Saudi Arabia cites FBI’s Meese Commission in asking judge to toss 9/11 victims’ lawsuit

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City’s annual 9/11 memorial tribute to the fallen.

Forced back into court by an act of Congress and faced with tens of billions of dollars in potential civil liability, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is asking a U.S. judge again to throw out a lawsuit brought against it by thousands of 9/11 victims.

Lawyers for the kingdom moved last week to dismiss the massive case pending in federal court in New York City, citing “baseless accusations that Saudi Arabia conspired to commit a horrific crime against its longstanding ally the United States by knowingly funding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The plaintiffs are survivors of the attacks, family members of the dead, businesses and insurance companies.

Saudi Arabia’s filing responded to their 100-page amended complaint brought in March against the kingdom and its official charity, the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The complaint followed Congress’s passage last year – over a veto by President Obama – of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows Americans to sue foreign states for acts of terrorism that occur on U.S. soil.

Earlier, a federal judge and a U.S. appeals court had dismissed Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission from the case after determining they were protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. JASTA removed that protection.

The new court filings show the Saudis are relying heavily on the findings of the FBI’s secretive 9/11 Review Commission to discredit the plaintiffs’ claims that the kingdom is liable for the deaths, injuries and destruction caused by the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks and thousands more were injured.

The 9/11 Review Commission – also known as the Meese Commission after its most prominent member, Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese – was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance, and to assess new evidence. As Florida Bulldog has reported, however, the commission held no public hearings, had no subpoena power and was largely spoon-fed information by the FBI. Meese and the two other commissioners were chosen and paid by the FBI.

Meese Commission discredits report

The Meese Commission issued a 127-page report in March 2015, which among other things sought to discredit an April 2002 FBI report that said agents had found “many connections” between Saudis living in Sarasota and individuals involved in the 9/11 plot and requested further action be taken.

The April 2002 report, released to Florida Bulldog by the FBI in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation, corroborated a September 2011 Florida Bulldog story that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation and reported the FBI had kept it secret from Congress. The story was co-reported by Irish author Anthony Summers, who obtained the initial information about the Sarasota probe.

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left, on March 23, 2015. Photo: FBI

The FBI told the Meese Commission the 2002 report “was ‘poorly written’ and wholly unsubstantiated.” The commission’s report, however, offered no explanation of the basis for that conclusion. Likewise, the commission apparently never heard directly from the agent who wrote the report, relying instead on the FBI’s characterization of what he had to say.

“The FBI told the Review Commission that the (report) was apparently based solely on unsubstantiated reports from others and there was no documentation supporting its allegations,” the commission’s report says.

No other FBI records to support or explain the commission’s work were made public.

Florida Bulldog sued the FBI and the Department of Justice in June 2016 for access to all Meese Commission transcripts, reports and the like after the bureau failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. 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.

Florida Bulldog and its attorneys believe the FBI has not acknowledged the existence of many additional pages of commission records.

Among the released records was a heavily censored Oct. 5, 2012 FBI report emblazoned with a logo that depicts the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers inside a pentagon against a backdrop of an American flag. The FBI considered the report so sensitive that even its title was classified “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

The 2012 FBI report

Declassified portions, however, show that at that time federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York were zeroing in on an apparent U.S. support network for Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, two of the five 9/11 hijackers who were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. Among other things, the report discusses how in June 2012 a team of New York investigators traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices.”

At the time of its release in December, Sean Carter, a Philadelphia attorney for the plaintiffs, called the 2012 report “a powerful and important disclosure.” Carter appended a copy to the 9/11 victims’ amended complaint when it was filed March 17.

Attorneys Michael K. Kellogg, left, and Sean Carter.

The 91-page Saudi response memorandum filed last week by Washington, D.C. attorney Michael Kellogg attacks the 2012 FBI report as unreliable, noting that the names of its authors are redacted.

The memo says the FBI report “contains hearsay statements” about a pair of Saudis – Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy – who are identified as “main subjects” of the probe of  “individuals known to have provided substantial assistance” to Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California following their arrival in the U.S. in January 2000.

The FBI report says Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent; Thumairy, a Saudi diplomat and imam at the King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles, and a third person whose name was kept secret on grounds of national security “provided (or directed others to provide) the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licenses.” The investigation was seeking to prove the trio knew that Hazmi and Mihdhar “were here to commit an act of terrorism.”

“A statement that an investigator ‘seeks to prove’ a legal conclusion is neither an appropriate allegation nor competent evidence,” the Saudi memo says. “That is especially so here because the investigator’s attempt failed: the 9/11 Review Commission later found as of March 2015 that new evidence available to the FBI was ‘not sufficient’ to support the conclusion that plaintiffs advocate.”

But the commission did not release the 2012 report when it issued its report, nor does its report assess the 2012 disclosures except to note it said al-Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar during their time in the Los Angeles area.”

Status of 2012 probe unknown

Likewise, the outcome of the 2012 investigation is not known. No other documents released by the FBI address it.

Said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11: “If the decision was not to proceed, why? And if it was to proceed, what’s the status?”

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]

The Saudi memo also attacks as unreliable and insufficient two other documents about 9/11 the plaintiffs rely on, “the 28 pages” and “Document 17.”

The 28 pages refers to a long-suppressed chapter of the Joint Inquiry’s 2002 report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers. The 28 pages were ordered released last summer by President Obama. Among other things, they showed that Saudi Prince Bandar – who on 9/11 was his country’s ambassador to the U.S. – had connections to a major al-Qaeda figure now detained in Guantanamo Bay and others suspected of helping hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar.

Document 17 is a set of 2002 work plans for staffers of the original 9/11 Commission detailing issues and outstanding questions regarding possible Saudi links to the attacks. It was declassified and released by the National Archives in 2015.

Among other things, Document 17 disclosed that when Guantanamo detainee Ghassan al-Sharbi was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002, FBI agents found a buried cache of documents that included “an envelope from the Saudi embassy in Washington that contained al-Sharbi’s (U.S.) flight certificate.”

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.

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.

New FBI records: A chilling find in a dumpster; 9/11 “person of interest” re-enters U.S.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Freshly released, but heavily-censored FBI documents include tantalizing new information about events connected to the Sarasota Saudis who moved suddenly out of their home, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars, about two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The documents were released to BrowardBulldog.org Monday amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation. The news organization sued in 2012 after being denied access to the Bureau’s file on a once secret investigation focusing on Abdulaziz al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud and her father  Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince.

An FBI letter accompanying the documents, the fourth batch to be released since the suit was filed, cites national security and other reasons to justify why certain information was withheld. The letter does not explain why the documents were not previously acknowledged to exist.

One FBI report, dated April 3, 2002 recounts a chilling discovery made by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office on Halloween 2001.

Deputies were called after a man with a Tunisian passport was observed disposing of items in a dumpster behind a storage facility he’d rented in Bradenton.

The man’s name is blanked out, but the report says authorities who searched the dumpster found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”

The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pa, took flying lessons.

The three paragraphs that follow are completely blanked out. The reasons cited include information “specifically authorized under criteria established by [presidential] executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

The documents were located via court-ordered text searches using the names of the al-Hijjis and Ghazzawi. U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 records.

Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin represents BrowardBulldog.org.

“This release suggests that the FBI has covered up information that is vitally important to public safety,” said Julin. “It’s startling that after initially denying they had any documents they continue to find new documents as the weeks and months roll by. Each new batch suggests there are many, many more documents.”

“There needs to be a full scale explanation of what’s going on here,” said Julin.

The report of the Bradenton incident includes information about the al-Hijjis. The excisions, however, keep secret how what happened there ties back to the al-Hijjis.

The same is true about another FBI document dated Feb. 2, 2012.

On that day, FBI offices in Tampa and Charlotte received information from Washington stamped “secret” stating that a “person of interest” in the FBI’s massive 9/11 investigation had returned to the United States.

The person, whose name is redacted, was reported to be “traveling to Texas and LA for business/tourism.” The person apparently told authorities upon entering the country that he could be reached in Charlotte. He provided a phone number “associated with furniture manufacturers in North Carolina,” the report says.

Details about that were blanked out. But the report also says, “Tampa is notified that a person of interest to Tampa regarding the PENTTBOMB investigation has a valid visa for re-entry into the U.S.” PENTTBOMB is the FBI’s code name for its 9/11 investigation.

In all, the FBI released 11 pages Monday. They contain statements reiterating that the al-Hijjis had departed the U.S. in haste shortly before 9/11 and that “further investigation” had “revealed many connections” between them and persons associated with “attacks on 9/11/2001.”

Those statements flatly contradict the FBI’s public statements that agents found no connection between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 plot.

Yet they dovetail with the account of a counterintelligence source who has said investigators in 2001 found evidence – phone records and photographs of license plates snapped at the entrance to the al-Hijji’s Sarasota area neighborhood – that showed Mohamed Atta, other hijackers and former Broward resident and current al Qaeda fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji’s home.

None of that information, or even the fact that an investigation in Sarasota took place was disclosed by the FBI to Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the joint inquiry.

The documents, while stamped secret, are marked as having been formally classified earlier this month in accordance with the National Security Information Security Classification. The parts of the documents that were not released are to be kept secret until 2039.

Among other things, the government asserted that classification is necessary because the censored information pertains to foreign relations or foreign activities, including confidential sources.

“This could be about information considered embarrassing to Saudi Arabia,” said Julin. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals.

The April 2002 FBI report contains additional new information, though the deletions make its full meaning difficult to discern.

It says the Tampa FBI office “has determined that (blank) is an antagonist of the United States of America. (Blank) resides in Jerusalem. (Blank) allegedly has held regular and recurring meetings at his residence to denounce and criticize the United States of America and its policies. (Blank) is allegedly an international businessman with great wealth.”

In November 2001, (blank) visited the United States for the first time. He traveled to Sarasota, Florida, opened a bank account and made initial queries into the purchase of property in south central Florida. (Blank) intends to establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida. (Blank) revealed that (blank) is fearful of (blank) and fears that (blank) intends to begin offensive operations against the United States if he is able to purchase property and establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida.”

Three follow-up lines are blanked out.

Judge awaits FBI’s Sarasota Saudi documents; Justice Department wants more time

By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune september11

Relatives of 9/11 victims are eagerly watching the legal struggle over information held by the FBI concerning a Saudi Arabian family in Sarasota with possible ties to terrorists, even as calls in Congress ramp up for more disclosure about how the attackers were funded.

On Friday, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale was expected to receive FBI documents pertaining to the agency’s investigation of the Saudi family that abruptly left Sarasota just before the September 2001 attacks.

Late Thursday, however, the government asked for more time to submit the records, saying the materials that need to be searched comprise 23 boxes totaling 92,000 pages in the agency’s Tampa field office – some of the documents carrying a “secret” classification.

Government lawyers proposed a May 2 deadline, but the judge did not immediately grant the government’s request.

On April 4, the judge ordered the FBI to turn over the materials in response to a lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org that was joined by both the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald.

“Defendants’ eagerness to assert exemptions and wooden method of interpreting Plaintiffs’ (Freedom of Information Act) requests essentially deprives the Court of its role in examining any relevant documents and independently determining whether any exemptions may apply,” U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch wrote of the FBI, a defendant in the case.

Zloch ordered a more exhaustive new search, with the resulting documents to be delivered — uncensored — to him for review Friday. Additional documentation is due in June.

Family members have strongly denied any ties to the 9/11 terrorists.

If the judge eventually makes those documents public, the 16-month-old lawsuit could dovetail with a larger effort to shed more light on who financed the jet attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

One effort is centered in New York federal court, where a 12-year-old case seeks $1 trillion in damages for the relatives of nearly 10,000 9/11 victims.

In that case, families are attempting to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and charities that it established.

In Congress, meanwhile, there is a growing drumbeat to make public a censored 28-page chapter about the terrorists’ financing, pulled by unnamed government censors from the report of the “Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 2001.” The joint Congressional report, minus the censored chapter, runs about 800 pages and was published in late 2002.

The classified section is believed by activists to be based on FBI and CIA documents, and to point fingers at Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States and a key oil supplier.

“It all ties together about financing power, leading back to the Saudis,” said Bill Doyle, a retired stockbroker who lives in the Central Florida community of The Villages, and whose youngest son, Joseph, died after being trapped in the World Trade Center.

Doyle is among the lead plaintiffs in one of three lawsuits against Saudi Arabia that have been combined into a single federal court action entitled “In Re: Terrorist Attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (Saudi Arabia et al.)”

He said he also believes the Sarasota connection — in which a Saudi family abruptly departed the U.S. two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind many possessions — could answer questions about larger issues.

“You take off a week or so before 9/11 and go back to Saudi Arabia and leave dirty diapers, food, two brand- new cars and a house. And there is also evidence that some of the people who were training over at Huffman Aviation in Venice were visiting their house,” Doyle said.

“It all ties together.”

Saudi Arabia arguments

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will likely soon decide if it will hear arguments from the kingdom’s attorneys, who want their client removed as a defendant.

If successful, it would mark the second time that those lawyers have convinced a court to drop Saudi Arabia as a defendant.

In the first case, they argued that U.S. law does not allow suits against sovereign nations for damages. But a federal appeals court reversed that decision in December.

“We anticipate hearing from the Supreme Court in late June,” said Robert Haefele, an attorney who represents more than half of the 10,000 plaintiffs in the combined suits.

Sharon Premoli, co-chairwoman of activist group 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, is also pushing for all FBI documents to be made public.

“The 28 pages are part and parcel of the FBI documents,” said Premoli, who survived the terror attacks and narrowly escaped from the Trade Center’s north tower. “It is all one big cover-up.”

Doyle and Premoli’s efforts are in sync with those of retired U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint congressional inquiry that published the 800-page report. The former Florida governor has battled for years to have the censored chapter about possible terror financing declassified.

Recently, a pair of congressmen have also called on President Barack Obama to declassify the censored pages, and written a form letter to other members of Congress urging them to review the missing chapter.

“The information contained in the redacted pages is critical to U.S. foreign policy moving forward and should thus be available to the American people,” said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-North Carolina.

Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, have also introduced a House resolution to declassify the 28 pages, which has drawn some bipartisan support.

Both had to go through a lengthy process to read the 28 pages, which are kept under tight security, and each was monitored by a federal agent making sure that notes were not taken and the pages were not copied or removed.

President Obama has publicly promised to make the chapter public, but thus far has not done so.

“We have a burning question,” Premoli said. “We would like to know if President Obama has read the 28 pages.”

Local connections to 9/11

What already is clear — and has been since shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — is that three of the 9/11 terrorists paid for flight training at Venice Airport.

Unclear is how they paid for that training and other activities.

The terror cell living in Sarasota County was one of a number scattered around the nation. Others are known to have existed in Los Angeles and San Diego, and in Falls Church, Va.

In the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by BrowardBulldog.org — joined as “friends of the court” by the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald — the Justice Department acknowledged that it has tens of thousands of documents related to the Southwest Florida portion of its overall 9/11 investigation.

To date, the Bulldog has received 35 heavily redacted pages. The pages that were released, however, said the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

In a 10th anniversary story by BrowardBulldog.org and published in the Herald-Tribune and The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale news organization claimed that the same terrorists who trained in Venice visited a home in the gated Prestancia community owned by Saudi businessman, Esam Ghazzawi, who had close ties to the Saudi royal family.

For six years prior to 9/11, the home was occupied by Ghazzawi’s daughter, Anoud, and her husband, Abdulazziz al Hijji. “Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers,” the Bulldog reported.

The FBI initially refused a Bulldog request to search for the family’s names in its archives, claiming that would amount to an invasion of privacy.

In his recent order, Judge Zloch described the FBI’s initial search as “preemptively narrowed in scope based on agency decisions that categories of documents are exempt, and thus, will not even be sought.”

Zloch then ordered the agency to use its most advanced document search system, and provided specific search terms — including the family’s names — that the FBI was required to use.

The Reagan appointee and former Notre Dame quarterback also ordered the original uncensored documents to be delivered to him for private review.

That is known in legal terms as “in camera.”

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