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.

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