By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In a twist in the search for answers about 9/11, the Justice Department announced Thursday that it will not invoke the state secrets privilege to conceal the name of the person who “tasked” Saudis in San Diego with aiding a pair of 9/11 suicide hijackers.
The name of that person, thought to be a ranking Saudi official, was blanked out of a heavily-censored October 2012 FBI summary report before it was released to Florida Bulldog in late 2016 amid continuing Freedom of Information litigation. The report is now the focus of a sprawling New York civil lawsuit brought by thousands of 9/11 survivors and victims’ families against Saudi Arabia.
The notification in New York federal court followed a meeting Wednesday between President Trump and 22 representatives of those who were killed or wounded in the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It was the first time in the 18 years since the attacks that 9/11 family members and survivors, as a group, were invited to the White House, one participant said.
President Trump “said to me he’d never met a survivor before,” said Sharon Premoli, a Vermont resident who was at work on the 80th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck and was seriously injured later when the South Tower collapsed.
Still, the decision by Justice to release the name — to plaintiffs’ lawyers only, not the public — will apparently not lead to any further opening up of other classified FBI 9/11 information or records.
“In light of the exceptional nature of this case, the FBI has determined to exercise its discretion…to declassify the name of the third main subject in the public interest and to release that name to counsel for the parties,” lawyers for the government told U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn in a memo opposing the plaintiffs motion to compel production of the full 2012 report. “The remaining information that has been redacted from the 2012 Summary Report remains classified and/or privileged and protected from disclosure.”
The FBI made the decision to release the name “in consultation” with U.S. Attorney General William Barr. It was Barr alone who “after actual and personal consideration, has asserted the state secrets privilege to protect the classified information sought from the report,” the Justice lawyers wrote. Barr acted because disclosure of that information “would risk significant harm to national security.”
Premoli said a former FBI agent who now works for New York plaintiffs’ attorney James Kreindler’s team told her that much is happening in the background. “He said in the next few days everything is going to change,” she said. “He thinks the announcement alone will be what brings the Saudis to the (negotiating) table.”
Justice and its secret 9/11 records
The FBI and Justice Department have never said how many classified 9/11 records exist. But in a Freedom of Information lawsuit Florida Bulldog brought seven years ago to obtain records about the investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota with apparent ties to the hijackers, it was revealed that more than 80,000 pages about 9/11 were contained in the FBI’s Tampa field office alone.
Lawyers for the 9/11 plaintiffs asked the court last spring to compel the FBI to produce an unredacted copy of the October 2012 report – a document described by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, as contrary to “almost everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history.”
Judge Netburn gave Attorney General Barr and Justice until Thursday to declare whether he would assert the state secrets privilege “or any other grounds to withhold information from the 2012 summary report.”
The Justice decision not to invoke the privilege will likely have an impact on Florida Bulldog’s pending litigation in a pair of FOI cases that seek FBI 9/11 records.
One case has been pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for more than two years and seeks the release of the October 2012 FBI summary report, as well as other records of the 9/11 Review Commission. The other case, before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, focused on obtaining records of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation – a probe kept hidden from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission. On Aug. 22, Zloch ordered Justice to release of some records and said many others could remain secret.
“Judge Zloch has not yet entered a final order and if the October 2012 document does implicate Saudi Arabia it might get him to reconsider everything he’s doing,” said Florida Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.
While discussions that led to Thursday’s developments were said to have begun 18 months ago, the latest events appear to have come rapidly together.
Both Premoli and Loreen Sellitto, whose late son Matthew worked at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the North Tower, said they learned of plans to meet with the president over the weekend. They said, too, that the night before the group dined with several former FBI agents, six or seven of their lawyers, including New York’s James Kreindler, at the Sofitel hotel across Lafayette Square from the White House.
Also present: former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and several others from Ballard Partners, the Trump-connected lobbying firm hired by Kreindler to represent 9/11 victims in Washington.
“Jim welcomed us to the formal dinner and he’s in jeans and a casual shirt,” said one attendee. “All the others lawyers were in jacket in ties.”
The meeting was held to brief the 9/11 family members on what was happening. Several people spoke, and one former FBI agent became overwhelmed.
“One agent was telling his story and he started to cry,” said Premoli. “The agents have to live with the consequences of what happened.”
Retired FBI agents
Two retired agents said to have attended were Ken Williams and Bassem Youssef. Williams, an Arizona-based agent, authored the July 10, 2001 “Phoenix Memo” in which he wrote that he believed there was a coordinated effort by al Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden to send students to the U.S. to attend civil aviation schools. He asked FBI headquarters to investigate, but headquarters did nothing and later acknowledged that Williams’ memo was never disseminated to other intelligence agencies or FBI field offices. Youssef, the FBI’s first Egyptian-born agent, worked 25 years in the bureau’s National Security Division targeting radical Islamic terrorists related to al Qaeda, including bin Laden’s spiritual advisor Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik” now imprisoned for his role in an early 1990s plot to bomb the United Nations building and other structures in New York.
As many as a dozen former FBI agents are now said to be working with Kreindler, although Kreindler said that was not the case.
“There are other agents waiting to come forward,” said Sellitto.
News that Ballard Partners and Bondi are working for Kreindler offers insight into why President Trump, a seemingly staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia, may now be helping the 9/11 victims.
Firm founder Brian Ballard, a longtime Florida lobbyist, began lobbying on Trump’s behalf many years before his 2016 election to the presidency. Ballard was a top fundraiser for the president’s campaign.
Bondi also has deep, controversial ties to Trump. In 2013, not long after an organization helping her re-election campaign received a $25,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, she shut down a budding fraud investigation into an affiliate of Trump University. Bondi later served on Trump’s transition team.
Bondi and Ballard Partners
In March, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) reported that since Trump took office Ballard partners “seem to be hosting events at Trump properties especially often.” CREW wrote, “visiting and spending money at his properties…has emerged as an apparent influence strategy, citing several examples.
“The first example goes back to Trump’s first year in office,” wrote CREW research associate Caitlin Moniz. “Ballard Partners registered to lobby on behalf of private prison contractor GEO Group less than a month after President Trump’s inauguration. Early in his administration, The GEO Group was awarded a $110 million contract to build an immigration detention center in Texas. A few months later, the company moved its annual leadership conference to Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami. The previous year, the company held both its leadership conference and shareholder meeting at a club near its headquarters in Boca Raton.”
Kreindler said Ballard Partners, and Bondi in particular, have been quite helpful in guiding them through the political thicket in Washington. “We bounce ideas off each other and the best way to describe it is that this is not a regular lawsuit where everything’s confined to what happens in the courtroom.”
Will the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia be upset by what’s happening?
“Sure,” said Kreindler. “They don’t want to see the truth come out. They’ve been able to kick the can down the road for 18 years now.”