U.S. judge cites ‘shameful’ FBI delays in making 9/11 records public

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga

A Miami federal judge Tuesday excoriated the FBI for what she called its “shameful” delays in making public certain records about the bureau’s 9/11 Review Commission.

“It is distressing to see the length to which a private citizen must go” to obtain records under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA], said U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. “It’s shocking quite frankly.”

At the same time, however, the judge gave the government two weeks to file a further summary judgment motion explaining why it believes the case brought by Florida Bulldog’s parent company should be dismissed. The ruling put off for now an unusual FOIA trial that had been scheduled to begin next week.

“The judge has done an excellent job moving this difficult case forward irrespective of the FBI’s stall tactics,” said attorney Thomas Julin, a partner in the Miami office of the Gunster law firm who represents Florida Bulldog. “This short delay will not put the Bulldog off the scent.”

Assistant U .S. Attorney Carlos Raurell represents the government. He declined to comment.

Broward Bulldog Inc. sued the FBI and the Justice Department last June, looking for records about the secretive three-man 9/11 Review Commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese. The group, also known as the Meese Commission, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” inquiry into the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. The commissioners were selected by FBI Director James Comey and paid by the FBI.

The Meese Commission, which began its work in 2014, went out of business after issuing a 127-page report in March 2015. The citizen’s 9/11 Commission released its findings in 2004.

In a related case, Bulldog is suing the FBI in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records from the FBI’s 2001-2003 investigation of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a Saudi couple living in Sarasota with ties to the kingdom’s royal family and apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The al-Hijjis came to law enforcement’s attention after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their upscale home two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is reviewing more than 80,000 pages of classified 9/11 records produced by the FBI for his inspection and possible release.

The ‘many connections’ FBI report

One document the FBI did release six months after that initial FOIA case was filed in September 2012 was a copy of an April 16, 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The couple’s name was blanked out, but discernible.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

The report flatly contradicted prior statements by the FBI that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI, however, repudiated its report in a briefing given to the Meese Commission on April 30, 2014.

A memorandum about the briefing says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire called the 2002 report “a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.” The Meese Commission report said the agent who wrote it was “unable” to explain to his superiors why he wrote it as he did. The FBI has not identified the report’s author, but he is former Fort Myers Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.

At Monday’s calendar call, attorney Julin said the Bulldog was prepared to proceed to trial next week while prosecutor Raurell argued the government needed a continuance in order to file additional court papers asking the judge to dismiss the case. Judge Altonaga gave Raurell two weeks to file a new motion for summary judgment. If summary judgment is not granted on all remaining issues, a trial date will be scheduled.

Julin contends the FBI had no basis to keep Meese Commission records secret.

“The FBI started this fight by claiming it found nothing in Sarasota when it quite obviously did. We’re trying to get records which show why the Meese Commission continued this charade,” he said. “Did the FBI agree not to investigate Saudis who supported the 9/11 hijackers? That is what we’re trying to find out.”

Altonaga’s order

On Monday, Judge Altonaga issued a 37-page order in which she addressed the government’s initial motion for summary judgment, filed Dec. 30, and issues about the appropriateness of FBI redactions laced through four previously released documents. The FBI has cited various exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to justify those deletions, but the news organization objected to many of those redactions as improper.

In a nutshell, the judge ruled the FBI improperly veiled the names of FBI agents, the al-Hijjis and others in the records it has released by repeatedly citing two exemptions intended to shield information that could result in “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The ruling could prompt the FBI to restore those names and re-release those documents, or the bureau could choose to try to persuade the judge of its position at a future trial.

The FBI fared much better with Altonaga regarding its other cited exemptions.

Specifically, the judge ruled the bureau had properly asserted exemptions intended to protect national security, confidential informants, law enforcement records or techniques and procedures and inter-agency or intra-agency memos or letters. The ruling means the FBI is not required to make that information public.

Altonaga saw un-redacted copies of the documents. In her decision granting summary judgment in favor of the FBI on matters of national security, she cited legal precedent that courts “should defer to an agency’s decision to withhold information” about national security matters.

Judges “must recognize that the Executive departments responsible for national defense and foreign policy matters have unique insights into what adverse affects [sic] might occur as a result of public disclosure of a particular classified record,” the court papers say.

28 pages and 80,000 pages: The hunt for a Saudi support network for 9-11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org worldtradecenter

Lawyers for the Florida Bulldog have asked a federal judge to award substantial attorney fees for years of efforts to obtain secret reports about the FBI’s post-9/11 investigation of Saudis in Sarasota with apparent ties to the suicide hijackers.

The court papers filed Tuesday seek a court hearing and also show how the Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information (FOI) case ties into a better-known push to declassify 28 pages that were cut out of a 2002 report by Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks. Those censored pages involved “specific sources of foreign support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In the Fort Lauderdale case, a federal judge is reviewing for possible public release 80,000 classified pages about 9/11 located in the FBI’s Tampa field office. Judge William J. Zloch ordered the Bureau to produce those records for his private inspection two years ago.

“In essence, the 28 pages are expected to reveal what the Joint Inquiry discovered about Saudi government support of terrorism and the Sarasota documents are expected to reveal what the Joint Inquiry failed to discover about Saudi government support for terrorism,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.

“Together, both sets of documents may reflect whether a Saudi government network throughout the United States was used to support the terrorist attacks on 9/11. They also may help the American public to judge how the defendants [Department of Justice and the FBI] reacted to the terrorist attacks on the United States and whether additional steps should have been taken to prevent the attacks and to prosecute those who may have aided the attacks,” Julin’s motion said.

The Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Justice Department in September 2012 after the FBI claimed to have no records about its Sarasota investigation. The Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers and his wife, Robbyn Swan, broke the story on Sept. 8, 2011 – nearly 10 years to the day after the terrorist attacks.

A fast exit from Sarasota

The story disclosed the existence of the FBI’s probe of events surrounding Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a young Saudi couple who abruptly moved out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings – and how agents found evidence that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers, who’d trained at nearby flight schools in Venice, had visited the al-Hijjis’ home.

Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Likewise, the story reported that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of the Joint Inquiry, said the FBI had kept Congress in the dark about its Sarasota investigation.

The Bulldog is a tax-exempt public charity with what Julin described as “extremely limited resources.” Its lawsuit, however, is nearly four years old, an unusually long time for a Freedom of Information Act complaint.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin

Miami attorney Thomas Julin

As a result, the news organization’s law firm, Hunton & Williams, has borne the financial burden of the case. Julin and four colleagues told the court they have spent more than 615 hours on the case and are asking for $409,000 in fees.

The fee award being sought is in large part attributable to the FBI’s aggressiveness resistance to disclosing its records about the Sarasota investigation. For example, in addition to repeatedly denying that it had any responsive documents, Bureau representatives have said the Sarasota probe found no connection to the 9/11 plot. Still, a handful of FBI documents made public during the pending litigation said the opposite: that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.

In addition to representing the Bulldog in court, attorney Julin has spent numerous hours in an effort to declassify the 28 pages from the Joint Inquiry’s report. The Bulldog, Summers and Swan began the process in June 2013. Today, the case is pending before the Interagency Security Classification Appeals panel is Washington. A decision is expected this month.

The quest to unlock the 28 pages got a huge boost in an April 60 Minutes TV report that focused on current efforts by Sen. Graham and others to obtain their release.

Numerous members of Congress, 9/11 victims and their relatives and current and former government officials as well as leading presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called for the release of the 28 pages.

Developments in the case continue. On May 17, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Justice Against Supporters of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill that would allow 9/11 victims and their families to sue Saudi Arabia. The House is expected to consider the bill shortly.

“It underscores the public importance of the records that are at the heart of this litigation,” Julin wrote in his fee motion.

Click here and scroll down to FOIA Lawsuit Documents to read the new filings.

FBI’s attempt to water down judicial order denied; 9/11 documents begin to flow to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers fbitower.jpg

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.

Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private, or “in camera,” inspection.

The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.

The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

NEIGHBORS CALL THE AUTHORITIES

Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al Hijji’s home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the Bureau never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince him that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.

The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.

Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI. He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.

But the government pushed back.

GOVERNMENT SEEKS MORE TIME, LESS REQUIREMENTS

On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay – until May 2 – to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.

Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled secret, and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa (9/11) sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”

The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format.  He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.

Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.

“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.

Finally, Judge Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al Hijj and his father-in-law Esam Ghazzawi, once an adviser to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.

The government has contended the privacy interests of al Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.

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.

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.

Drilling Deeper: The Wealth of Connections for Obama’s Energy Pick

By Justin Elliott, ProPublica

Energy secretary nominee Ernest Moniz  Photo: MIT

Energy secretary nominee Ernest Moniz Photo: MIT

When President Obama nominated Ernest Moniz to be energy secretary earlier this month, he hailed the nuclear physicist as a “brilliant scientist” who, among his many talents, had effectively brought together “prominent thinkers and energy companies” in the continuing effort to figure out a safe and economically sound energy future for the country.

Indeed, Moniz’s collaborative work – best captured in the industry-backed research program he oversaw at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is well known. So, too, is his support for Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy – one that embraces, fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable energy sources. (more…)

New questions about FBI probe of Saudis’ post-9/11 exodus

By Robbyn Swan, Special to BrowardBulldog.org

A departure board at South Carolina's Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport shows cancelled flights around the country on September 11, 2001

The FBI mishandled its investigation of the travel of a Saudi prince and his companions out of Florida within days of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, new interviews, 9/11 Commission documents and FBI files reveal. And its detailed report on the matter, drawn up for members of Congress and President George W. Bush, was inaccurate.

The new reporting springs from suspicions that a well-connected Saudi living in Sarasota, Fla., may have associated with the 9/11 hijackers. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, has suggested that the FBI’s investigation of the Sarasota matter “was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI. An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as fact.”

These concerns have led to a re-examination of the efforts to get out of the U.S. immediately following the 9/11 attacks by a Saudi royal, Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and several companions.  Their travel began in Tampa, a short drive from Sarasota.

The review of how the FBI dealt with and reported on the travel of the Florida-based Saudis, and their subsequent departure from the United States with other Saudis, shows that the FBI failed to interview principal witnesses; relied on erroneous second-hand information; misinterpreted the orders under which the FAA managed the closure and subsequent reopening of U.S. airspace after the 9/11 attacks; misreported the means of travel; and even got Prince Sultan’s identity wrong.

The FAA grounded all flights less than an hour after the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center, and reopened U.S. airspace to commercial and charter air traffic only at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13. By then, with Saudi-born Osama bin Laden fingered as the principal suspect in the attacks and 15 of the 19 hijackers identified as Saudi citizens, panicked Saudis were doing their utmost to get out of the country.

Sometime on the day following the attacks, Prince Sultan, a grandnephew of the late King Fahd and a student at the University of Tampa’s American Language Academy, began trying to leave Florida, according to 9/11 Commission files. He did so on the instructions of his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi media baron and fabulously wealthy racehorse owner who was in Lexington, Ky. for the annual yearling sales. According to a Lexington police officer – his name is redacted in FBI documents –  who coordinated security for the younger prince’s travel from Tampa, Ahmed told Sultan to get to Lexington and join him on a flight out of the U.S. 

Reportedly scared by what he considered a hostile atmosphere in the wake of the attacks, Sultan requested and received a guard detail from the Tampa Police Department. A Tampa police officer, John Solomon, later told the 9/11 Commission that he contacted Dan Grossi, a former policeman turned private investigator, to accompany the Saudis on the planned flight to Lexington. Grossi, in turn, contracted retired FBI agent Emanuel “Manny” Perez, to partner with him on the assignment.

The closure of U.S. airspace, meanwhile, led briefly to talk of Prince Sultan and his companions instead making the 700-mile journey to Lexington by car. But an FAA Notice to Airmen – a “NOTAM” – that U.S. airspace would reopen to domestic commercial and charter flights at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13, cleared them to fly, FAA records show.

At about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, Grossi met the prince and his party of four – later named as Fahad al-Zied, Ahmed al-Hazmi (the fact that this is the same last name as two of the 9-11 hijackers may well be mere coincidence) and Talal al-Mejrad, son of a Saudi army officer – at Raytheon Services, away from the main Tampa airport terminal. With the Saudis and the security men on board, a cream-colored Lear Jet supplied by the Fort Lauderdale charter company Hop-A-Jet lifted off at 4:37, FAA records and Tampa Airport data show.

Prince looked ‘like a kid who was scared’


Perez, the security man, said that only on landing around 6 p.m. at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport did he realize the flight had been very sensitive – that one of his passengers was a Saudi royal. They were greeted, he recalled in an interview, by a phalanx of security men and a flurry of hand-kissing for young Prince Sultan, who was then in his early 20s.

Lt. Mark Barnard of the Lexington Police Department, who worked liaison at the Kentucky end, would later tell the 9/11 Commission that the prince seemed to him just  “like a kid who was scared,” escorted the young Saudi and his companions to his uncle Prince Ahmed’s hotel, and the two princes and twelve companions left three days later aboard a chartered Boeing 727 en route to Saudi Arabia.

Two years after 9/11, in a Vanity Fair story titled “Saving the Saudis,” author Craig Unger raised numerous questions about the role the FBI had played in facilitating that and various other flights involved in the panicky Saudi exodus from the United States. The article obscured the facts on the travel from Tampa, unfortunately, with a claim that the flight had been allowed to take place “when U.S. citizens were still restricted from flying.” In fact, as the FAA record makes clear, the flight took place several hours after the FAA had opened airspace to charter flights.

In the wake of the Vanity Fair story, when U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John Kyl raised questions, the FBI prepared a 40-page response for the senators and the White House addressing all Saudi travel out of the U.S. after 9/11. What it reported on the Tampa-Lexington flight, however, was not true.

Instead of just noting that the FAA record showed the travel occurred after U.S. airspace was reopened, the FBI said Sultan and his three companions “had arrived in Lexington from Tampa by car.”

“The four individuals,” the report went on, “had disobeyed the Prince [Ahmed] by traveling by car instead of by jet as the Prince had instructed them.”

FBI insistent: ‘No flights arrived’
The FBI insisted that “No flights arrived” in Lexington on the day in question. The assertion that there had been an incoming flight from Tampa, the FBI claimed, had been “perpetuated” by “hired security personnel” – a clear reference to the Saudis’ escorts, former policeman Grossi and former FBI agent Perez. “One of the members of the private protection detail,” the bureau’s response claimed, “had confidentially told FBI agents in Kentucky the truth about how they arrived in Lexington.”

A 9/11 Commission analysis and FBI documents, however, show  that the FBI’s inquiry into the Tampa flight had relied on a lone source, a  Lexington police officer whose name is also redacted in the released documents. He had merely “hemmed and hawed” when an FBI agent doubted his belief that the Saudis had traveled by air – then suggested the men had in reality traveled by car. The police officer, however, had no first-hand knowledge of the event. The FBI did not at the time interview Grossi or Perez, the security escorts who had flown with the Saudis from Tampa. It interviewed Perez only years later and has never interviewed Grossi.

An FBI departmental memo dated 2003, meanwhile, shows why the bureau was reluctant to believe there had been a flight from Tampa. Having failed to check aviation records that would have shown when exactly the men had flown, it believed “such a flight on 9/13/2001 would have been in violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight ban.”

As early as four days after the flight, however, the bureau had had good reason to realize that the flight had occurred. Other FBI documents, obtained by the public interest group Judicial Watch, make clear that one of the bureau’s own agents in Lexington had the information as early as Sept. 17. That fact, it seems, was filed and forgotten.

Hillary Clinton presents the 2001 Belmont Stakes winner's trophy to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of Point Given

The now-retired FBI special agent-in-charge in Tampa, Robert Chiaradio, did not respond to a request for an interview. His counterpart in Lexington, retired Supervisor Robert Foster, agreed last month to discuss these events by email. Of Prince Sultan and his party’s travel from Tampa, Foster said, “We didn’t question the passengers about how they arrived in Lexington.” His agents’ assignment, Foster said, was to identify each passenger leaving the U.S. and “determine if they were on any watch or no fly list prior to their boarding.”

Watch lists aside, the security check was complicated, Foster wrote, because Prince Ahmed had “given an interview to a local TV station attesting to the fact that he was a cousin of Osama bin Laden.” There is no known evidence that Ahmed was in any way related to bin Laden, and no such interview has ever surfaced. If he did make that comment, however, one would have expected it to have alerted the FBI at both local and headquarters level. Apparently it did not. “We did not interview him,” Foster said in his email last month, “I did not investigate his claim to be related to bin Laden. … I did furnish this information to FBI HQ. I do not recall having discussions with FBI HQ regarding not allowing him to leave the U.S.”

The 9/11 Commission later established that none of the 14 Saudis who left for home from Kentucky was interviewed by the FBI before they were allowed to depart. According to the files, moreover, the bureau did not even figure out who Prince Sultan actually was. A Tampa police document had his name correctly as “Sultan bin Fahd,” which  translates as “Sultan son of Fahd,” one of the king’s nephews. Yet FBI documents repeatedly described Sultan as the son of Prince Ahmed, who was his uncle.

Asked to comment on the catalog of apparent errors and omissions reported in this article, FBI spokesperson Kathleen Wright said on Tuesday that the matter was complex and “would be reviewed  for consideration of a response.”

 A senior bin Laden aide now in Guantanamo, Abu Zubaydah, is said by sources – including John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who led his capture, who said he got his information from CIA documents and colleagues –  to have stated under questioning that al-Qaida had been in contact with Prince Ahmed before 9/11. The prisoner, Kiriakou said, raised the names of Ahmed and two other royals as if to indicate “he had the support of the Saudi government.”

There is a link, too, between Prince Sultan and the post-9/11 investigation in Sarasota. Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime adviser to Sultan’s father, Prince Fahd, owned the Sarasota home suspected of having been visited on multiple occasions by hijack leader Mohamed Atta and several of his accomplices. 

Prince Ahmed died aged 43 in July, 2002, in circumstances that remain unclear. Prince Fahd, 46, had pre-deceased him, dying seven weeks before 9/11. A 2009 report described Prince Sultan as having become chairman of Eirad, a Saudi holding company.

Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden.”

Classified documents contradict FBI on post 9/11probe of Saudis, Graham says

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog on Feb. 20. As on Monday, we are re-posting our coverage of the 9/11 investigation after it was picked up today, March 13, by MSNBC.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers

Former Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota. (more…)

FBI informant says Sarasota Saudi praised bin Laden; knew Broward Qaeda suspect

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Broward Bulldog and the London Daily Telegraph on Feb. 18. We are re-posting it here after it was picked up today, March 12, by MSNBC and NBC News4 New York.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers 

A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004. (more…)

Graham: FBI’s public statements are in conflict with still secret records of Sarasota 9/11 probe

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers

Former Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota.

Graham would not disclose the content of the documents, which are marked “Secret,” but said the information they contain is at odds with the FBI’s public statements that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis then living in Sarasota.

“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.

“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” Graham said. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”

Whether the 9/11 hijackers acted alone, or whether they had support within the U.S., remains an unanswered question – one that began to be asked as soon as it became known that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. It was underlined when Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry, which Democrat Graham co-chaired, released its public report in July 2003. The final 28 pages, regarding possible foreign support for the terrorists, were censored in their entirety—on President George W. Bush’s instructions.

Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who had participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”

Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, only to find the man had been instructed by FBI headquarters not to talk.

LICENSE PLATES TIED TO HIJACKERS

The FBI-led investigation a decade ago focused on Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia and left the country in the weeks before 9/11. The couple, who had lived there since about 1995, left behind three cars and numerous personal belongings such as furnishings, clothes, medicine and food, according to law enforcement records. A concerned neighbor contacted the FBI.

Analysis of Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle, according to a counterterrorism officer – speaking on condition of anonymity – and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.

The home was owned by Mrs. Al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd and a noted racehorse owner. Prince Fahd died in July 2001.

Al-Hijji, who now lives and works in London, this month called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.

The FBI backs up al-Hijji. After initially declining to comment, the Bureau confirmed that it did investigate but said it found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.

The FBI reiterated its position in a February 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.

Wissam Hammoud

Newly released Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents, however, state that an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, the ex-Broward resident and suspected al Qaeda operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

In 2003, the FBI asked Sarasota lawyer Scott McKay, who was involved in the sale of the property, to convince al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Ghazzawi, to return to the U.S. to sign documents. The ploy, intended to get Ghazzawi back for questioning, failed when Ghazzawi instead signed the sale documents at the American consulate in Beirut.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI. The agent believed that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds had been interested in both men even before 9/11.

The FBI interviewed Al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and her American-born mother, Deborah Ghazzawi, when they returned to Sarasota briefly in 2003. The women denied involvement with the 9/11 terrorists, and said the couple’s 2001 return flights to Saudi Arabia had been booked well in advance.

Al-Hijji told London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, that he returned to the U.S. for two months in 2005 to study in Houston, but was not questioned by the FBI. Asked why federal agents had questioned his wife and mother-in-law, he said he had “no idea.”

GRAHAM ASKS FOR HELP

Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.

That prompted Graham to ask the FBI for assistance in locating in the National Archives the Sarasota-related files that were allegedly turned over to Congress. Instead, after what Graham said were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, the Bureau suddenly turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.

Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, which responded by setting up a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Joyce told Graham he “didn’t want to talk” about the Sarasota episode. Graham was assured, however, that he would shortly be shown material that supported the FBI’s denials, and a further meeting was arranged with an FBI aide.

In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.

9/11 Commission co-chairs Lee Hamilton (left)and Thomas Kean

Graham said the Joint Inquiry was not the only national investigative body kept in the dark about Sarasota. He said the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have told him they also were unaware of it.

Kean, a former New Jersey governor, told Graham the Commission would have “worked it hard,” because the hypothesis that the hijackers completed the planning alone was “implausible.”

Kean did not return several phone messages seeking comment. But Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, confirmed this month that he learned nothing about the Sarasota matter while serving as vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Graham sees the information now emerging about Sarasota as ominously similar to discoveries his Inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from another Saudi, one of whom helped Mihdhar and Hazmi find an apartment. Multiple sources told investigators they believed the latter helpful Saudi had been a Saudi government agent.

Later, when 9/11 Commission staff gained limited access to these individuals in Saudi Arabia, the aides’ reaction was caustic. One memo described the testimony of one of them as “deceptive…inconsistent…implausible.” The testimony of another displayed an “utter lack of credibility.”

TWO HIJACKERS LIVED WITH FBI INFORMANT

Graham is troubled by what he sees as FBI headquarters’ persistent apparent effort to conceal information, including the fact that Mihdhar and Hazmi lived for months in California in the home of a paid FBI informant. Even when that emerged, the FBI denied his Inquiry access to the informant. Graham wonders if that was merely because of the Bureau’s embarrassment, or because the informant knew something that “would be even more damaging were it revealed.”

The newly surfaced FDLE documents containing Hammoud’s troubling 2004 information about al-Hijji have reinforced Graham’s concerns because they conflict with the FBI’s public statements.

Hammoud’s statement that al-Hijji introduced him to Broward’s own Saudi terror suspect, Shukrijumah, is consistent with the report that Prestancia gate logs showed Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji house – and buttresses longstanding official suspicion that he was linked to the hijackers. When Mohamed Atta visited a federal immigration office in Miami to discuss a visa problem in May 2001, a 9/11 Commission footnote reports, a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah accompanied him.

Graham sees what he believes to be the suppression of evidence pointing to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers as arising from the perceived advantages to the West, at the time and now, of keeping Saudi Arabia happy.

In late December, the U.S. announced a new $30 billion defense deal with the Saudis.

“This agreement serves to reinforce the strong enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. “It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security.”

Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.

“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

FBI informant says Sarasota Saudi praised bin Laden; knew Broward Qaeda suspect

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers 

A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004.

The informant also told authorities that Abdulazziz al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah — the former Miramar resident and suspected al Qaeda leader who today has a $5 million bounty on his head.

The FBI and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Wissam Taysir Hammoud at the Hillsborough County Jail on April 7, 2004. Broward Bulldog obtained Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports about the interview and the investigation using the state’s public records law.

Hammoud, 46, who once owned a cell phone business in Sarasota, is serving 21 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in an earlier case against him. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons classifies him as an “International Terrorist Associate,” court records show.

Hammoud reaffirmed his previous statements about al-Hijji to the FBI in recent interviews.

Al-Hijj’s name made headlines in September when Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald reported on a counterterrorism source’s disclosure of a previously unknown FBI-led probe that followed the attacks on New York and Washington — one that pointed to a possible Saudi support operation for the hijackers in Florida.

A decade after the nation’s worst terrorist attack, which claimed the lives of 3,000 people, al-Hijji has now been found to be living in London where he works for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company. His job title is career counselor.

Al-HIJJI RESPONDS

In an email to London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, al-Hijji acknowledged Hammoud had been his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

Al-Hijji’s account is supported by the FBI, which has stated: “At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers…and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot.”

In a brief interview outside his office, Al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

While living in Florida, al-Hijji attended Manatee Community College (now the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota) and, from January 2000 until April 2001, the University of South Florida. He earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in management information systems awarded in August 2001.

In the weeks before 9/11, al-Hijji — then 27 — and his wife Anoud, daughter of an adviser to a member of the Saudi royal family, departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the upscale gated community of Prestancia and returned to Saudi Arabia They left behind three cars and “numerous personal belongings including food, medicine, bills, baby clothing, etc,” according to the FDLE documents which state the family departed on Aug. 27, 2001.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

Al-Hijji denied having abandoned his home in haste, explaining: “No, no, no. Absolutely not true. We were trying to secure the [Aramco] job. It was a good opportunity.” He said his wife and children followed him out to Saudi Arabia a few weeks after he left Sarasota.

An alarmed neighbor contacted the FBI. When several weeks passed without action, Prestanica resident and administrator Larry Berberich alerted local law enforcement. Authorities, including the FBI, moved in.

The investigation led to a stunning development, according to Berberich and a counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The car registration numbers of vehicles that had passed through the Prestancia community’s North Gate in the months before 9/11, coupled with the identification documents shown by incoming drivers on request, showed that Mohamed Atta and several of his fellow hijackers – and another Saudi terror suspect still at large – had visited 4224 Escondito Circle on multiple occasions,” the source said.

The others included Marwan al-Shehhi, who plowed a United Airlines jet into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Ziad Jarrah, who crashed another United jet into a Pennsylvania field and Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Also identified as having visited: Saudi-born fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah.

The source said law enforcement “also conducted a link analysis that tracked phone calls – based on dates, times, and length of phone conversations to and from the Escondito house – dating back more than a year before 9/11. And the phone traffic also connected with the 9/11 terrorists – though less directly than the gate logs did.”

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks, called news of the Sarasota investigation the “most important” development on the background to the 9/11 plot in years. He added that Congress should have been told about it.

Soon after the story broke, however, the FBI poured cold water on it. It acknowledged that there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.

The FBI reiterated that position in a letter this month denying a Freedom of Information Act request for records of its investigation.

The FDLE records suggest such a finding may have been wrong. For example, one report that recounts what Hammoud said during the 2004 interview states, “The following information, in particular the information by Wissam Hammoud, is being followed up on internationally.”

DETAILS FROM FDLE REPORT  

The FDLE reports buttress key elements of the story, while providing new details:

Hammoud, who said he met al-Hijji through relatives, said the two men worked out together at Shapes Fitness in Sarasota and played soccer at the local Islamic Society. He told the FBI Al-Hijji was “very well schooled in Islam” and that “Osama bin Laden was a hero of al-Hijji.” He added that Al-Hijji showed him a “website containing information about bin Laden,” and spoke of “going to Afghanistan and becoming a freedom fighter.” Al-Hijji also tried to recruit him, Hammoud said.

According to Hammoud, al-Hijji also talked of “taking flight training in Venice.” He said he believed “al-Hijji had known some of the terrorists from the September 11, 2001 attacks” who were students at an airport there.

Hammoud said al-Hijji “entertained Saudis at his residence” at “parties” that he himself did not stay for because – unlike al-Hijji as he remembered him – he “did not drink or smoke cannabis.” One Saudi Hammoud identified as an al-Hijji “friend” he brought to a soccer game at the Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001 was Shukrijumah.

Hammoud’s wife and sister-in-law confirmed during recent interviews that they too knew the al-Hijjis and are familiar with elements of Hammoud’s account. Mrs. Hammoud, who asked that her full name not be used, got the impression from comments al-Hijji made that he was “anti-American.” Hammoud himself, speaking from prison in recent days, said al-Hijji “had a lot of hatred towards everyone in America.” He said he had thought al-Hijji “nuts” when he asked him to go fight in Afghanistan.

Al-Hijji, while confirming he used to work out with Hammoud, described his life in Sarasota as quiet, centered on his wife and children.

“My friends were very limited,” he explained. “Normally, I don’t hold parties in the house because I have little kids. I was not a frequent to any bars.”

HAMMOUD SEEN AS TERRORIST ASSOCIATE 

Prison officials have put Hammoud under heightened security measures due to his classification as a terrorist associate. Court records state the classification is based on what authorities said was Hammoud’s “support and membership” in a “Palestinian-related terrorist organization.”

Hammoud denies involvement with the group and has sought – so far unsuccessfully – a court order to overturn that classification. While representing himself, he filed documents that reveal a history of mental problems caused by a serious brain injury he suffered in a car accident in 1990.

After Hammoud’s first conviction in 2002 for selling illegal weapons to an undercover federal agent, an FBI agent wrote: “Hammoud is now claiming diminished capacity because of an auto accident in an effort to be sentenced to less time…There is speculation on the part of law enforcement that this was merely an attempt to gain sympathy from the sentencing judge…”

Hammoud was found to be competent by a judge before he was allowed to plead guilty to more serious charges arising from his 2004 arrest. The guilty plea and sentence were later upheld on appeal.

Hammoud’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer, would not comment. But his appellate attorney, Tampa’s Bruce Howie, remembers his former client as “not delusional or wacky…I think he has his share of paranoia. But he’s not a liar. He didn’t make it up as he went along.”

For his part, Hammoud has named several FBI agents that he claims to have dealt with while attempting to assist the government in its fight against terrorism. One was Miami Special Agent Kevin Griffin, best known locally for undercover work that put former Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in prison in 2010.

Hammoud’s current attorney, Detroit’s Sanford Schulman, said FBI agents have met with Hammoud on multiple occasions.

“There have been about 10 different agents, and that’s just the ones that I’ve been involved with. They were not two minute meetings either,” said Schulman, who did not attend but was notified of the meetings.

Hammoud may have known more than is revealed in the new FDLE documents.  A Sarasota Herald-Tribune story about him based on an FBI agent’s affidavit filed at the time of Hammoud’s arrest in January 2004 has this ominous reference:

“In September 2001, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed Hammoud because someone had anonymously called saying Hammoud had made a comment that the Oklahoma bombing was going to be small compared with what was coming.”

In a recent email, Hammoud denied having made such a remark.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

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