By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A federal judge has ruled the FBI unlawfully withheld from the Florida Bulldog key sections of records of its investigation of a Saudi family that fled Sarasota two weeks before the 9/11 attacks – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture, food and other belongings.
The Bulldog sued the FBI for the records in 2012 after reporting that Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, who lived in a gated community near Sarasota, had ties to several of the 9/11 hijackers, an al Qaeda figure and the Saudi royal family. The Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, had revealed that the FBI had investigated the family in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but never disclosed its investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.
The FBI responded quickly to that Bulldog report from 2011 with press releases denying its investigation had found any connections between the al-Hijjis and the hijackers, and claiming it turned over its work to Congress. The Bulldog suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) then forced the FBI to cough up records of the investigation.
The FBI turned over to the Bulldog just 81 pages of heavily-censored memos and notes, a fraction of the paperwork that’s typically generated in such investigations. An April 16, 2002, memo included in the release showed, however, that at least one unnamed FBI agent had found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 hijackers. The FBI blacked out the entire last paragraph of that memo on national security grounds.
Abdulaziz al-Hijji’s father-in-law is Esam Ghazzawi, a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.
Seven year fight
For seven years, the Bulldog has been fighting to unveil that paragraph, as well as other withheld information, on grounds that they might shed light on whether the Saudi government was complicit in 2001 with the 9/11 hijackers, a position that thousands of 9/11 victim families and survivors have taken in lawsuits against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
U.S. District Judge George Daniels has focused a large and important New York case on 9/11 hijacker connections to probable Saudi agents in San Diego. To date, he has held that evidence the hijackers may have been assisted by possible Saudi agents elsewhere in the U.S. was too tenuous even to explore.
The new, Aug. 22 ruling by Fort Lauderdale Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch rejects the FBI’s claim that the withheld paragraph would reveal secret techniques and procedures. Zloch also ordered the release of an FBI “analyst’s note” from 2011 which appears to comment on the April 16, 2002 “many connections” memo.
“This material is highly relevant to plaintiff’s request,” Zloch wrote about the hidden note.
The judge has granted the FBI a chance to appeal his order before it must release the information. The FBI has not yet said whether it will appeal. The Bulldog’s lawyers, led by Miami attorney Thomas Julin, also are evaluating whether to appeal.
Many FBI records to remain hidden
Zloch also upheld many of the FBI’s other redactions and declined to order the release of all FBI records of its Sarasota investigation. Also not be released under the judge’s order are 80,266 classified pages of FBI 9/11 records produced for his private review.
Again and again in his 95-page order, Zloch otherwise upheld the FBI’s contentions that it had thoroughly searched its files for requested records, correctly withheld what was exempt from disclosure and made public what it could about its investigation of the al-Hijjis.
“In this case, there has been much speculation about what the FBI had done with respect to the subjects of an alleged investigation. But, the Court has neither heard nor seen any evidence that Plaintiffs contentions about the FBI’s actions are accurate,” Zloch wrote.
“The Court assures Plaintiffs that the files do not contain any documentary evidence that belies the representations of Defendants…The Court recognizes that this conclusion cannot quench the thirst for answers.”
Questions about the FBI’s Sarasota probe are legion:
Where are the reports and memos that typically document FBI investigations, including agency “FD 302” reports of interviews with witnesses and subjects? Why do the FBI’s own internal documents flatly contradict the FBI’s public assertions that no connection was found to the 9/11 plot? Why did the FBI assert national security to withhold information? Where is evidence that should have been routinely collected by FBI agents, including gatehouse and telephone records that the law enforcement source who disclosed the existence of the investigation said revealed connections to Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures? Why weren’t Congress and the 9/11 Commission made aware of what happened in Sarasota?
Do records exist, or don’t they?
Answers may well lie behind a veil of secrecy so bizarre that it allows the FBI to say that certain sensitive records don’t exist when in fact they do exist.
That authority was granted in a 1986 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that incorporated an “exclusion” that allows the FBI to treat classified records about foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism, as “not subject to the requirements” of the act. Justice Department guidelines say that means that those who request excluded records can be told, “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request.”
When the law is invoked, the government often submits a secret declaration with the court explaining its claim. That appears to be what happened before Judge Zloch. Previously, the FBI filed two confidential declarations by Records Section Chief David Hardy. Copies were not provided to Florida Bulldog.
That scenario also tends to explain Zloch’s observation that “a court’s evaluation of a FOIA request in no way tasks the court with determining whether an agency has performed its duties, other than the search at hand, with due care.”
Zloch explained he was looking narrowly for “some indication that documents exist and that a search has not located them because it has been too deficient or scanty to do so. Instead, what has emerged is that Plaintiffs believe the FBI should have performed an investigation, not that it has done so and has concealed the related documents.”
The FOI lawsuit was filed in 2012 by Broward Bulldog Inc., parent of Florida Bulldog, after the FBI refused to release any information about its long-hidden Sarasota investigation, except to say that it had found no ties to the 9/11 plot and claim that it had notified Congress – a claim long disputed by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.
Zloch’s highly detailed order, which took seven years to produce, followed his earlier criticism of the FBI. In 2014, Zloch ordered the FBI to do a more thorough records search after it failed to convince him it had done so in response to the Bulldog’s FOIA request concerning its investigation of apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota. The judge’s order led the FBI to turn over to him the 80,000 pages that it said were the sum of all 9/11 records maintained in its Tampa field office.
Zloch’s order says he “made certain that an incredibly thorough search was undertaken” and observed that he treated the Bulldog’s concerns about the FBI’s search for records “with the utmost gravity” as he examined “in camera, page-by-page, the universe of documents that were searched by Defendants.
“The court cannot provide, nor would be at liberty to divulge, any specific answers to the lingering questions Plaintiffs may have about this investigation, which will surely remain long after the above-styled cause,” Zloch wrote.