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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Payments to staff

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

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

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

FBI Director James Comey

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

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

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

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

The Sarasota Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heavily redacted Memorandum for the Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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