By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
With support rising in the Senate for a resolution urging a broad declassification of government records related to 9/11, a judge has ruled that Saudi Arabia isn’t entitled to blanket secrecy for documents it produces in court.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn’s Aug. 27 ruling means that certain “highly sensitive” Saudi diplomatic and consular files, financial records and personnel documents could become public.
In response to an earlier court order, the Kingdom on July 31 had produced 3,818 documents, totaling nearly 6,700 pages, to attorneys for 9/11 victims and their families. Those plaintiffs are suing Saudi Arabia in federal court in New York City claiming it helped plan and pay for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The Saudis have long denied any involvement in the attacks.
About half of the records the Saudis turned over to the court were marked “highly sensitive” and confidential. Included were the personnel jackets of a trio of Saudis, two of whom are Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi agent, and Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat and imam at Los Angeles’ King Fahd mosque. Both men were involved in assisting two 9/11 hijackers during the time they were living in Southern California.
A heavily censored 2012 FBI report previously obtained by Florida Bulldog lists the pair as “main subjects” of a then ongoing probe targeting an apparent U.S. support network for those two hijackers, Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.
Also produced, the records say, were personnel files of a third man, a little-known Saudi diplomat named Khalid al-Sowailem. The 9/11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, filed last March, alleges that Sowailem was a senior official of the Ministry of Islamic affairs at the Saudi embassy in Washington who helped fraudulently obtain a U.S. visa for another ministry employee and had him form and operate the Western Somali Relief Agency, a California nonprofit used “to send substantial funds to al Qaeda” before 9/11.
A clash of arguments
The Kingdom wanted those personnel and other records, often written in Arabic, permanently sealed. The 9/11 victims countered that many of those records aren’t entitled to confidentiality and to grant it would violate their First Amendment right to speak publicly about what the records say.
“The Kingdom seeks to presumptively seal the entirety of court filings that contain or even discuss documents that it has unilaterally and without judicial review designated as confidential,” attorneys for the plaintiffs argued.
Magistrate Netburn’s ruling last month found that such sweeping confidentiality was not allowed under the rules. A previous protective order that requires both sides to confer about whether certain information should be sealed before any judicial consideration adequately protects sensitive records, she said.
Six days earlier, Aug. 21, a bipartisan group of five senators introduced Senate Resolution 610 “urging the release of information regarding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United States.” Powerful co-sponsors include Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-NY; Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-TX, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The nonbinding Senate measure is expected to move quickly to a vote. A parallel bipartisan resolution is pending in the House.
With such action, the 17th anniversary of the attacks is being met with cautious optimism by lawyers for the 9/11 victims.
“We know there were a number of federal agents who tried to get to the truth and who were thwarted,” said New York attorney James Kreindler. “They are retiring now and coming out of the woodwork.”