By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Two blue ribbon government panels on 9/11, two approaches to public accountability.
The 9/11 Commission held a dozen public hearings before issuing its 567-page report to the nation in 2004. While many of its records remain classified, the commission also made public additional staff studies with detailed information about terrorist financing, terrorist travel and immigration and border security.
The lesser-known FBI 9/11 Review Commission was established a decade later to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings, released no transcripts of its proceedings and provided no supplementary documentation to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 final report.
For more than a year, the FBI has declined to make public any additional information about the 9/11 Review Commission. On Wednesday, for the second time in four years, the FloridaBulldog.org’s nonprofit corporate parent sued the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice – this time using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to seek records about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.
Broward Bulldog Inc. sued in 2012 for access to FBI records about its once- secret investigation of a Saudi family living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers. Since 2014, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale has been reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 documents produced by the FBI for possible public release.
Wednesday’s complaint seeks to discover the basis for and the reliability of the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings and recommendations.
Specifically, the lawsuit focuses on the Review Commission’s conclusions about a sensational April 16, 2002 FBI report that investigators found contained “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The report also said a Saudi family member had attended a flight training school attended by the terrorists.
The Review Commission, after reviewing unspecified FBI records and being briefed by the FBI, found that allegations the Saudi family was connected the 9/11 plot were “unsubstantiated” and called the FBI report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Review Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.
The “9/11 Review Commission’s finding is false, unsupported by credible evidence, and intended to discredit truthful facts that were accurately reported in the April 16, 2002 FBI report,” says the new FOIA complaint prepared by Miami attorney Thomas Julin.
FBI investigation made public after a decade
The Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota probe days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks in September 2011. Neighbors of Abdulaziz and Anoud al Hijji called authorities after the couple moved abruptly out of their home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said the FBI did not disclose the Sarasota probe to Congress. The matter was also not addressed by the 9/11 Commission.
The FBI later acknowledged its investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. The FBI also claimed it disclosed its Sarasota investigation to Congress.
In response to the Bulldog’s repeated FOIA requests, the FBI offered no responsive records. Six months after the first lawsuit was filed, however, the FBI released a copy of its April 2002 report, heavily censored for reasons of national security. The report contradicted FBI public statements downplaying the significance of its Sarasota investigation and corroborated the accounts of a counterterrorism officer and others that were the basis for the original news story.
The new FOIA suit comes 14 months after the Bulldog’s initial FOIA request for access to 9/11 Review Commission’s records, including an April 30, 2014 “Memorandum for the Record” about the FBI’s disputed 2002 report.
The FBI has produced no documents in response to those requests nor cited any reason to justify the lack of disclosure. Federal law requires government agencies to determine whether to comply with a FOIA request in 20 working days.
The 9/11 Review Commission was originally proposed by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, as an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold public hearings, compel testimony and retain experts and consultants. After that idea died, a plan for a 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been removed.
FBI Director James Comey later appointed the commission’s three members – Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former 9/11 Commission member and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University security studies professor Bruce Hoffman.
How much did FBI pay commissioners?
The FBI paid the commissioners and commission executive director John C. Gannon, a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, under personal services contracts that made them de facto FBI employees. Those contracts are among numerous documents sought in the new FOIA suit.
Meese, Hoffman, Roemer and Gannon each declined to be interviewed about the Review Commission.
Congress appropriated a total of $2.5 million to the FBI for the review process. Commissioners were guided by the FBI and, their report makes clear, relied heavily for information on the Bureau and interviews with other government intelligence sources, including CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Transcripts of those interviews are also among the documents the FOIA lawsuit seeks to make public.
The 9/11 Review Commission released the unclassified portion of its 127-page report in March 2015.
The report devotes three pages to its review of the Sarasota probe whose disclosure Sen. Graham has said “opens a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.” The review was confined to its analysis of the April 2002 FBI report, which stated that the FBI said the special agent who wrote it was “unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”
The FBI did not identify the agent or explain how he could have made such a serious error. Nevertheless, the agent’s “unsubstantiated” information was repeated in other FBI reports the Bureau subsequently made public.
The FOIA suit seeks a variety of records about the 9/11 Review Commission, including its transcripts, memoranda for the records, personal services contracts with commissioners and staff, draft copies of the final report, FBI briefings titled “Sarasota Family” and “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” and an FBI summary report regarding Fahad al Thumairy.
Thumairy was a diplomat with the Los Angeles Saudi Consulate’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs from 1996-2003. Thumairy, who was also a prayer leader at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, CA, was expelled from the U.S. due to suspected ties to terrorists.
The Bulldog’s complaint asks the court to hear the case quickly and order the defendants to release the requested documents or be required to submit them to the court for review. If the documents are not released, the complaint asks the court to require the government to provide what’s known as a Vaughn index, showing the author, recipients, date and subject of each document.
Finally, the judge was asked to determine if any FBI or DOJ personnel acted “arbitrarily or capriciously” in withholding records. If so, attorney fees and costs can be assessed against the government and those responsible could be punished for contempt and face disciplinary actions.