By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The FBI agent who wrote a powerful investigative report about 9/11 that the bureau later publicly repudiated faced no apparent discipline even though the FBI subsequently deemed his report to be “poorly written” and “wholly unsubstantiated.”
The April 16, 2002 report, approved by superiors in the FBI’s Tampa field office, said agents had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” and requested a more urgent investigation be opened. The heavily redacted report, made public in 2013 after Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI for access to records of its once-secret Sarasota investigation, flatly contradicted earlier FBI public statements that the Sarasota Saudis had no involvement in the 9/11 plot.
The 2002 FBI report became a hot potato in 2015 when the 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission, recounted FBI criticism of the unidentified agent in its final report. It says that when the agent was questioned he “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”
The report does not explain how the agent could have made such a serious error, why its conclusions are cited in other released FBI documents or why the FBI made such flawed documents public.
Last June, Bulldog filed a parallel Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking Meese Commission records and any related disciplinary action taken by the FBI against the agent it accused of filing a bogus report in the biggest criminal investigation in FBI history.
The government moved on Dec. 30 to dismiss a part of the suit. Essentially, it contends that it has released, or will soon release, all the records about the Meese Commission that it legally can.
The government also informed Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga that an extensive search of its records had turned up no disciplinary records about the unidentified agent. The lack of disciplinary action calls into question the Meese Commission’s criticism of the agent’s 2002 report.
The FBI has declined requests to interview the agent, believed to be former Fort Myers-based Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.
Censored on the CIA’s orders
The government’s motion for summary judgment also disclosed the reason that the FBI heavily redacted a “Memorandum for the Record” (MFR), released in November, that recounts a briefing on “9/11 Additional Evidence” given to the Meese Commission on Oct. 24, 2014. The two-page memo, containing “materials from the Abbottabad raid” on May 2, 2011 in which U.S. Navy Seals killed al Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden, was censored on orders of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The CIA subsequently determined that four paragraphs of the MFR contain information that is both classified and protected by statute and advised the FBI to withhold that information,” said CIA official Mary E. Wilson in a declaration filed by the government.
The motion for summary judgment filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell also offers an explanation for the government’s decision to withhold from public release information about how much the FBI paid the three members of the 9/11 panel, including former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.
Congress authorized the 9/11 Review Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. But copies of personal services contracts signed by all three in January 2014 at the outset of their duties make clear the Meese Commission was not independent. Instead, the commission and its FBI paid staff were under the FBI’s direction and control.
To redact from the contracts the terms of the commissioners’ financial compensation, the FBI invoked an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that protects the release of trade secrets or confidential commercial and financial information obtained from persons by the government.
“Disclosure of these salaries would cause substantial harm to the competitive negotiation process in the future,” the motion says. “Specifically … release of this information would enable potential government contractors the opportunity to judge how they might underbid their [sic] those that served on the 9/11 Reports [sic] Commission board when bidding for similar contracts in the future.”
FBI Director James Comey chose the three commissioners in “consultation with Congress,” the Meese Commission’s report says.
The motion does not address the same redactions of salary information in the FBI’s personal services contracts of Meese Commission staff.
The lawsuit the government wants dismissed was filed in June to challenge the FBI’s failure to produce any records, or to conduct a good faith search for records, since the Bulldog filed its initial Freedom of Information Act request in April 2015. The government has not explained why a lawsuit was necessary to gain access to Meese Commission records the government’s motion acknowledges were stored in director Comey’s office.
Claim of privacy hides names of FBI agents
The government’s motion also seeks to justify, on privacy grounds, the redaction of the names of both FBI agents and support personnel from about 300 pages of documents released since the lawsuit was filed.
“Publicity (adverse or otherwise) regarding any particular investigation to which they have been assigned may seriously prejudice their effectiveness in conducting other investigations,” the motion says, without further explanation. “The privacy consideration is also to protect FBI SAs [special agents], as individuals, from unnecessary, unofficial questioning as to the conduct of this or other investigations, whether or not they are currently employed by the FBI.”
The motion goes on to assert “the release of an agent’s identity in connection with a particular investigation could trigger hostility toward a particular agent … In contrast, there is no public interest to be served by disclosing the identities of the SAs to the public because their identities would not, themselves, significantly increase the public’s understanding of the FBI’s operations and activities.”
The motion does not note, however, that the names of FBI agents and employees typically are not secret. For example, FBI personnel are routinely identified in public court documents filed in both criminal and civil proceedings. The reason: accountability.
Trial in the case is scheduled for early March. Judge Altonaga is expected to rule next month on the government’s motion to dismiss.