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.”
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.