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.

FBI coughs up new 9/11 records about Sarasota; Documents, evidence missing

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

New York’s World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

Newly released FBI documents say agents investigating 9/11 connections did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that 9/11 hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family.

The FBI’s surprising assertion that agents chose not to collect basic evidence during its once-secret Sarasota investigation is contained in a previously classified “Memorandum for the Record” about an FBI briefing given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, called the FBI’s statement “stunning.”

The memorandum also fails to explain, as the commission’s final report suggested it would, the basis for FBI statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission that sought to discredit an April 2002 FBI report that – contrary to the FBI’s public comments – said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

A heavily censored copy of the four-page Memorandum for the Record is among more than 200 pages of declassified 9/11 Review Commission records released to FloridaBulldog.org this month by the FBI amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.

The Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, but was largely controlled by the FBI. Its three members, all of whom were paid by the FBI, included former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.

New questions about Review Commission

The Review Commission operated in secret for about a year and went out of business when it issued its final report in March 2015. The memo, cited in the report’s footnotes, raises new questions about whether the commission made an actual, thorough review of what happened in Sarasota or simply accepted the FBI’s assertions.

“It’s somewhere between just blind acceptance of whatever the FBI put before them and the failure of the FBI to disclose other information not in this memo,” said Graham.

Florida driver's license photo of Mohamed Atta

Florida driver’s license photo of Mohamed Atta

The FBI’s Sarasota investigation began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when neighbors in the upscale Prestancia development alerted law enforcement to the abrupt departure of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home at 4224 Escondito Circle about two weeks before 9/11. The couple left numerous personal belongings, including their cars, clothes, furniture and a refrigerator full of food.

The home was owned by al-Hijji’s father-in-law, 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.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story included statements by Prestancia’s security chief and a counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as to how the FBI had used the gatehouse’s sign-in logs and photographs of license plates to discover that cars used by 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited al-Hijji’s home. Atta and two other hijack pilots took flight lessons at nearby Venice Municipal Airport.

No disclosure to Congress, 9/11 Commission

The story also noted the FBI had not disclosed its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 or the subsequent 9/11 Commission. The FBI has said it did notify Congress and the 9/11 Commission, but a number of persons affiliated with those probes, including former Sen. Graham, have said they were not told about the Sarasota Saudis.

The newly released Memorandum for the Record does not address the significant question of whether the FBI notified Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, and if not, why. It does, however, dispute the accounts of both Prestancia’s then-security chief, Larry Berberich, and the counterterrorism officer who said FBI agents collected and analyzed the gatehouse records that documented who entered Prestancia prior to 9/11 and where they went.

“The FBI did not obtain the gate records from the community because there was not a justified reason to believe there was a connection with the hijackers. There was no investigative belief or reason to obtain the records,” the memo says.

“It’s unbelievable that they would make the statement that they didn’t collect the records because they didn’t have a belief that there was a connection,” Graham said. “It was the records that would have given them that connection.”

Nevertheless, the memo says elsewhere that the FBI concluded there was “no evidence the hijackers visited the family’s residence.” The memo does not explain how, if the gate records were not obtained, the FBI could reach that conclusion.

The FBI has said in public comments, and to the 9/11 Review Commission, that it found “no evidence” connecting the Sarasota Saudis to any of the 9/11 hijackers, “nor was there any connection found between the family and the 9/11 plot.”

A startling statement

The memo, however, includes a startling statement about the FBI’s record-keeping practices that indicates the bureau cannot back up its conclusions. “There is no actual documentation of searches and work done to rule out connections,” the memo says.

The memorandum goes on to dispute the counterterrorism officer’s account of how agents, using a subpoena, obtained phone company records about incoming and outgoing calls to the Escondito house. A link analysis – tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversation – found that calls dating back more than a year prior to 9/11 “lined up with the known suspects,” the counterterrorism officer said.

The links were not only to Atta and other hijack pilots, but to other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center, and al Qaeda terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah, the counterterrorism officer said. Shukrijumah, a Broward resident later added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, was reported killed in a military raid in Pakistan in December 2014.

The memorandum, however, says, “The FBI found there is no evidence and no grounds that the family, or 2 & 3 degrees of separation, had any telephonic connection,” with the hijackers.

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

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

Neither the memo nor the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report indicate that the commission sought to verify any of the FBI’s assertions. The FBI has declined to make public records about its phone record analysis.

Similarly, the memo discusses statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission by the FBI regarding its own April 2002 “many connections” report linking the Sarasota Saudis and 9/11 figures.

80,000 pages

 The FBI released that redacted report, containing national security information and originally marked “declassify on 03-14-2038,” to Florida Bulldog in 2013 during a separate Freedom of Information lawsuit that sought access to records of the FBI’s Sarasota probe.

 

In that case, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale ordered the FBI in April 2014 to produce for his inspection 80,000 pages of records from its Tampa area field office. The judge’s inspection is ongoing.

Before the 9/11 Review Commission, however, the FBI disavowed its report, saying it was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated,” according to the commission’s final report. The FBI went on to tell the commission that the special agent who wrote it, when questioned later, “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

Still, the Memorandum for the Record cited in the commission’s report says the unnamed special agent wrote the report to request opening a more urgent investigation of the Sarasota Saudis, but that didn’t happen.

“Tampa did the right thing by entering information into Rapid Start,” the memo says, referring to the tracking information management system used by the FBI prior to 9/11. “After 3 calls they opened a case. They interviewed the family members when they returned to the U.S. [several years later.] They obtained their contact information. However, Tampa did not have the derogatory needed to bump the investigation up to a [redacted].”

The memo does not explain why, if the 2002 report was “wholly unsubstantiated,” the agent who wrote it would have sought to draw attention to his own shoddy work by seeking further investigation. Likewise, the memo does not address why the FBI made public such a flawed report or why it redacted information from it due to reasons of national security.

The last section of the memo, “Gaps/Possible Issues/Recommendations” was redacted in full under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act regarding “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”

U.S. judge asked to okay deposition of FBI agent in Sarasota Saudi probe

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

The FBI should be ordered to publicly identify and make available for questioning under oath the special agent it says authored a “wholly unsubstantiated” 2002 report that connected a Sarasota Saudi family to 9/11 terrorists, newly filed court papers say.

The 9/11 Review Commission cited without explanation the FBI’s controversial assertion in a report last month that sought to discredit the 2002 document and damage the credibility of the unnamed agent. The commission members were paid by the FBI and chosen by FBI Director James Comey.

The document, parts of which were redacted citing national security, was released to FloridaBulldog.org in March 2013 amid the news organization’s ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit against the FBI. The document said the FBI’s investigation of the Saudi family “revealed many connections” between the family “and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

On Wednesday, the Bulldog’s attorneys asked Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch to allow them to depose the FBI agent and to inspect documents cited in the 9/11 Review Commission’s report concerning the FBI’s once-secret investigation of the Sarasota Saudis.

“In light of the central importance of this agent and the lack of any independent, direct examination of the agent about the findings,” wrote attorneys Thomas Julin and Paulo Lima, “a deposition of the author of the (2002 FBI report) and access to the relevant records of the 9/11 Review Commission will shed significant light.”

Judge Zloch was asked to intervene after Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee informed the attorneys that the government opposed their request to depose the agent. Lee likewise rejected a request for access to the Review Commission’s supporting documents.

The 9/11 Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence in the case. It held no public hearings and relied heavily on the FBI for information, staffing and administration.

One subchapter of the commission’s report addressed FloridaBulldog.org’s story about the Sarasota Saudis, who sources and documents say abruptly moved out of their home in the gated community of Prestancia about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture, a refrigerator full of food, clothes and other goods.

While ignoring a variety of new information reported by the Bulldog – like interview-based stories about how gatehouse security records showed the home was visited by vehicles used by hijackers and another about a 2004 law enforcement report tying the home’s occupant, Abdulaziz al-Hijji, to al Qaeda figure Adnan Shukrijumah – the commission’s report focused on the credibility of the 2002 report, saying the FBI called it “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” the report says.

AGENT INSTRUCTED NOT TO TALK?

According to attorneys Julin and Lima, however, the failure of the Review Commission’s report to identify either the agent or the FBI personnel who questioned him or to explain the FBI’s conclusion that the 2002 report is fatally flawed, is problematic.

“These omissions leave open the possibility that the author 0f (the report) had been instructed by the FBI or by other agencies not to explain why he wrote the document as he did, as well as the possibility the agent simply forgot why he wrote it as he did. The latter possibility seems implausible, however, in light of the startling substance of the document,” they told Judge Zloch.

A year ago, noting that previous records searches were inadequate, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records responsive to FloridaBulldog.org’s FOIA request. Ultimately, the FBI turned over more than 80,000 pages housed in its Tampa field office. Zloch is reviewing those records in order to decide what may be publicly released.

The government provided the judge with three CD-ROMs containing scanned copies of all 80,000 pages. In response to the judge’s specific instructions, the FBI also compiled 27 boxes of paper documents and planned to provide them in sets of four boxes – the maximum capacity of a high-security safe the FBI had installed in the judge’s chambers.

According to prosecutor Lee, the government delivered the first four boxes on May 1, 2014. “I have not received further directions from the court to deliver additional boxes,” Lee wrote in an email.

Thus, it’s unclear how far along Judge Zloch is in evaluating the crush of documents, all of which have been labeled “classified” by the FBI.

Attorneys Julin and Lima requested a status conference with the judge and suggested Zloch consider appointing a special master, or them, to assist in completing the document review.

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

By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune september11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It all ties together.”

Saudi Arabia arguments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local connections to 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A conservative judge rebukes FBI as he orders it to find and turn over 9/11 documents

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch has a reputation as a no-nonsense, conservative judge who can be short on patience, but is long on courtroom preparation and does not recoil from speaking his mind.

On Friday, after months of legal wrangling, Zloch spoke his mind for the first time on the FBI’s handling of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by BrowardBulldog.org that seeks records from the Bureau’s investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

In a stinging, 23-page order, Zloch told the Department of Justice that it had failed to convince him that the FBI’s prior records searches had been “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents,” as courts have said the law requires.

Zloch ordered the FBI to do something it had not done: use its sophisticated, $440 million Sentinel case management system to lead the search for relevant documents while adhering to various court-ordered conditions, including specific automated text searches. The judge gave the Bureau until April 18 – two weeks – to produce photocopies for his private inspection of all documents it identifies.

Zloch’s ruling is a “strong, clear directive to the FBI,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who in 2002 chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and has pushed Washington to release the FBI’s files about what happened in Sarasota.

“Since 2002 many sources, including the U.S. Senate, have been attempting to get information such as that which is likely to be disclosed under Judge Zloch’s order made available. This is the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving that objective,” said Graham.

A MANUAL REVIEW OF HUGE PENTTBOM FILE

Further, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a manual review of all documents in its Tampa field office regarding the Bureau’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, code-named PENTTBOM. He gave the FBI until June 6 to complete that more time consuming task.

The Department of Justice has opposed any additional search. In court papers filed last August, it argued that a manual review would require “extraordinary effort, time and resources to conduct.”

“The manual review which plaintiffs are requesting is not reasonable; nor is it warranted,” the department argued in court papers filed in August. “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.”

Zloch disagreed. He decided a more thorough search is necessary due to “inconsistencies and concerns” about the government’s searches to date, as well as his need to assure himself that “the documents in dispute exist.”

Zloch noted, too, that early FBI assertions that its initial searches had yielded no responsive documents were followed months later, after the lawsuit was filed, by the release of 35 heavily redacted pages. Those pages, some partially blacked out on grounds of national security, contained no investigative reports yet did include some summary information that contradicted prior FBI public statements about the findings of its Sarasota investigation.

AN INVESTIGATION WITH NO DOCUMENTS?

“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” the order says.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the non-profit news organization, said it appears Judge Zloch “definitely wants to get to the bottom of this and doesn’t like the fact that the FBI put out public statements trying to discredit the Bulldog’s reporting…His order makes it sound like he believes the government may be deliberately covering up.”

Zloch’s order goes beyond instructing the FBI to search and produce its own investigative reports. It also requires both the Justice Department and the FBI to “advise the court of any documented communications between defendants and other government agencies concerning the investigation” of the Sarasota Saudis. Again, Zloch wants that information by June 6.

“He’s showing real sensitivity to the likelihood that the FBI is acting under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency,” said Julin. “If the FBI is simply following orders then he is telling the FBI he wants to know what those orders are and from who they are coming, whether it’s the CIA, the NSA or the President.”

The lawsuit was filed in September 2012, after the FBI denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the agency’s reports about its Sarasota investigation.

A year earlier, BrowardBulldog.org had first disclosed the existence of the investigation in a story that reported how Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple, had abruptly moved out of their home in Sarasota’s Prestancia development and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before September 11, 20001.  Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime advisor to a senior Saudi prince, owned the home.

Law enforcement focused on the al-Hijjis after suspicious neighbors called following the attacks to report that the couple had appeared to depart in haste, leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothing and even food in the kitchen.

HIJACKERS AT THE GATE

The story reported that agents who later searched Prestancia’s gatehouse found evidence in logbooks and snapshots of license plates that vehicles used by the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s home. A law enforcement source said an analysis of phone calls to and from the home also found links to Atta and former Broward resident Adnan Shukrijumah, a fugitive and alleged al-Qaeda leader with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement stated that a now imprisoned terrorist figure, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who prior to 9/11 had introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque.

Al-Hijj was interviewed last year by the London Telegraph. He acknowledged knowing Hammoud, but denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terror attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, ex-Sen. Graham has said.

In his order, Judge Zloch explained that his doubts about the quality of the FBI’s prior records searches was rooted in part in the “gaps and inconsistencies” he observed in the handful of documents the FBI has produced to date.

He noted, for example, that one FBI document written after the Sarasota story broke in 2011 states that the investigation found no evidence connecting the Sarasota Saudis to the 9/11 hijackers while another, dated April 2002, says authorities found “many connections” between the family and  “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”

“These statements seem to be in conflict, and there is nothing in defendant’s 35 produced pages that reconciles this stark contradiction,” the order says.

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.

 

Did the 9/11 hijackers have accomplices? Once secret FBI records spark push to find out

 

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
BrowardBulldog.org  

The North Tower of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001

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

New FBI records connecting Saudis who lived in Sarasota before 9/11 to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks” have spurred a renewed push to find out whether the al Qaeda suicide hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people had help.

“One question that has gone unanswered through the investigation of 9/11 is ‘Did the hijackers operate alone or did they have accomplices who facilitated their ability to act?” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. “I think the information we have now makes a very strong case that they did.”

Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, met Tuesday with Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to discuss disclosures in the FBI records released to BrowardBulldog.org.

“He’s very interested in getting to the bottom of the events in Sarasota,” said Graham, who plans to meet with senior Obama administration officials in Washington next week.

“The fact is that most of the hijackers spoke no English and had not been in the U.S. before, yet were able to carry out a very complicated plot while maintaining anonymity,” said Graham. “What we’ve discovered in Sarasota may be another step toward exposing a larger network of Saudi-related individuals who assisted the hijackers.”

The FBI records provide new information about an investigation into what occurred prior to 9/11 at the upscale home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family in the gated community of Prestancia. Information in them contradicts prior FBI statements that no evidence was found connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham

The names of individuals were redacted before the reports were made public, but are apparent because the documents describe unique, known events. The records were released in response to a specific request for information about the probe at al-Hijji’s former residence at 4224 Escondito Circle.

Agents determined the al-Hijjis “fled” their home on August 27, 2001 – two weeks before the attacks – leaving behind three cars, furniture, clothing, toys, food and other items.

“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,” says an April 16, 2002 FBI report.

The report lists three of those individuals. Two, including one described as a “family member,” were described as students at the nearby Venice airport flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The third person lived with some flight students, the report says.

BrowardBulldog.org previously reported that a counterintelligence officer speaking on condition of anonymity said an FBI examination of gatehouse log books and photos of license tags revealed that vehicles linked to the future hijackers visited al-Hijji’s residence. Phone records also reportedly showed indirect ties to the hijackers.

FBI agent Gregory Sheffield was the lead agent on the case. He wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks, the counterterrorism official said. Sheffield’s name is blanked out, too.

On July 22, 2002, Sheffield interviewed al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and mother-in-law, Deborah Ghazzawi “regarding possible terrorist activity.” The women, who had returned briefly to the home, denied fleeing before 9/11 or knowing certain unnamed individuals, according to the reports.

Soon after, Sheffield was transferred to the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence (FCI) division and left the area, according to the counterintelligence officer. The transfer suggested Sheffield may have recruited an al-Hijji family member as a source of information, the source said. hijackers

If so, that could explain why the FBI has reported finding only 35 pages of records regarding an investigation that records and interviews indicate resulted in the filing of numerous investigatory reports over a period of at least three years.

“I believe that the transfer of Sheffield to the FCI side of the bureau speaks volumes as to the lack of information available. If he was able to recruit a family member then all information up to that point will be off limits under the National Security Act,” the counterintelligence source said.

Likewise, that scenario could account for a curious statement in another FBI report written after the Sarasota probe became public in September 2011. The report states, “The FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community.”

According to the counterintelligence officer, that statement is “not true.” In fact, the source said, Agent Sheffield took the Sarasota files, apparently to include the gatehouse and phone records, with him when he departed to his new, more secretive FBI post.

Much remains unclear. Chunks of the released reports are blanked out for national security and other reasons. Four pages were withheld in their entirety.

Sen. Graham believes that what happened in Sarasota points to the idea that there was a broader support network of Saudis who provided aid and sympathy for the future hijackers.

Graham cites a “common outline” with events in San Diego, Ca. involving Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the five Saudi hijackers aboard the American Airlines jet that was flown into the Pentagon.

The Joint Inquiry and 9/11 Commission reports describe how Omar al-Bayoumi, another Saudi living in San Diego, provided assistance to al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi, including housing.

One report said al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported al-Bayoumi appeared to be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The FBI also learned al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements,” the report said.

“There is no evidence that Bayoumi knew what was going on; just that he’d been told to take care of these men,” said Graham, who has criticized the FBI for withholding key information about what happened in San Diego.

A former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham believes a new investigation is now needed to get the truth.

“My goal is to have the investigation reopened and do a full inquiry into the Saudi aspects and then make the results available to the American people,” Graham said.

Such an inquiry should not be led by the FBI, according to Graham.

“They are the ones who have significantly been responsible for us not knowing 10 years ago what the Saudi role was by withholding information and withholding witnesses,” he said.

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.

 

 

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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