, among other things, that the release of those records would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” presumably of the bin Ladens.

OFAC also asserted personal privacy and national security considerations in 2006 when refusing to release nearly 700 pages of records about the International Islamic Relief Organization, a Saudi charity whose branches in Indonesia and the Philippines were specially designated by OFAC as terrorist entities for funding al Qaeda.

Another 600 OFAC pages were likewise withheld about the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a Saudi charity designated by the Treasury Department in 2008 for having provided “financial and material support” for al Qaeda.

IMMUNIZING FINANCIERS OF TERRORISM?

“The wholesale redaction of any relevant detail is a problem we’ve seen across the board when we’ve asked for documents that address specific details of Saudi-based support for al Qaeda in the pre-9/11 era,” said Sean P. Carter, a victim’s attorney with Philadelphia’s Cozen O’Connor law firm. “At the end of the day this is immunizing those people from the consequences of their actions.”

Al Rajhi Bank headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Al Rajhi Bank headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The CIA took a different tack in its July 2013 response to a FOIA request by another plaintiff’s lawyer seeking intelligence reports about Saudi Arabia’s al Rajhi Bank that were cited in a Wall Street Journal story, “U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists.”

The front-page article said CIA documents described al Rajhi Bank, which describes itself as one of the world’s largest Islamic banks, as a “conduit for extremist finance” that once obtained a visa for a money courier working for Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri. The CIA replied that it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of the requested records.

CIA documents cited prominently in the 9/11 Commission Report and requested by plaintiff’s lawyers have been released in recent years, often with heavy redactions and assertions that the information was exempt by presidential directive or U.S. law.

Examples include:

In June, the CIA released a 10-year-old report by the agency’s Inspector General regarding criticism leveled by the Joint Inquiry. The 490-page report is riddled with redactions, including nearly all of a 29-page section titled “Issues Relating to Saudi Arabia.” A sentence that remains states that the CIA found no “reliable reporting confirming Saudi government involvement with and financial support for terrorism prior to 9/11.”

The National Security Archive, a private research group based at Washington’s Georgetown University, has identified key 9/11 information that remains classified.

“Hundreds of cited reports and cables remain classified, including all interrogation materials such as the 47 reports from CIA interrogations of [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the group’s website says.

THE FBI’S MANY CLASSIFIED RECORDS

The FBI posts 72 documents about the 9/11 Commission on its website. Many contain extensive redactions and none involve allegations of Saudi financing for terrorists, the most controversial aspect of the 9/11 case.

The FBI’s sprawling 9/11 investigation, code-named PENTTBOMB, was the largest in its history. More than half of its agents worked the case, following more than half-a-million investigative leads, the FBI has said.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

How many documents is that?

The FBI’s Tampa field office alone holds 80,000 classified pages in its 9/11 file, according to papers filed by the Justice Department in ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by FloridaBulldog.org.

The records include details of a once-secret FBI investigation of a Saudi family with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers who gained attention after they abruptly moved out of their Sarasota area home two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings. FloridaBulldog.org working with Anthony Summers, co-author of the 9/11 history “The Eleventh Day,” first reported the story in 2011.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing those 80,000 pages for possible public release.

The continuing secrecy about 9/11 has not sat well with the former leaders of the 9/11 Commission.

At an event last year marking the 10th anniversary of the release of its report, former Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton urged transparency, saying he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn that documents remain hidden.

“I assumed, incorrectly, that our records would be public. All of them, everything,” Hamilton said. “I want those documents declassified. I’m embarrassed to be associated with a work product that is secret.”

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

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

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

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

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

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

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

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

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

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

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

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

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

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

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

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

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers
BrowardBulldog.org 911weremember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI records say Sarasota Saudis who fled home had “many connections” to individuals tied to 9/11

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
BrowardBulldog.orgsept11

©2013 Broward Bulldog, Inc. 

A Saudi family who “fled” their Sarasota area home weeks before September 11th had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” according to newly released FBI records.

The information runs counter to previous FBI statements. It also adds to concern raised by official investigations but never fully explored, that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has not yet been told.

One partially declassified document, marked “secret,” lists three of those individuals and ties them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. Accomplice Ziad Jarrah took flying lessons at another school a block away.

Atta and al-Shehhi were at the controls of the jetliners that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jarrah was the hijack-pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

The names, addresses and dates of birth of the three individuals tied to the flight school were blanked out before the records were released to BrowardBulldog.org amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation.

National security and other reasons are cited for numerous additional deletions scattered across the 31 released pages. Four more pages were withheld in their entirety.

The records cast new light on one of the remaining unresolved mysteries regarding Florida’s many connections to the 9/11 attacks: what went on before the attacks at 4224 Escondito Circle, the home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family before the attacks.

The documents are the first released by the FBI about its once-secret probe in Sarasota. Information contained in the documents flatly contradicts prior statements by FBI agents in Miami and Tampa who have said the investigation found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

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

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

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, has said the FBI did not disclose the existence of the Sarasota investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.

The records also show for the first time that Graham’s former colleague, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., queried Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller about the Sarasota investigation six days after its existence was disclosed in a story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald on September 8, 2011.

The story told how concerned residents in the gated community of Prestancia tipped the FBI after the attacks to the al-Hijjis’ sudden departure in late August 2001. The family left behind three cars, clothes, furniture, diapers, toys, food and other items.

It also reported that a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia’s former administrator, Larry Berberich, said an analysis of gatehouse security records – log books and snapshots of license tags – had determined that vehicles either driven by or carrying several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.

Phone records revealed similar, though indirect, ties to the hijackers, said the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In contrast, the newly released FBI records include a pair of two-page reports, written in response to the story, that reiterate the bureau’s public position that its investigation turned up nothing.

One report, written on stationery of the Justice Department’s 9/11 prosecution unit, notes “the FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community, given the lack of connection to the hijackers.”

But the counterterrorism source, who has personal knowledge of the matter, called that assertion “not true.”

The Escondito Circle home where al-Hijji lived with his wife, Anoud, and their small children was owned by her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd. Prince Fahd, a prominent racehorse owner, died in July 2001 at age 46.

Al-Hijji, who following 9/11 worked for the Saudi oil company Aramco in England, could not be reached by phone or email last week. Aramco staff said there was no longer anyone by that name in the London office.

Last year, al-Hijji told a reporter his family did not depart their Sarasota home in haste but left so he could take a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He denied involvement in the 9/11 plot, which he called “a crime against the USA and all humankind.”

The records as released do not identify al-Hijji or anyone else by name, citing various exemptions that protect persons’ names in law enforcement records. The names are apparent, however, because the documents describe unique, known events and were released in specific response to a request for information about the investigation at the al-Hijji’s residence.

An April 16, 2002 FBI report says “repeated citizen calls” led to an inspection of the home by agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force.

“It was discovered that the [  family name deleted  ] left their residence quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge,” the report says.

“Further investigation of the [  name deleted  ] family revealed many connections between the  [  name deleted   ] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” the report says. huffman

The report lists three of those individuals. While their identities remain secret, the first person on the list was described as “a [ name deleted ] family member.”

That person and a second individual were said to be flight students at Huffman Aviation – the flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport attended by hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi.

The third person on the list “lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation” and was “arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” the report says.

The next paragraph, which ends the report, is blanked out entirely. The document cites two reasons: an Executive Order that allows matters “to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” and the National Security Act, which lets the CIA director exempt his agency’s operational files from the Freedom of Information Act.

FBI Special Agent Gregory Sheffield wrote the April 2002 report, according to the counterterrorism officer. His name is blanked out, too.

A notice on the document indicates the censored information regarding the three individuals associated with the terrorist attacks is scheduled to remain classified for another 25 years – until March 14, 2038.

The FBI released the records as a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org inches toward trial this summer in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The suit was filed in September after the FBI rejected both a request for its investigative records and an appeal of that request.

Thomas Julin, the news site’s attorney, called the FBI’s release of records that it had previously determined to be exempt from disclosure “highly unusual.”

“The government initially took the position that it had no documents. It hasn’t explained why things changed,” said Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.

Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez, who represents the FBI, declined comment.

The released FBI records are in two tiers: reports and other material written in 2001-2002 and memos, letters and email that followed publication of the first story about the matter in September 2011.

A number of pages recount information provided to the FBI by mail carriers and others, including a Sept. 18, 2001 observation that the al-Hijji’s appeared to have “left in a hurry.”

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

A Sept. 25 report talks of bank records that agents had obtained. The report was referred to the counterterrorism division’s Usama Bin Laden Unit/Radical Fundamentalist Unit.

One of the reports written in September 2011, after the existence of the Sarasota investigation was revealed, discusses briefly the unnamed “family member” who took flight lessons at Huffman Aviation.

“[ Name deleted ] was interviewed multiple times after 9/11 and identified Atta and al-Shehhi as individuals [ phrase deleted  ] flight training at Huffman. However, investigation did not reveal any other connection between [ name deleted ] and the hijackers and the 9/11 plot,” the report says.

FBI 302 reports about those interviews were not made public.

Senate Judiciary chair Leahy’s inquiry is disclosed in a declassified Nov. 22, 2011 response letter written by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich.

Weich called the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks “comprehensive and unprecedented.” He assured Leahy that agents found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the al-Hijjis.

Similarly, Weich denied Sen. Graham’s assertion that the FBI had not turned over its Sarasota records to Congress. The bureau, he stated, made all of its records available and suggested they may have been overlooked by investigators.

“The FBI is unable to ascertain whether these investigators reviewed records concerning the Sarasota family. The FBI also has not identified any specific requests by the investigators concerning the Sarasota family,” the letter says.

“You can’t ask for what you don’t know exists,” said Graham.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

Documents the FBI now has released do not mention other known aspects of the Sarasota investigation, including troubling information provided to the FBI by al-Hijji’s former friend, Wissam Hammoud.

Hammoud, 47, is a federal prisoner classified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “International Terrorist Associate.” He is serving a 21-year sentence for weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in a previous case against him.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org last year state that shortly after his 2004 arrest Hammoud told agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero,” may have known some of the hijackers, and once introduced him to fugitive al-Qaeda leader and ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.

When reached last year, al-Hijji acknowledged having known Hammoud well. He did not, however, respond to a question about Hammoud’s allegations and said Shukrijumah’s name did not “ring a bell.”

What the FBI did about Hammoud’s allegations is not known.

Other FBI documents about Sarasota are known to exist, but were not released – including a report Graham says he read last year but can’t discuss because it is classified.

The Bulldog’s FOIA lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge William Zloch to order the FBI to produce all records of its Sarasota investigation, including the records seen by Graham.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and  Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors 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.

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