By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In a remarkable and sweeping executive order, President Joe Biden Friday ordered the FBI to quickly make public many now classified documents detailing the government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington nearly 20 years ago.
To safeguard genuine national security information – long a key FBI excuse for withholding information – Biden’s order instructs Attorney General Merrick Garland and the heads of other executive departments and agencies that originated the information to conduct “declassification reviews” of the records before their release.
“The American people deserve to have a fuller picture of what their Government knows about those attacks,” says Biden’s order. “It is therefore critical to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency, relying on classification only when narrowly tailored and necessary. Thus, information collected and generated in the United States Government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed, except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.”
The only specific document President Biden ordered to be reviewed for public release “no later than September 11, 2021” is an April 4, 2016 “electronic communication from the subfile investigation,” of the FBI that’s also known as Operation Encore. That report is said to be a 16-page summary of Encore’s findings about possible Saudi government complicity in 9/11.
Encore was a secret offshoot of PENTTBOM, the code name for the FBI of the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks, the largest criminal inquiry in the nation’s history. The only FBI document about Encore that’s been made public to date was obtained by Florida Bulldog during Freedom of Information Act litigation in late 2016.
THE 2012 FBI REPORT
That heavily redacted report on “Updates and Initiatives (as of 5 October 2012)” stated that as of that date federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York were “actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support to 9/11 hijackers.” Declassified portions of the report indicated the probe was targeting an apparent support network for Saudis Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, who with three other al Qaeda terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
At the time, former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said, “This has never been disclosed before and it’s to the contrary of almost everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history.”
Biden’s executive order says that within 60 days declassification reviews “shall” be completed of “all other records that previously were withheld as classified, in full or in part, during discovery” in the massive New York lawsuit brought by the 9/11 Families against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A similar review must also be done for the 2021 FBI “electronic communication closing the subfile investigation.”
The order makes no mention of Saudi Arabia.
Lawyers for the 9/11 Families were ecstatic at the day’s turn of events.
“This move will finally free up critical relevant factual evidence about September 11th, 2001 attacks and those sponsoring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the days, months and years leading up to the hijackings and terror attacks, said Jodi Westbrook Flowers of the Motley Rice law firm in Mount Pleasant, SC. “The importance of this step cannot be overstated, and clients are extremely grateful to President Biden. We will continue to press for lifting of the secrecy orders in the case.”
Saudi Arabia’s principal attorney in the long-running New York civil litigation, Michael Kellogg, did not immediately respond to Florida Bulldog‘s request for comment.
But Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represented Florida Bulldog for eight years in FOIA litigation seeking FBI 9/11 records, said, “This order suggests to me that President Biden understands that now is the time for the facts to come out and that he is not afraid of the ramifications that may have for US-Saudi relations. The order gives top priority to declassification of a memo which may marshal all of the FBI’s evidence of Saudi complicity which has been kept secret until now.”
“The Bulldog’s FOIA suit shook loose a key FBI memo that poked a hole in the dike,” Julin said.
The President gave the FBI 120 days to review “all interview reports, analytical documents, documents reporting investigative findings, or other substantive records (including phone records and banking records, if any) from the FBI’s initial investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – known as the Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombings (PENTTBOM) investigation – that reference the individual subjects of the subfile investigation and may be found through search terms, keyword identifiers, and other diligent means.”
“Not later than 180 days after the date of this order,” declassification reviews should be completed “of all records from any separate FBI investigation other than the PENTTBOM investigation or the subfile investigation that are relevant to the 9/11 terrorist attacks or to any of the individual subjects’ connection to an agency relationship with a foreign government.”
The order’s standards for declassification state, “Information may remain classified only if it still requires protection in the interest of the national security and disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security. Information shall not remain classified if there is significant doubt about the need to maintain its classified status. Nor shall information remain classified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency.”
Even when national security protection is required, the order says, the attorney general or other top government officials “should determine, as an exercise of discretion, whether the public interest in disclosure…outweighs the damage to national security.”
When declassification reviews are done, reports on the results are to be submitted to the President and to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Reports must include “a justification for each decision not to declassify,” the executive order says.
At the same time, the attorney general and others “shall make publicly available” the information that’s been declassified, “except for information the disclosure of which would materially impair confidential executive branch deliberations.”