Prodded by federal judge, FBI finally identifies Sarasota Saudis by name in court

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Six years after news broke that the FBI found ties between 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family who’d moved abruptly out of their Sarasota home two weeks before the terrorist attacks – and didn’t tell Congress – the FBI has identified the family publicly.

The disclosure is in a partially declassified Memorandum for the Record that recounts a briefing about the family given by the FBI to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014. “Briefing Title: Al-Hiijjii Family,” the document says.

The FBI reluctantly disclosed the family’s last name – which is correctly spelled al-Hijji – in the wake of a Miami federal judge’s Feb. 27 order that it had failed to show that disclosure would invade the al-Hijjis’ privacy. The original version of the memo, released in November, blanked out the al-Hijji name, claiming privacy exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, came to the FBI’s attention within hours of 9/11 when neighbors contacted them to say the couple abruptly had moved out of their upscale home in the Prestancia development, leaving behind their cars and numerous personal belongings. Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince, owned the home.

Among other things, agents later determined that vehicles driven by 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah – who trained at nearby Venice Municipal Airport – had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle.

The FBI kept its investigation secret for a decade, not informing Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the investigation in September 2011. The FBI later confirmed the existence of the probe, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The FBI’s disclosure of the al-Hijji name is a small but noteworthy milestone in FOIA litigation brought by Florida Bulldog last June that seeks the release of records of the secretive 9/11 Review Commission. The commission, paid and controlled by the FBI, spent a year conducting an “external” review of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and evaluating new evidence. It issued a 127-page report in March 2015.

Was al-Hijji a snitch?

The unwillingness of the FBI to publicly identify al-Hijji for so long, even though his name was widely reported, raises questions about why.

“It makes you wonder if they’re going through all this because there’s an arrangement with al-Hijji and Ghazzawi,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin. “It smacks of a confidential source agreement.”

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

The FBI filed court papers this month seeking again to dismiss the lawsuit. In them, the FBI said it had reviewed about 900 pages of classified commission records and declassified and released 328 pages in whole or in part. While some records containing new information about 9/11 were disclosed, many of those records were copies of the FBI’s personal services contracts with commission members and staff.

The government’s filings seek to explain to the court why, despite several ostensibly thorough searches, the bureau continues to report finding new Review Commission documents, as recently as March 7 and again on March 13.

Government court papers said the records, like others previously processed, were under the direct control of FBI Director James Comey, who kept the 9/11 Review Commission’s records stored in his office and not in the FBI’s Central Records System.

The March 7 documents were said to include four additional Memoranda for the Record and “a number of transitory records” the FBI thought it had purged last year. The records were being reviewed for possible release.

“In addition, on March 13, 2017, the FBI Director’s Office identified certain hard copy records held in storage, which had not previously been identified or searched, and which it believes may include material responsive to plaintiffs’ requests,’’ said another government filing. “The Records and Information Dissemination Section is currently retrieving these additional records and will review the same.”

Releasing “in context”

The release of the al-Hijji name, while notable, was not complete. There are clear references to the al-Hijjis elsewhere in the April 30, 2014 Memorandum for the Record, but the names remain redacted.

Here’s how the FBI explains it: “The FBI concedes to releasing the Al-Hiijjiis in this context. This is the summary of information released in a public article.”

The disclosure marks the second time that judicial prodding has caused the FBI to make public names in the memorandum that it previously withheld citing privacy concerns.

In February, the bureau identified Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire as the briefer who told the Review Commission that an explosive April 2002 FBI report stating that agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” was bogus.

The report flatly contradicted FBI public statements that agents had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The report “was a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement,” Maguire said, according to the memorandum. The memo, however, contains nothing to explain the basis for Maguire’s assertions.

The agent who wrote the controversial report is Gregory Sheffield. Judge Cecilia Altonaga has ruled that FBI disclosure of his name would not invade his privacy. Nevertheless, the FBI has not acknowledged his name.

The FBI kept Sheffield’s report secret for more than a decade before releasing a partially declassified version to the Florida Bulldog in March 2013 amid separate FOIA litigation in Fort Lauderdale. The document, censored on grounds of national security, confirmed previous reporting.

FBI resists thorough search of vast 9/11 files in Tampa for records about Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

A mass of documents detailing the Tampa area connection to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many of which may have never been made public, are stored out of sight in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

“The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation,” say new court papers filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

Precisely what information is contained in those records was not disclosed.

The Justice Department cited the Tampa records in an effort to convince U.S. District Judge William Zloch not to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records of its investigation into apparent ties between the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and Saudis living in Sarasota.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily left their upscale home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated community of Prestancia, and the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, leaving behind numerous personal items and a trail of suspicion and mystery.

The FBI said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. But after BrowardBulldog.org sued last year under the Freedom of Information Act the FBI released a handful of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents had found “many connections” to persons associated with the 9/11 terrorists.

Those connections include a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where 9/11 hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained, according to the report. The flight student’s name was censored.

The news organization alleges the FBI’s two prior searches were inadequate and that additional records of its Sarasota investigation have been improperly withheld.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, has told the court in a sworn declaration that he believes the FBI should have hundreds or even thousands of pages of additional records about the matter.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org, has proposed a new search method for the records, including requiring better word searches, and has asked the court to approve it.

The Justice Department is resisting. In court papers, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez said the proposal “would require the FBI to conduct an exhaustive fishing expedition” for no good reason.

[Court documents filed in the case can be found here.]

The FBI’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, was code-named PENTTBOMB, a compression of the words Pentagon, Twin Towers and Bombing. The FBI has said PENTTBOMB was its largest investigation ever, which at its peak involved more than half of its agents.

The FBI has a number of ways that it stores records about PENTTBOMB and its other cases, including its antiquated Central Records System (CRS).

The FBI searched CRS in response to BrowardBulldog.org’s original Freedom of Information Act request in the fall of 2011, but reported finding nothing. It wasn’t until earlier this year, well after the lawsuit was filed, that a further search of CRS turned up the approximately 30 pages that were made public.

The CRS has been replaced by the FBI’s new, $440 million “Sentinel” computer system that was deployed after the original search. Court papers say all FBI records prior to Sentinel’s start-up have been migrated into its system. Attorney Julin has requested the FBI be ordered to conduct a search of the more efficient Sentinel system.

Fernandez acknowledged that the FBI did not search several databases including a pair of surveillance databases and the FBI’s email system.

The surveillance databases were not searched because they were not “specifically requested” to be searched, Fernandez wrote. The email system was not searched, she said, because the FBI “had no reason to believe responsive records would be located on these systems.”

In a reply filed Wednesday, Julin accused the government of playing “cat and mouse” in its responses.

“The reason that the FBI has not located many additional records relating to this investigation has now been made clear. The FBI states in its response…that it ‘did not interpret plaintiffs’ request as seeking information as to any findings regarding family members who resided at the Sarasota address,’” Julin said.

“In essence, this seems to say that the FBI specifically structured its search to exclude the very documents that the FBI knew that the plaintiffs were attempting to obtain and that might either explain the FBI’s public contradiction of the plaintiffs’ published reports or show the FBI’s public statements to be false.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

 

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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