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.”

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

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org towersbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘ERROR OF LAW’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE’ OF FUNDING TO AL QAEDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New push to release censored pages in Congressional report that detail 9/11 link to Saudi Arabia

By Jamie Reno, International Business Times 

The skyline of New York's Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center.

The skyline of New York’s Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center.

Since terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, victims’ loved ones, injured survivors, and members of the media have all tried without much success to discover the true nature of the relationship between the 19 hijackers – 15 of them Saudi nationals – and the Saudi Arabian government. Many news organizations reported that some of the terrorists were linked to the Saudi royals and that they even may have received financial support from them as well as from several mysterious, moneyed Saudi men living in San Diego.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any connection, and neither President George W. Bush nor President Obama has been forthcoming on this issue. (more…)

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