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.”

9/11 “cover up” could collapse as Saudi Arabia restored to victims’ lawsuit, says Bob Graham

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org towersbridge

With an unusual acknowledgment of a mistake in a high-profile case, a federal appeals court in New York City has restored Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by thousands of 9/11 victims, their families and others.

For a decade, the 9/11 plaintiffs have asserted that the desert kingdom bankrolled al Qaeda prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Now, they can once again pursue their claim in court.

The ruling also restores as a defendant the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a government agency the plaintiffs contend funneled tens of millions of dollars to terrorist fighters across the globe.

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, hailed Thursday’s ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.

“This is a very significant breakthrough that could collapse the dam of cover up which has kept information on the Saudis involvement from the American people,” Graham told BrowardBulldog.org in an exclusive interview.

Saudi Arabia, which has denied the lawsuit’s accusations as “categorically false,” had been dismissed from the sprawling lawsuit in 2005 on grounds of sovereign immunity, despite exceptions to that protection regarding acts of terrorism.

‘ERROR OF LAW’ 

The 16-page order by a three judge appellate court panel is a labyrinth of legal argument. Its essence, however, is that the court’s own conflicting rulings about how to apply the law in different 9/11 lawsuits led to an “error of law” by a lower federal court judge in New York, George B. Daniels, who wrongly let the Saudis off the hook for potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.

The rejuvenated case now goes back to Judge Daniels for further proceedings, the order said.

“We are very happy about the news and cautiously optimistic,” said 9/11 survivor Sharon Premoli, who was pulled from the wreckage of the North Tower.

“The appellate court’s decision is something I feared I would never see in my lifetime,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, died in the North Tower on 9/11. “Our group, 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism remains committed in our fight for the truth and justice.  Only then will we be able to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks and hold those accountable for the death, destruction, pain and suffering inflicted on us 13 years ago.”

saudiarabiamapBut Michael K. Kellogg, a Washington, D.C. attorney who represents Saudi Arabia, called the decision “contrary to settled law.”

“It is extremely unfortunate and burdensome that a sovereign nation and ally of the United States will continue to have to litigate this matter more than 10 years after it was filed. The government of Saudi Arabia will seek further review of this erroneous decision,” Kellogg said.

“It is also important to recognize that the Second Circuit’s decision has nothing to do with the facts of the case and does not find that the plaintiffs’ allegations are meritorious or even plausible.”

The ruling comes amid a parallel push in Congress to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would ensure that victims of terrorism on U.S. soil have the opportunity to hold its foreign sponsors accountable in U.S. courts.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, introduced JASTA in the Senate in September. Co-sponsors include seven Democrats and five Republicans. An identical bill in the House has similar drawn similar bipartisan support.

When Schumer introduced the bill, he said JASTA was needed “due to flawed court decisions that have deprived victims of terrorism on American soil, including those injured by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, of their day in court.”

‘SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE’ OF FUNDING TO AL QAEDA

Previously, Schumer said, “Substantial evidence establishes (the Saudi defendants) had provided funding and sponsorship to al Qaeda without which it could not have carried out the attacks.”

In a related development earlier this month on Capitol Hill, Reps. Walter B. Jones, R-NC and Stephen Lynch, D-Ma introduced a resolution urging President Obama to declassify 28 pages that were withheld from the public by President George W. Bush when Congress issued the Joint Inquiry’s report in late 2002.

The missing pages deal with “specific sources of foreign support” for the 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi nationals.

The two congressmen, who recently read the blacked out pages, told the New York Post that they were “absolutely shocked” at the level of foreign state involvement in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Former Sen. Graham, who helped write the censored 28 pages, has long championed their release as necessary to the public’s understanding of how the hijackers managed to pull off their murderous plot and who helped to finance it. He says the information should never have been kept hidden because its release poses no threat to national security.

“Without being able to go into details, I can tell you that there are some other channels that are also beginning to move on the 28 pages,” he said Friday. “I feel more optimistic about their release in the near term than I have in a dozen years.”

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch is considering whether to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its records regarding its once-secret investigation of apparent ties between Saudis living in a gated community near Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta.

BrowardBulldog.org disclosed the existence of the investigation two years ago. Sen. Graham and others have said the FBI told neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota probe.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily departed their upscale home, and left the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks. Authorities summoned by neighbors later found they’d left behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other personal items.

The FBI has said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.

BrowardBulldog.org filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department and the FBI last year after its requests for records about the matter were denied. The Miami Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune have asked the judge to intervene in support of the Bulldog’s efforts.

Last spring, the FBI unexpectedly released 31 pages to the Bulldog that included an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

The FBI heavily redacted the reports, citing national security. Still, they disclose that those connections included a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where Atta and co-conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi trained.

Atta piloted the American Airlines jetliner that slammed into the North Tower; al-Shehhi was at the controls of the United Airlines plane that rammed the South Tower.

FBI resists thorough search of vast 9/11 files in Tampa for records about Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

A mass of documents detailing the Tampa area connection to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many of which may have never been made public, are stored out of sight in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

“The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation,” say new court papers filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

Precisely what information is contained in those records was not disclosed.

The Justice Department cited the Tampa records in an effort to convince U.S. District Judge William Zloch not to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records of its investigation into apparent ties between the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and Saudis living in Sarasota.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily left their upscale home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated community of Prestancia, and the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, leaving behind numerous personal items and a trail of suspicion and mystery.

The FBI said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. But after BrowardBulldog.org sued last year under the Freedom of Information Act the FBI released a handful of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents had found “many connections” to persons associated with the 9/11 terrorists.

Those connections include a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where 9/11 hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained, according to the report. The flight student’s name was censored.

The news organization alleges the FBI’s two prior searches were inadequate and that additional records of its Sarasota investigation have been improperly withheld.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, has told the court in a sworn declaration that he believes the FBI should have hundreds or even thousands of pages of additional records about the matter.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org, has proposed a new search method for the records, including requiring better word searches, and has asked the court to approve it.

The Justice Department is resisting. In court papers, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez said the proposal “would require the FBI to conduct an exhaustive fishing expedition” for no good reason.

[Court documents filed in the case can be found here.]

The FBI’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, was code-named PENTTBOMB, a compression of the words Pentagon, Twin Towers and Bombing. The FBI has said PENTTBOMB was its largest investigation ever, which at its peak involved more than half of its agents.

The FBI has a number of ways that it stores records about PENTTBOMB and its other cases, including its antiquated Central Records System (CRS).

The FBI searched CRS in response to BrowardBulldog.org’s original Freedom of Information Act request in the fall of 2011, but reported finding nothing. It wasn’t until earlier this year, well after the lawsuit was filed, that a further search of CRS turned up the approximately 30 pages that were made public.

The CRS has been replaced by the FBI’s new, $440 million “Sentinel” computer system that was deployed after the original search. Court papers say all FBI records prior to Sentinel’s start-up have been migrated into its system. Attorney Julin has requested the FBI be ordered to conduct a search of the more efficient Sentinel system.

Fernandez acknowledged that the FBI did not search several databases including a pair of surveillance databases and the FBI’s email system.

The surveillance databases were not searched because they were not “specifically requested” to be searched, Fernandez wrote. The email system was not searched, she said, because the FBI “had no reason to believe responsive records would be located on these systems.”

In a reply filed Wednesday, Julin accused the government of playing “cat and mouse” in its responses.

“The reason that the FBI has not located many additional records relating to this investigation has now been made clear. The FBI states in its response…that it ‘did not interpret plaintiffs’ request as seeking information as to any findings regarding family members who resided at the Sarasota address,’” Julin said.

“In essence, this seems to say that the FBI specifically structured its search to exclude the very documents that the FBI knew that the plaintiffs were attempting to obtain and that might either explain the FBI’s public contradiction of the plaintiffs’ published reports or show the FBI’s public statements to be false.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

 

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

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
BrowardBulldog.orgsept11

©2013 Broward Bulldog, Inc. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich

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

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

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

FBI 302 reports about those interviews were not made public.

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

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

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

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

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

FBI Director Robert Mueller  with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and  Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

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