Appeal: How much information about 9/11 must FBI share with public?

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A federal appeals court has been asked to overturn a Miami district court judge and order a Freedom of Information Act trial to determine whether the FBI made a proper search for records about its secretive 9/11 Review Commission.

“This case presents a case of enormous public interest: How much information concerning its investigation of the 9/11 attacks must the FBI share with the public?” says the appeal brief filed Monday by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog. “The answer, according to the District Court, is very little.”

The 75-page appeal brief argues that a June 29 order by Judge Cecilia Altonaga wrongly backed the government’s “expansive assertion of FOIA exemptions,” allowing the FBI to keep secret thousands of pages of records about an apparent Saudi support network for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota and related information regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the matters the brief says the withheld records might explain:

  • Why the FBI concluded in a heavily censored April 2002 report that a Saudi family living in Sarasota had “many connections” to the hijackers and “why, a decade later, the FBI falsely claimed that it had never concluded the family had any connections to the hijackers.”
  • Why, in a private briefing for the 9/11 Review Commission in 2015, the FBI dismissed its 2002 “many connections” report “as poorly written and unsubstantiated.”
  • Why the FBI failed to tell congressional committees investigating 9/11 about its Sarasota investigation and why the FBI later falsely claimed that it had notified Congress.

To help obtain answers, the appeal asks the court to allow the deposition of the FBI agent who briefed the Meese Commission on the “many connections” report and sought to discredit it, Jacqueline Maguire.

The Bulldog’s attorneys in the Miami office of the Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart law firm, led by Thomas Julin, asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to be allowed to present oral argument in the case “because the records at issue are of paramount importance to the nation’s right to know how the FBI handled the investigation of 9/11 and because the FBI’s broad assertions of FOIA exemptions are fundamentally inconsistent with FOIA’s strong presumption in favor of record disclosure.”

FBI to appeal, too

The FBI has said it plans its own appeal of Judge Altonaga’s ruling. Among other things, it is expected to challenge parts of her order requiring disclosure of the names of FBI agents, including the author of the 2002 “many connections” report, Gregory Sheffield.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, broke the story about the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story disclosed that shortly after the attacks neighbors in the gated Prestancia development had called to report that Saudis Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji had moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks earlier, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture, other personal belongings and a refrigerator full of food. The home was owned by Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a wealthy businessman and son of a former Saudi ambassador with ties to the kingdom’s ruling family.

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

The story, citing sources that included a senior counterterrorism officer, also reported how law enforcement agents had discovered that vehicles used by hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home. Atta and other hijackers took flying lessons 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport.

Likewise, the story reported the counterterrorism officer’s disclosure that the FBI obtained records of incoming and outgoing calls made to the al-Hijji residence that a link analysis – a system of tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversations – uncovered calls over more than a year “lined up with the known suspects.” The links were not only to Atta and his hijack pilots, but to 11 other terrorists, including Walid al-Shehhri, a so-called “muscle hijacker” who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when Atta piloted it into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center.

The story also quoted former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’ bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the attacks, who said the FBI did not disclose its Sarasota investigation to Congress.

The FBI released the “many connections” memo in March 2013, six months after Florida Bulldog sued, seeking the release of the FBI’s Sarasota investigative file. Another 80,000 classified pages from the FBI’s Tampa field office relating to 9/11 have been under review by Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch since 2014.

On Oct. 2 Zloch announced that he had completed his review of the 80,000 pages and, on Monday, invited the government to file papers by Nov. 27 seeking dismissal of the case while at the same time addressing a trio of his “concerns.” He listed his concerns as being the “production time line” of the handful of documents the FBI has already produced, the “ambiguities” of the FBI’s filing system and the “substance” of the documents themselves.

Tactics opposed to disclosure

The appeal brief argues that “from the start the FBI’s tactics have been contrary to FOIA’s strong presumption in favor of disclosure” by not producing documents in response to Florida Bulldog’s requests and forcing the small Broward-based news organization to sue.

“Only then did the FBI locate and produce records responsive to the Bulldog’s requests, but in dribs and drabs, spread across a year of litigation. Rather than withhold information judiciously, the FBI redacted every word for which it could make a colorable argument – even if that meant claiming a record could not be released because its disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a senior member of al Qaeda,” the brief says.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003

The reference was to the FBI’s assertion of privacy rights for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in withholding PowerPoint slides detailing their credit card information. The slides were part of an April 2014 presentation titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its most prominent member, Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Other pages from the overview also were redacted, including slides about the funding of the 9/11 attacks – information of keen interest to the families of 9/11 victims seeking to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in federal civil court in New York.

Likewise, the appeal challenges Judge Altonaga’s affirmation of the FBI’s decision to withhold significant portions of an October 2012 FBI report that shows agents and prosecutors in New York were then actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support for two of the five 9/11 terrorists – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar —  who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

The FBI redacted the report citing national security, privacy and other reasons.

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.”

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham disappointed by ruling

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

Bob Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking 9/11 Review Commission files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 9/11 hijackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trial date sought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Under the radar’

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

The FBI’s Hardy similarly advocates for secrecy regarding:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Significant public interest’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A future king’s involvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI tries to discredit own report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysterious Saudi businessman in 9/11 puzzle surfaces – online

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City, September 11, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bush, Bhutto and John Major

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghazzawi on FBI watch list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business ties to Bin Laden family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.

Panama Papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI censored documents to protect privacy of accused 9/11 mastermind, accomplice

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003

Even as the FBI recently has made public more 9/11 records to satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act in advance of a possible trial, it continues to withhold untold documents that promise to cast new light on that terrible day in 2001.

Likewise, about 1,000 pages from the secretive 9/11 Review Commission that were declassified are shot through with blanked-out words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire pages – FBI deletions that undermine the act’s purpose as “a means for citizens to know ‘what their government is up to.’”

The FBI made public those pages in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed in June by the corporate parent of Florida Bulldog after the bureau did not properly respond to lawful record requests. The Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its best-known member former Attorney General Edwin Meese, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to examine new evidence. Its members were chosen and paid by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

National security and the need to protect informants were among the reasons the FBI cited to explain why certain information was kept hidden. In other cases, the reasons the FBI has asserted for redactions appeared arbitrary, even bizarre.

Take for example the 53-page FBI PowerPoint presentation titled “Overview of the 9:11 Investigation” that was shown to the commission during a briefing in April 2014. The PowerPoint included the “non-immigrant visa application” filled out by accused 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who for the last 10 years has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The FBI withheld Mohammed’s entire visa application. Its reason: disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The FBI further asserted the privacy rights of Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in its decision to withhold PowerPoint slides about their credit card information. Specifically withheld: al-Hawsawi’s “credit card statement and supplemental card activity” and Mohammed’s “supplemental Visa card application” to the United Kingdom’s Standard Chartered Bank.

Al-Hawsawi, a Saudi charged with war crimes, is an alleged senior al Qaeda member and organizer and financier of 9/11.

Nine other pages from the 9/11 PowerPoint were deleted. Also redacted was all information about these titles: “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Additional Funding Early to Mid-2001”; “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases; August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets.”

The FBI withheld each of those records citing exemption b7E to the Freedom of Information Act, which shields from disclosure “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”

In addition, four pages in the PowerPoint titled “Ongoing Investigation” were blanked out. A variety of reasons cited included privacy, inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums, and techniques and procedures – but not national security.

On the other hand, the bureau last month did release one tidbit that’s sure to fire up those who believe the destruction of the Twin Towers was an “inside job” or that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not an American Airlines Boeing 757.

A partially declassified Memorandum for the Record (MFR) regarding an April 23, 2014 FBI briefing about its 9/11 investigation mentions a startling request for information to the FBI that day:

“The commissioners requested a list of evidence that shows it was actually a plane that crashed into the Pentagon,” the memo says.

Why did the Meese Commission make such a curious request? Did the FBI provide such a list?

The MFR’s declassified pages don’t answer those questions. Still, more than two pages of the six-page document were kept secret citing FOIA exemptions that prevent the disclosure of certain inter-agency or intra-agency memos and sensitive law enforcement techniques.

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘many connections’ FBI report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altonaga’s order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payments to staff

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

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

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

FBI Director James Comey

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

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

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

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

The Sarasota Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heavily redacted Memorandum for the Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raurell did not identify those 27 government agencies.

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

Records of ‘paramount’ importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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