By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A federal appeals court has been asked to overturn a Miami district court judge and order a Freedom of Information Act trial to determine whether the FBI made a proper search for records about its secretive 9/11 Review Commission.
“This case presents a case of enormous public interest: How much information concerning its investigation of the 9/11 attacks must the FBI share with the public?” says the appeal brief filed Monday by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog. “The answer, according to the District Court, is very little.”
The 75-page appeal brief argues that a June 29 order by Judge Cecilia Altonaga wrongly backed the government’s “expansive assertion of FOIA exemptions,” allowing the FBI to keep secret thousands of pages of records about an apparent Saudi support network for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota and related information regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the matters the brief says the withheld records might explain:
- Why the FBI concluded in a heavily censored April 2002 report that a Saudi family living in Sarasota had “many connections” to the hijackers and “why, a decade later, the FBI falsely claimed that it had never concluded the family had any connections to the hijackers.”
- Why, in a private briefing for the 9/11 Review Commission in 2015, the FBI dismissed its 2002 “many connections” report “as poorly written and unsubstantiated.”
- Why the FBI failed to tell congressional committees investigating 9/11 about its Sarasota investigation and why the FBI later falsely claimed that it had notified Congress.
To help obtain answers, the appeal asks the court to allow the deposition of the FBI agent who briefed the Meese Commission on the “many connections” report and sought to discredit it, Jacqueline Maguire.
The Bulldog’s attorneys in the Miami office of the Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart law firm, led by Thomas Julin, asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to be allowed to present oral argument in the case “because the records at issue are of paramount importance to the nation’s right to know how the FBI handled the investigation of 9/11 and because the FBI’s broad assertions of FOIA exemptions are fundamentally inconsistent with FOIA’s strong presumption in favor of record disclosure.”
FBI to appeal, too
The FBI has said it plans its own appeal of Judge Altonaga’s ruling. Among other things, it is expected to challenge parts of her order requiring disclosure of the names of FBI agents, including the author of the 2002 “many connections” report, Gregory Sheffield.
Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, broke the story about the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story disclosed that shortly after the attacks neighbors in the gated Prestancia development had called to report that Saudis Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji had moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks earlier, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture, other personal belongings and a refrigerator full of food. The home was owned by Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a wealthy businessman and son of a former Saudi ambassador with ties to the kingdom’s ruling family.
The story, citing sources that included a senior counterterrorism officer, also reported how law enforcement agents had discovered that vehicles used by hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the home. Atta and other hijackers took flying lessons 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport.
Likewise, the story reported the counterterrorism officer’s disclosure that the FBI obtained records of incoming and outgoing calls made to the al-Hijji residence that a link analysis – a system of tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversations – uncovered calls over more than a year “lined up with the known suspects.” The links were not only to Atta and his hijack pilots, but to 11 other terrorists, including Walid al-Shehhri, a so-called “muscle hijacker” who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when Atta piloted it into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
The story also quoted former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’ bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the attacks, who said the FBI did not disclose its Sarasota investigation to Congress.
The FBI released the “many connections” memo in March 2013, six months after Florida Bulldog sued, seeking the release of the FBI’s Sarasota investigative file. Another 80,000 classified pages from the FBI’s Tampa field office relating to 9/11 have been under review by Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch since 2014.
On Oct. 2 Zloch announced that he had completed his review of the 80,000 pages and, on Monday, invited the government to file papers by Nov. 27 seeking dismissal of the case while at the same time addressing a trio of his “concerns.” He listed his concerns as being the “production time line” of the handful of documents the FBI has already produced, the “ambiguities” of the FBI’s filing system and the “substance” of the documents themselves.
Tactics opposed to disclosure
The appeal brief argues that “from the start the FBI’s tactics have been contrary to FOIA’s strong presumption in favor of disclosure” by not producing documents in response to Florida Bulldog’s requests and forcing the small Broward-based news organization to sue.
“Only then did the FBI locate and produce records responsive to the Bulldog’s requests, but in dribs and drabs, spread across a year of litigation. Rather than withhold information judiciously, the FBI redacted every word for which it could make a colorable argument – even if that meant claiming a record could not be released because its disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a senior member of al Qaeda,” the brief says.
The reference was to the FBI’s assertion of privacy rights for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi in withholding PowerPoint slides detailing their credit card information. The slides were part of an April 2014 presentation titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission after its most prominent member, Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese.
Other pages from the overview also were redacted, including slides about the funding of the 9/11 attacks – information of keen interest to the families of 9/11 victims seeking to hold Saudi Arabia responsible in federal civil court in New York.
Likewise, the appeal challenges Judge Altonaga’s affirmation of the FBI’s decision to withhold significant portions of an October 2012 FBI report that shows agents and prosecutors in New York were then actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support for two of the five 9/11 terrorists – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar — who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
The FBI redacted the report citing national security, privacy and other reasons.