The FBI told a federal judge Friday that its page-by-page review of more than 80,000 pages of records from its 9/11 investigation turned up “no additional substantive information” about connections it has said existed between Saudis in Sarasota and 9/11 terrorist figures.
At the same time, the Bureau made public 31 pages of documents not previously released about the Sarasota Saudis, Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud. The pages contain little new information.
More notably, the FBI’s extensive search failed to identify any reports generated by its own agents documenting the nature and extent of the Sarasota investigation, or its findings and conclusions. A law enforcement source has said agents found vehicle and phone records indicating the al-Hijji’s home in the upscale gated community of Prestancia was visited by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta, Broward resident-turned-most wanted al Qaeda terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah, and other terror figures.
WHERE ARE THE RECORDS?
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks, said the lack of such investigative reports is at odds with previous public statements by Bureau officials that downplayed the significance of its Sarasota investigation. The investigation started after neighbors reported the al-Hijjis, who had ties to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, abruptly quit their home two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind furniture, cars and other personal belongings.
“How can they make public statements that they conducted a thorough investigation, but have no documents to substantiate that?” said Graham.
The dearth of FBI reports, including so-called FD 302 reports used by agents to report the results of interviews they conduct, may also be of special interest to Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch. His April order requiring both manual and database text searches cited the FBI’s failure to acknowledge the existence of such records as one reason for his decision.
“An investigation took place during this time period that apparently resulted in certain findings, yet seemingly, the search yielded no documentation. This alone moves the court to believe that a further search is necessary,” Zloch wrote.
Zloch is presiding over a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought against the FBI and the Department of Justice by BrowardBulldog.org. The suit, filed in 2012 by Miami attorney Thomas Julin, followed the FBI’s denials of the news organization’s requests for access to agency records about its Sarasota investigation.
Friday’s release of records marks the third time the FBI has publicly disclosed records from files that it once asserted contained no records responsive to the FOIA request.
In March 2013, the FBI unexpectedly released 35 pages. Those records flatly stated the Sarasota Saudis who “fled” their home had “many connections to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”
One partially declassified document, marked “secret,” listed three of those individuals and tied them to the Venice flight school where Atta and his fellow suicide pilot/hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The names of the individuals were blanked-out, citing national security, but one was described as a relative of the Sarasota Saudis.
The FBI released four additional pages last month confirming the “many connections” between the Saudi family and the 9/11 terrorists. For the first time, they also identified by name international businessman Esam Ghazzawi as being involved in the investigation. Ghazzawi, an adviser to a senior Saudi prince, is the father of Anoud al-Hijji. He and his wife, Deborah, owned the al-Hijji’s home at 4224 Escondito Circle, near Sarasota.
AN ‘INADVERTENT’ RELEASE
In Friday’s filing, FBI records section chief David M. Hardy said the FBI had “inadvertently” released Ghazzawi’s name. He said the release did not mean the FBI had waived the privacy of individuals, like the al-Hijjis and Mr. Ghazzawi, where their “individual right of privacy outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
The FBI’s latest search encompassed all 9/11 records held in its Tampa field office, and led to the release of another 31 pages. The pages are mostly hand-written “Information Control Forms” documenting phone tips received after the attacks from U.S. Postal Service workers and neighbors. The information was previously reported.
The filing says four additional documents, now under review, are to be made public on June 27.
Judge Zloch also required the FBI and the Justice Department to disclose any “documented communications” about the Sarasota investigation between them and any other government agencies.
The government replied that its search had identified no such communications.
The FBI told Zloch that 127 FBI employees logged nearly 600 hours of review time to comb through the files seeking responsive records.