By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The FBI agent who led the post 9/11 investigation of Saudis who moved out of their Sarasota-area home under suspicious circumstances two weeks before the 2001 al Qaeda attacks urged the FBI to seek information from the CIA about whether they assisted the terrorist hijackers.
That’s among the final disclosures the FBI made recently to conclude a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog in 2012 seeking records of a bureau investigation that was once so secret its existence was withheld from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission.
News that the FBI agent who led the probe wanted to ratchet it up by contacting the CIA for further information about the Saudis with ties to the Royal Family was redacted from an explosive April 16, 2002 FBI report when it was released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 – six months after the FOIA lawsuit was filed by Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin.
Most significantly, the heavily censored report written by FBI Agent Gregory Sheffield said agents had found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and the hijackers who trained at a nearby airport. The report noted a “family member… was a flight student at Huffman Aviation,” where two of the 9/11 hijack pilots trained.
“For these reasons, the FBI is interested in determining if the Central Intelligence Agency has any investigative interest or reason to investigate,” the newly released information says. “Any information which the CIA could provide to the FBI would be useful in the FBI investigation.”
The FBI was investigating Abdulazziz al-Hijji; his wife, Anoud, and her father, Esam Ghazzawi, a wealthy Saudi businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders. The case began after neighbors alerted authorities, and agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task force determined the al-Hijjis “left their residence quickly and suddenly” about two weeks before the attacks on New York and Washington, according to an April 3, 2002 FBI report. The al-Hijjis and Ghazzawi returned to Saudi Arabia.
FBI agent report
“They left behind valuable items: clothing, jewelry, food and in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly, without prior preparation and permanently. Further investigation of the…family revealed many connections between the…family members and the investigation of the attacks on 9/11/2001.”
It is not known whether the CIA provided any information to the FBI, or whether Agent Sheffield’s superiors acted on his recommendation. In the past, Sheffield has not responded to requests for comment, and his location today is unknown.
Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in 2011. The story included news that agents had learned that the al-Hijjis’ upscale home in the gated community Prestancia had been visited by vehicles used by the hijackers and that phone calls were linked between the residence and 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, who was at the controls when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, was disturbed the FBI had not informed his committee about the Sarasota investigation and said it suggested the FBI had deliberately concealed the investigation because it might point to Saudi government responsibility. He added it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.”
Early FBI statements confirmed the existence of the investigation, but sought to dismiss its significance, saying it was “determined not to be related to any threat nor connected to the 9/11 plot.” No further explanation was provided.
The release of the “many connections” report two years later ran counter to the FBI’s public position.
National security was the original reason cited by the FBI for keeping the report’s mention of the CIA a secret. Fort Lauderdale Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch, however, overruled that decision last August and ordered the FBI to disclose the information.
Hidden, but ‘highly relevant’
“This material is highly relevant to plaintiff’s request,” Zloch wrote in his 95-page order. The information remained secret for months while the FBI considered an appeal it finally chose not to pursue.
When it finally released the redacted information, the FBI offered no explanation as to why it believed its release would harm national security.
Zloch otherwise upheld the FBI’s secrecy concerns following a five-year, in-camera review of more than 80,000 classified pages of 9/11 records produced by the FBI’s Tampa Field Office. In his order, he “assured” Florida Bulldog that he’d seen no records pertaining to the FBI’s Sarasota investigation.
That statement immediately raised questions about what happened to numerous interview reports, financial documents, telephone and Prestancia gatehouse security records that knowledgeable sources have said agents collected during the two-year probe. Why were those records apparently not provided to the judge?
The most likely answer: they are hidden behind a little known secrecy wall – an “exclusion” to the Freedom of Information Act – that allows the FBI to say certain sensitive records don’t exist when in fact they do.
While Judge Zloch was still reading the 80,000 pages, the secretive 9/11 Review Commission released unclassified portions of its final report, including a look at new evidence that had emerged in recent years. The commission, whose three members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI, upheld the FBI’s contention that its Sarasota investigation found nothing suspicious. The FBI told commissioners the April 2002 “many connection” report was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated’’ and that the agent who wrote them “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” according to the report.
The commission, also known as the Meese Commission because its senior member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, simply accepted that explanation without asking to hear directly from FBI Agent Sheffield. The commission also did not address Sen. Graham’s assertion that the FBI had hidden its Sarasota probe from Congress or examine FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by the Bulldog detailing 2004 statements by informant Wissam Taysir Hammoud that al-Hijji had introduced him to senior al Qaeda leader Adnan El-Shukrijumah and that al-Hijji had told him Osama bin Laden was his hero.
FOIA lawsuit #2 filed
In an attempt to understand the Meese Commission’s conclusions and to obtain transcripts of its proceedings and other records cited in its report – notably an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI report mentioned in a footnote – Florida Bulldog sent another FOIA request to the FBI in April 2015. When the FBI would not produce any records, a second lawsuit was filed in July 2016.
As the case moved toward an anticipated trial 2017 trial, the FBI produced hundreds of pages of heavily redacted Meese Commission records. Included were records about how much the FBI’s personal service contracts with Meese and the other commissioners and documents in which the FBI contended its agents never collected basic evidence, like the Prestancia gatehouse records that those who disclosed the existence of the investigation said were collected and showed that Atta and other hijackers had visited the al-Hijji residence.
The released records also included an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI report titled “Updates and Initiatives (as of 5 October 2012).” The report contained no information about Sarasota, yet clearly showed that despite FBI assertions that the 9/11 investigation had concluded years before, it was still active and ongoing in 2012.
Uncensored parts of the report said an FBI agent had obtained “evidence” that two Saudis – Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al-Bayoumi — known to have assisted 9/11 hijackers during their time in southern California were “tasked” to do so by a mysterious third person whose name had been censored. That new information was of immediate interest to attorneys representing 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia in federal court in New York.
In July 2017, Miami federal Judge Cecilia Altonaga avoided a trial in Florida Bulldog’s FOIA case seeking to open up redacted Meese Commission records by granting a government motion for summary judgment. The ruling required the FBI to lift some redactions, including the names of agents working the matter, but essentially shut the case down. Both Florida Bulldog and the FBI appealed.
But in New York, where the 9/11 victims’ lawsuit, long stymied by sovereign immunity that was lifted in 2016 when Congress overwhelmingly passed – over President Obama’s veto – a law allowing their claims against Saudi Arabia to proceed in U.S. courts, new and consolidated complaints were filed in March 2017. The complaints adopted the October 2012 report as a key part of its argument, attaching it as evidence that “Saudi government employees and agents who in the FBI’s own words, provided ‘substantial assistance’ to the 9/11 hijackers.’”
N.Y. case narrowed
The Kingdom sought to dismiss the complaint, but in 2018 a New York federal judge denied its motion while limiting discovery in the case to “the alleged tortious acts” in California of Thumairy and Bayoumi. The ruling put the October 2012 report, and the information it contained, at the center of the case.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers subpoenaed the government to produce an unredacted version of the 2012 report. After the Justice Department refused, the plaintiffs asked the court to compel its release.
Last September, after meeting with 9/11 survivors and family members, President Trump instructed Attorney General William Barr to declassify the name of the third person who had “tasked” Thumairy and Bayoumi with helping the hijackers. The name was given to the 9/11 attorneys with instructions that they could not to share it with anyone, even their own clients.
In May, the name of Mussaed al-Jarrah became public when the FBI inadvertently released it in court papers. Jarrah is a former Saudi Foreign Ministry official who worked at the Saudi embassy in Washington in 1999-2000.s
The rest of the 2012 FBI report remains classified because Barr invoked the “state secrets privilege” to hide it, telling the court that disclosure “would risk significant harm to national security.” In April, using legal arguments that were themselves secret, Barr invoked “state secrets” again more broadly to block 9/11 survivors and family members from obtaining other crucial evidence in support their multi-billion dollar lawsuit that seeks to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the four coordinated al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that employed hijacked passenger jets to kill 2,977 people and injure 25,000 others.
A reply to secrecy
Today, the 2012 report remains a central focus of the New York case as plaintiffs’ attorneys push back on the government’s secrecy decisions. On Thursday, the attorneys are expected to file a reply opposing Barr’s state secrets claims. The public won’t get to see that document either because the court has approved a sweeping FBI “protective order” that is shielding from public view virtually everything about the matter.
Meanwhile, a split federal appeals court in Atlanta last September came down largely on the side of the FBI, overturning Judge Altonaga in a ruling that held the privacy of suspects, witnesses and FBI agents involved in the 9/11 investigation outweighs the public interest in knowing their names. The court also deferred to the FBI’s decisions to withhold other information, declining to review them.
On Jan. 26, 2020, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy story, “The Saudi Connection: Inside the 9/11 Case.” The story was built around disclosures in the 2012 FBI report and interviews with former agents that explained how a team of investigators in a divided FBI had kept working the 9/11 case as a “subfile” under the code name “Operation Encore.” The subfile probe was essentially shut down in 2016.
“The Encore investigation exposed a bitter rift within the bureau over the Saudi connection,” the story said.
A senior FBI analyst prepared a “forceful summary” of Encore’s findings, “laying out in 16 pages everything the team found about suspected Saudi complicity in the plot,” the Times reported. “He then uploaded the secret document into the FBI’s electronic record, ensuring that it could not be erased.”
Those 16 pages remain hidden today – covered up by Attorney General Barr’s assertion that it and numerous other FBI records about 9/11 are state secrets of the U.S. that must be kept hidden from its citizens.