By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Saying it has released every scrap of information it can about a Sarasota terrorism investigation it once hid from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, the FBI went to court twice in the last two weeks to block any further disclosures.
Among the government’s actions: asking a federal appeals court to reverse a Miami judge’s order that the FBI make public the names of suspects, agents and others contained in redacted reports it has released from its massive 9/11 investigation code-named PENTTBOM.
In her July 26 order in a Freedom of Information Act case brought by Florida Bulldog, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga reasoned there is a “significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks.” She also observed that the documents might be useful in pending civil litigation in New York brought by victims of 9/11 who seek to hold Saudi Arabia responsible.
Justice Department lawyers, however, argued in court papers filed Nov. 29 at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta that the privacy interests of those suspects and agents “easily outweigh” the public’s interest in knowing further details about the FBI’s 9/11 investigation.
“Serious privacy interests are at stake here,” wrote Civil Division appellate attorney Dana Kaersvang. “FBI documents that could be interpreted as linking an individual to the 9/11 terrorist attacks could have potentially devastating effects on that person’s life. And the privacy interest of government agents in their work on high-profile investigations is well-established.”
The government’s 63-page cross-appeal says it is otherwise in agreement with Altonaga’s order. It responded to Florida Bulldog’s appeal filed in October by Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin that more broadly challenged the judge’s ruling.
Specifically, it asks the appeals court to order a FOIA trial be held to determine whether the FBI made a proper search for records about the 9/11 Review Commission. Likewise, it contends that Altonaga wrongly backed the government’s “expansive assertion of FOIA exemptions” allowing the bureau to keep secret thousands of pages of records about an apparent Saudi network for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota and elsewhere.
Privacy rights for terrorists
To keep 9/11 records secret, the FBI has even invoked privacy rights on behalf of major terrorist figures.
Florida Bulldog reported in March that the FBI cited the privacy rights of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and fellow “high-value” Guantanamo detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi to withhold pages from its “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation” that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission in April 2014.
Withheld were copies of Mohammed’s “non-immigrant visa application” and his “supplemental Visa card application” to the United Kingdom’s Standard Chartered Bank. Also withheld: al-Hawsawi’s “credit card statement and supplemental card activity.”
Al-Hawsawi is alleged to be a senior al-Qaeda member and organizer and financier of 9/11.
On a second legal front in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, the FBI on Nov. 27 renewed its effort to dismiss another FOIA case brought five years ago by Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc. The case, pending before Judge William J. Zloch, seeks access to the FBI’s file about its Sarasota investigation of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who moved abruptly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.
In 2014, Zloch ordered the FBI to produce its records about the investigation for his inspection and possible public release. The FBI produced more than 80,000 pages – said to be the entire 9/11 file from its Tampa office. Zloch announced in mid-October he’d completed his review of those records. He allowed the government to seek dismissal of the case, but required the FBI to address his “categories of concern.”
Those concerns focus on the “ambiguities” of the FBI’s filing system and 35 pages of records the FBI released to Florida Bulldog about six months after the FOIA lawsuit was filed in September 2012. One of those records is an April 2002 report that says the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The report flatly contradicted the FBI’s prior public statements.
The FBI’s renewed motion to dismiss, however, seemingly does not address Zloch’s concerns. Instead, it repeats arguments that were previously advanced in favor of dismissal, but rejected. Florida Bulldog is required to respond by Jan. 11.