By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In a milestone decision, a federal judge has ordered the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to produce key Saudi ministers, members of the Royal Family and others to answer questions under oath about Saudi support for 9/11 hijackers inside the U.S.
The ruling was announced Thursday the eve of the 19th anniversary of the horrendous al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington — terror strikes followed by seemingly perpetual war in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The biggest name to be cleared to testify is former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a familiar face in Washington for decades who was so close to Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush that he got the nickname “Bandar Bush.”
In 2016, with the public release of the once classified “28 pages” from the 2002 report of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, it was learned that Bandar had connections to an al-Qaeda figure now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and other Saudis suspected of helping two of the September 11, 2001 suicide hijackers when they lived in southern California. But he won’t be questioned about that, rather about his knowledge about the hijackers and those who aided them.
Other big names the court has given the go-ahead to question are former Saudi Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahad, son of the former king, Minister of State Saleh Bin Abdulaziz Al Ash-Shaikh and Saudi U.S. embassy Chief of Staff Ahmed al Qattan.
“No court has ever ordered a foreign nation to produce its highest-ranking ministers to provide testimony – let alone members of a royal family,” said Steve Pounian, a plaintiff’s attorney with the New York law firm Kreindler & Kreindler who argued the matter for the 9/11 families.
“This is a major development because until now, the Kingdom has produced very little actual documentation concerning its government officials working in the United States before the 9/11 attacks,” Pounian said. “The Saudi government assumed it could hide documents and protect key officials from being questioned.”
U.S. Magistrate Sarah Netburn issued her 40-page ruling on Aug. 27. It was not made public until Thursday afternoon, after both sides and the FBI had a chance to object to the release of any specific information in the report. There were some objections and the court blacked out about 60 lines in varying locations throughout the order.
Attorneys for Saudi Arabia had strongly opposed the 9/11 families efforts to obtain the testimony the court has now allowed to proceed. They sought to limit the testimony to lower level Saudi officials, and in February filed a motion under seal asking the court for a protective order to block “depositions of current and former Saudi officials.”
Under procedural rules handed down by U.S. District Judge George Daniels, the 9/11 families were allowed to only conduct “limited and targeted jurisdictional discovery” regarding former diplomat and Imam Fahad al Thumairy and suspected Saudi Arabia agent Omar al Bayoumi, Saudis in southern California who were previously tied to the 9/11 hijackers.
According to Netburn’s order, as the period for document discovery in the case closed last winter the plaintiffs’ lawyers told the court they wanted to depose 53 Saudis and explained why. Saudi Arabia responded with a motion for a protective order regarding 46 of the 53, arguing they were entitled to certain legal and diplomatic protections.
Neburn’s order resolved the dispute with a split decision that appears to weigh in favor of the position of 9/11 families.
For example, Netburn sided with the Saudis in refusing to order several current officials to submit to depositions because of the “high-ranking privilege” defined in law. They include Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Sudais, a current minister of state, the equivalent of a cabinet-level post, and imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca; and Walid Bukhari, the nation’s current ambassador to Lebanon and Saad Al Jabreen, a consul general for Saudi Arabia.
Al Sudais attended the grand opening of the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles and visited the U.S. in 2000-2001. He met with Thumairy and received a request for funding from Thumairy. The other two men worked closely with Thumairy at Saudi Arabia’s Los Angeles consulate prior to 9/11, but Netburn ruled the plaintiffs did not present “exceptional circumstances” required to justify any of their depositions.
Netburn did, however, allow the plaintiffs to depose current Saudi Minister of State Saleh Bin Abdulaziz Al Ash-Shaikh, ruling he was not protected by the privilege. Ash-Shaikh was formerly Minister of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) with relevant, first-hand knowledge about Thumairy and “elements within the MOIA and other Saudi government agencies that supported al Qaeda before 9/11, and he took an active role in the (Saudi’s) post 9/11 review of Al Thumairy’s role in providing support to the hijackers.”
Other notables the plaintiffs are now cleared to depose are another current Saudi Minister of State, Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz Al Qattan and Abdullah Al Jaithen, a MOIA official in Riyadh.
The court held that Al Qattan, a former chief of staff at the Saudi embassy in Washington, “likely has unique first-hand knowledge” regarding the pre-9/11 activities of both Thumairy and Mussaed al-Jarrah, a Foreign Ministry official who worked at the embassy in 1999-2000. FBI records released to Florida Bulldog in 2016 identify Thumairy, Bayoumi and Jarrah as three “main subjects” of Operation Encore, the Bureau’s secret, but long-running probe into suspected Saudi involvement in 9/11.
The court identified Al Jaithen as senior to Thumairy and “’may be a higher-ranking Saudi official’ who gave instructions to assist the hijackers…The court orders that the Kingdom produce Al Jaithen for a deposition.”
Royal Family member Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahad is a former Minister of State. He’s cleared to testify, but protections afforded by the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations appear to mean that he can still decline to be deposed voluntarily. The Kingdom “should request” his voluntary cooperation and “any questioning should proceed” in accordance with the Conventions’ guidelines.
The Prince’s connection to the case is, once again, via Thumairy. The plaintiffs allege he was involved in the “creation, funding, management and operation” of the King Fahad Mosque,” the judge wrote. The order says that in May the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel the Kingdom to turn over “documents from the government offices of Prince Abdulaziz regarding his assignments and compensation of Thumairy.”
Prince Abdulaziz “likely has first-hand knowledge regarding the context of this transfer of funds to Thumairy,” the order says.
Prince Bandar, too, appears to be protected from being required to testify by the Vienna Conventions. Still, it may be politically embarrassing for him to decline. He testified before the 9/11 Commission in secret in 2003. A year ago, the National Archives released summary notes from that interview to Florida Bulldog reporters Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan.
According to Judge Netburn’s order, Ambassador Bandar “oversaw the work of Al Thumairy and Al Jarrah and has unique personal knowledge of the roles they were assigned by the Kingdom,” the order says before several lines are blacked out. Bandar also likely has first-hand knowledge of “the diplomatic cover provided to (MOIA) propagators working in the United States.”
“Plaintiffs have met their burden under (the law) as applied by the Court to former officials to show ‘exceptional circumstances’ justifying Prince Bandar’s deposition.”
Even if he ultimately testifies, Bandar can’t be asked about anything outside the scope of Thumairy and Bayoumi. That means he won’t be shedding light on one of the more interesting questions arising out of 9/11 – Why was the unlisted private phone number of the company that managed Bandar’s multi-million dollar Aspen, Colorado estate found in the phonebook al Quaeda’s Abu Zubaydah when he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002?