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.”

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.

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