By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
It’s been 13 years since al Qaeda hijackers commandeered four U.S. passenger jets and slammed them into America’s heart, yet a basic question persists: Did they act alone or with the help of a support network?
The answer is shrouded by government secrecy. Many believe that secrecy exists to protect oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
From the start, questions have simmered about the kingdom’s role in the September 11, 2001 attacks because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden. Congressional investigators and the 9/11 Commission stoked suspicion when they found evidence that at least some of the hijackers received direct financial support traceable back to the Saudi government.
The Saudis have consistently and strongly denied involvement in 9/11. Those denials, however, have been undercut by U.S. government documents – leaked or made public under the Freedom of Information Act – detailing the kingdom’s financial support for various Muslim extremist groups, including al Qaeda.
Here’s a candid assessment of Saudi Arabia’s dealings with external terrorists by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton contained in a secret December 2009 cable to U.S. diplomats that was made public by Wikileaks in 2010:
“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide…Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba] and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.”
Such assertions, like others found in Treasury Department documents linking members of the Saudi royal family to charities supporting terrorist groups, take on new urgency with recent news about the kingdom’s financial support for the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS.
Today, the heat is on in Congress and the courts to expose more information about the backdrop to 9/11. That includes obtaining facts about Saudi Arabia’s suspected involvement in funding the hijackers kept hidden by the administrations of two presidents – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush.
THE NOOSE TIGHTENS
“The noose is starting to tighten,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee. “All of this points to the role of Saudi Arabia, over a long period of time, in some of the most horrific actions against the U.S., the people of the Middle East today and possibly the world tomorrow.”
In New York, a rejuvenated federal civil lawsuit brought by thousands of 9/11 victims and relatives promises to uncover a trove of primary U.S. and Saudi records.
The Saudis had been dismissed as a defendant in 2005 after claiming sovereign immunity. But last December, in an unusual and complex ruling citing legal error, a federal appeals court in Manhattan reversed itself and restored both the kingdom and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its charity, as defendants.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Saudi Arabia’s appeal on June 30.
To date, proceedings in the case have involved a number of Saudi funded charities, including the Muslim World League and its financial arm, the Rabita Trust, which was designated as a terrorist entity by President Bush a month after 9/11.
While some material produced by the charities has made it into the public domain via court pleadings, many other documents that were turned over are stamped confidential pursuant to a protective order entered early in the case by U.S. District Judge Richard Casey, according to Philadelphia plaintiff’s attorney Sean Carter.
“I can say with confidence that the discovery we’ve received from certain of the charities documents significant financial irregularities,” said Carter. “The documents confirm that certain money ostensibly distributed to branch offices for humanitarian projects was not applied to humanitarian projects.”
At the same time, the 9/11 families have a number of Freedom of Information Act requests pending – “some for many years,” said Carter.
SUSPECTED SAUDI AGENT
One request to the FBI concerns Dallah Avco, a corporate contractor with the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation identified as a possible employer of Omar al Bayoumi. a suspected Saudi agent who befriended 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in San Diego.
Bayoumi met the pair – who later died aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon – shortly after their arrival in the U.S. after attending an al Qaeda summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The FBI reply to that FOIA request was that it had no responsive records about Dallah Avco, yet Carter said an online search later found responsive documents posted in the FBI’s electronic reading room.
“To say the least, we are experiencing frustration,” said Carter. “The potential for litigation between the 9/11 plaintiffs and agencies of the U.S. government looms.”
Such a lawsuit would be a spectacle – thousands of 9/11 victims suing the United States to force the release of information about those suspected of responsibility for their injuries and the deaths of their loved ones.
But such lawsuits can achieve results.
BrowardBulldog.org is currently suing the FBI seeking records about its investigation of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family that moved out of their home in a gated community near Sarasota about two weeks before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – abandoning cars, furniture and other personal items. Agents later determined that hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta and other terrorists had visited the home, according to sources.
The FBI, however, did not disclose the existence of that investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Sen. Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry. And when BrowardBulldog.org first reported the matter in September 2011, FBI officials said the probe had found no links to the 9/11 plot.
A subsequent Freedom of Information request was similarly met: The FBI said it had no responsive documents. Yet in March 2013, six months after the suit was filed, the Bureau unexpectedly released 35 pages. The heavily redacted records said the Sarasota Saudis in fact “had many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”
80,000 PAGES UNDER REVIEW
Further small releases of documents have restated that finding and provided additional insights. Today, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch is reviewing 80,000 pages of records turned over by the FBI this summer for his private inspection to determine whether they should be made public.
“He could issue a ruling at any time,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney Thomas Julin.
Julin also represents the news organization in a separate administrative appeal requesting the declassification of 28 pages redacted from the Joint Inquiry’s 858-page final report to the nation. The pages concern “specific sources of foreign support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.
The appeal parallels a push by members of Congress to pass House Resolution 428, which calls on President Obama to declassify the 28 pages. The resolution says that declassification is “necessary to provide the American public with the full truth.
“These efforts to force the release of 28 pages of a 13-year-old investigative report by the House and Senate intelligence committees will disclose particularly the role of Saudi Arabia in funding 9/11,” said Graham, who helped write those pages.
9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, an ex-Congressman from Indiana, offered their support for declassification when asked about it by Naples resident Matthew Sellitto during a public appearance on July 22 to mark the 10th anniversary of the commission’s report. Sellitto’s son, Matt, was on the 105th floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.
9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER ‘EMBARRASSED’ BY SECRECY
“I’m embarrassed that they’re not declassified,” said Hamilton. “We emphasized throughout transparency. I assumed incorrectly that our records would be public, all of them, everything.
Still, the 28 pages remain secret despite efforts by numerous political leaders to have them made public. In 2003, for example, 46 senators signed a bipartisan letter to President Bush asking him to declassify the pages.
“If we are to protect our national security, we must convince the Saudi regime to get tough on terror. Keeping private its involvement – or that of any nation – in the September 11th attacks is not the way to accomplish that goal,” the letter says. The signers included Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry, Bill Nelson and Harry Reid.
For a CNN report Monday about the 28 pages, the Saudi government re-released a statement in support of their disclosure made by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in 2003 shortly after the Joint Inquiry published its censored report.
“We have nothing to hide. And we do not seek nor do we need to be shielded,” al-Faisal said. “We believe that releasing the missing 28 pages will allow us to respond to any allegations in a clear and credible manner; and remove any doubts about the kingdom’s true rule in the war against terrorism and its commitment to fight it.”
Following CNN’s Monday report, in which 9/11 relative Bill Doyle accused President Obama of breaking a promise to make public the 28 pages, the National Security Council issued a statement saying the White House had taken previously unannounced steps toward releasing the 28 pages.
“Earlier this summer, the White House requested that ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) review the 28 pages from the joint inquiry for declassification. ODNI is currently coordinating the required interagency review and it is ongoing,” said NSC spokesman Edward “Ned” Price.
Meanwhile, BrowardBulldog.org’s administrative appeal seeking release of the 28 pages is pending before the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, which makes recommendations to the president after conducting what’s known as a mandatory declassification review.
The panel is not a rubber stamp. Last year, in its annual report to the president, it said it had reviewed 151 classified documents and approved declassifying 131 in whole or in part.
The panel’s six members are from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Council, the National Archives, and the Departments of Defense, Justice and State.