Down the rabbit hole with the FBI: Saying 9/11 documents don’t exist when they do

 By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 9-11

In its only public statements about the Sarasota Saudis who suspiciously quit their home in a gated community in haste two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind numerous personal belongings — the FBI has said it investigated, but found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

Nearly three years later, however, the FBI has yet to back up its assertions by producing investigative reports written by agents who conducted the probe.

In fact, the few FBI records that have been released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2012 by BrowardBulldog.org flatly contradict the Bureau’s public statements. They say the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to 9/11 terrorist figures – a determination in line with the recollections of a counterterrorism officer with knowledge of the investigation.

The officer, who has asked not to be named, said authorities found gatehouse vehicle and telephone records indicating that Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the luxury home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.

KEY RECORDS HAVEN’T SURFACED

The gatehouse and phone records haven’t surfaced – despite the completion this month of a court-ordered search of more than 80,000 pages of FBI 9/11 records. Neither have specific FBI documents mentioned in the handful of FBI records that have trickled out to date, or others that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, says he was shown by the FBI after the story broke in 2011.

What’s going on?

The answer appears to lie in an obscure provision of federal law enacted decades ago that allows the FBI to say that certain sensitive records don’t exist when they actually do exist.

“That sounds like the most likely thing because you know beyond any question that records were created and they’re not showing up where they should show up,” said Washington, D.C. attorney James Lesar, a veteran FOIA litigator. “They’ve simply kept them secret.”

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966. It provides access to federal agency records, but there are nine exemptions, including personal privacy, which agencies can invoke to withhold records from public inspection. There are also three less common “exclusions” used to suppress information about sensitive law enforcement and national security matters.

A 1986 amendment to the act incorporated an exclusion that allows the FBI to treat classified records about foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism as “not subject to the requirements” of the act.

Justice Department guidelines established by Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese say that means that those who request excluded records can be told, “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request.”

NO LYING?

“The approach has never involved ‘lying,’ as some have suggested,” Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Iowa Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a Nov. 2011 letter. “The logic is simple: When a citizen makes a request pursuant to the FOIA, either implicit or explicit in the request is that it seeks records that are subject to the FOIA; where…records that exist are not subject to the FOIA, the statement “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request” is wholly accurate.”

Still, such answers can “mislead,” as California U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney observed in a 2011 ruling in another FOIA case.

When the law is invoked “the government will routinely submit an in camera declaration addressing that claim, one way or the other,” the guidelines say. “In camera” is legal terminology for privately in the judge’s chambers.

That appears to be what happened in federal court in Fort Lauderdale this month when the FBI filed Records Section Chief David Hardy’s fourth declaration in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA case. A footnote in the declaration says the FBI simultaneously filed Hardy’s fifth declaration in camera and ex parte (without providing a copy to the news organization).

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents BrowardBulldog.org.

“We intend to challenge the FBI’s claim that it has no records or that they can be treated as not subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” said Julin. “The judge can make a determination that these records should be open to the American public and I would expect him to do that if he finds that disclosure of these records would not endanger national security.

“We have every reason to believe that this is the case since Sen. Graham has been espousing the view that the existence of a Saudi network in the United States is something that should be disclosed to the American people and would not endanger the United States,” Julin said. Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl., chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch continues his review of Hardy’s latest declarations and more than 80,000 pages of un-redacted 9/11 documents the FBI has produced for his private inspection.

QUESTIONS ABOUT AN FBI AGENT’S TRANSFER

FBI records released to date and the observations of the counterterrorism officer appear to fit the FOIA exemption scenario.

The FBI agent in charge of the Sarasota Saudi investigation was Gregory Sheffield. According to the counterterrorism officer, Sheffield wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks.

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

“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 officer said in an interview last year.

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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