By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The FBI’s renewed push to dismiss a Miami Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records of the enigmatic 9/11 Review Commission and FBI activities “of the highest national importance” should be denied, court papers contend.
The filings last week by attorneys for Florida Bulldog also say that facts obtained to date indicate that FBI Director James Comey personally played a role in the FBI’s drawn-out response to records requests filed two years ago. The 9/11 Review Commission also is known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, ex-Attorney General Edwin Meese.
“The facts here create an appearance that the director of the FBI maintained the Meese Commission records in his office; that he did not provide those records to the FBI personnel responsible for processing FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests in a timely fashion; and that when he finally did start to produce them, he made numerous mistakes and omitted critical documents,” wrote Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin who represents Florida Bulldog. “Many records still appear to be missing.”
Julin, of South Florida’s Gunster law firm, also said the FBI has violated FOIA by “repeatedly” imposing “unreasonable and inexplicable delays” and censoring information in its records “without statutory or sensible basis for doing so.” He asked Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to hold a hearing on the matter.
Besides the missing and censored records, the government has said in court filings that the FBI withheld in full another 1,100 pages about the Meese Commission for a variety of reasons ranging from privacy to national security. Among the records withheld: draft copies of the Meese Commission’s final report.
The result: Many questions about the Meese Commission’s work and an apparent Florida support network for the 9/11 hijackers remain hidden behind a veil of official government secrecy.
“The Bulldog’s central concern: Whether the FBI is concealing evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks on the United States but failed to conduct a proper investigation of it – either in a misguided effort to allow the Saudi government to get away with murder or due to negligence,” Julin wrote.
In a reply filed Tuesday afternoon in support of the government’s motion for summary judgment, a Miami federal prosecutor countered that the FBI’s document searches were reasonable and fair and its redactions records were lawful.
“Plaintiffs chief complaint is about the amount of time that it took the FBI to search for and produce records. However, delays in processing a FOIA request do not amount to a showing of agency bad faith,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell.
Lawsuit filed in June
Florida Bulldog’s parent company, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016 – 14 months after its initial FOIA request for Meese Commission records produced no records. The commission, authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, was chosen, paid and controlled by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.
In early November, the FBI started releasing some records. Among other things, one FBI report showed that as late as October 2012 agents and prosecutors in New York were actively investigating a support network for 9/11 hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter, who represents clients suing Saudi Arabia, said the disclosure was contrary to the FBI’s previous public statements about 9/11.
Since then, the bureau has continued trickling out records, the latest 20 partially redacted pages released last week. Another 282 pages of responsive documents were withheld in full. The release was made nearly a month after a trial scheduled to begin in early March was delayed at the FBI’s request.
Judge Altonaga has called the FBI’s delays in producing records “shocking.”
Some of the latest released records are about Saudis Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, former Sarasota-area residents who came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they had moved suddenly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11. An April 2002 FBI report obtained by Florida Bulldog says the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The FBI has said publicly that it found no such connections and has disavowed the 2002 report to the Meese Commission – albeit without explaining why.
One heavily redacted interview report showed that in April 2004 a source told the FBI that al-Hijji knew some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers who trained at an airport in nearby Venice, showed the source a website about Osama bin Laden and also spoke of going to fight in Afghanistan. Another document shows that as of Aug. 31, 2004 the FBI had not interviewed al-Hijji.
The FBI’s point in redacting so much of that interview report, including the name of its source Wissam Hammoud, is unclear. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released to the Bulldog its own report on the matter – containing virtually identical language – without any redactions in 2011. Here are copies of the FBI report and the FDLE report for you to compare.
Hammoud, 51, is currently serving a 21-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has classified him as an “international terrorist associate.”
Julin’s court papers cite a number of “red flags” regarding how FBI’s search and review of records suggest “that someone within the FBI or some other governmental agency had stepped in front of the orderly process being carried out by the FBI’s FOIA professionals” – notably that FBI Director Comey kept the Meese Commission records in his office and out of the FBI’s Central Records System.
The FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, or RIDS, “apparently elected to defer to, and rely exclusively on the FBI Director’s Office to respond to the Bulldog’s request. This raised a red flag.”
When records turned up in late January that should have been made public earlier, the head of RIDS, David M. Hardy, filed court papers pointing the finger at Comey, saying they “were not initially identified because the Director’s Office had inadvertently mistaken these records as duplicates.”
“This gave every indication that the Director’s Office, not the FOIA bureaucratic professionals, had taken charge of this case,” Julin wrote in his response to the government.
The plot thickened in mid-March when the government announced that Comey’s office had identified for the first time “certain hard copy records held in storage” that might hold relevant information.
“This red flag suggested that FBI Director James Comey intentionally concealed responsive records,” Julin wrote.
“The director’s actions appear, in fact, to have been designed either to punish the Bulldog for shining a light on the FBI’s work through its initial FOIA action, which exposed the FBI’s public statements concerning its Sarasota investigation as outright falsehoods, or to interfere with its continuing investigation, or both,” Julin wrote.
In government paperwork filed Tuesday, the FBI called the allegations against Comey “baseless” and “outrageous.”