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22 years later, justice and information remain elusive for thousands of 9/11 victims and their families

justice
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Photo collage: CBS News

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Twenty-two years ago tomorrow, the unthinkable happened. Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed four passenger jets on U.S. soil in a coordinated suicide attack that killed 2,976 men, women and children in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.

The 19 hijackers are long dead. But for 20 years or more, five men accused of conspiring in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks have been in U.S custody – first, for about three years, as “high-value” detainees tortured by the Central Intelligence Agency and its affiliates at secret “black sites” around the world; ever since as prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

Yet in all that time Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the lead defendant and alleged 9/11 mastermind, and his capital case co-defendants have never been brought to trial before the Military Commission in Guantanamo that’s hearing their case – nor have they been allowed to speak publicly about what they know.

No trial date has ever been set. And proposed plea bargains that could take the death penalty off the table in exchange for pleading guilty budded publicly this spring but have reached an impasse. The New York Times reported last week that President Biden rejected a list of conditions proposed by the defendants, which “lessens the likelihood of reaching a deal.”

So, 22 years after 9/11, justice remains elusive for thousands of victims and their families. And the U.S. government’s failure to deliver that justice – because of policy failures like allowing torture, excessive secrecy, agency screw-ups and duplicity – has amplified their anguish, while a lack of transparency about Saudi Arabia’s apparent involvement in facilitating the attacks has sewn bitterness and distrust.

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Brett Eagleson

“It really does feel like a betrayal by our government from administration to administration,” said Brett Eagleson, who lost his father, John Eagleson, on 9/11. “It’s abundantly clear that our government will stop at nothing to prevent the real story of 9/11 getting out. They think a lot of people have forgotten. They want nothing more than to put 9/11 in a box on a shelf and wrap it in a bow and never have to deal with it again.”

‘IMAGINE IF IT WAS SOMEONE IN YOUR FAMILY’

Kristin Breitweiser’s husband, Ron, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. “Can you imagine if it was someone in your family’s murder case? You just want to learn what’s happening, whether things are being done properly, and you can’t even find out. To this day, no one’s seen the NSA [National Security Agency] records. They just completely and wholesale said, ‘We’re not cooperating.’ How’s that? The NSA was listening into the Yemen [al Qaeda] switchboard, for God’s sake.” The “switchboard,” or communications hub, belonged to 9/11 hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar’s father.

“At the end of the day 22 years out, it’s a cover up. It’s a systemic cover up of the murder of 3,000 people,’’ Breitweiser said.

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Kristen Breitweiser, bottom, and Sharon Premoli

Sharon Premoli was in her office on the 80th floor of the WTC’s North Tower when hijacker Mohammed Atta steered American Airlines Flight 11, out of Boston, into the tower’s north face between floors 93 and 99. Premoli felt the building lurch, then right itself before she joined a multitude who made their way down a stairway to the ground floor. Seconds after she arrived, the South Tower collapsed, blowing her through a store window.

“Thousands of people are very upset that those men have been sequestered in Guantanamo all these years. We’ve had no access to them or to their lawyers,” Premoli said. “I had dinner [in about 2017] with Ed Ryan, one of the Guantanamo prosecutors. He said to me, ‘We are going to trial next year.’ He was 100 percent convinced. He said, ‘You will have a trial next year.’ Of course, that never happened. He wasn’t the reason. He was just trying to do his job. But you know, it was the CIA that fucked it up. What a colossal failure.”

While some U.S interests may have disregarded or forgotten their obligations to 9/11 victims, their right to “access justice and to access relevant information” remain a bedrock human right for all victims of terrorism, according to a June 2023 report by a United Nations record-keeper, or rapporteur, who met with both Guantanamo detainees and survivors and families of those who were killed.

UN OBSERVER: TORTURE WAS ‘BETRAYAL’ OF VICTIMS

“The SR [special rapporteur] acknowledges the collective exhaustion and frustration with the lack of criminal accountability for 9/11. She recognizes differing views within the victim community on the legitimacy of the military commissions, the use of the death penalty, and the operation of the Guantanamo detention facility,” wrote Fionnuala Ni Aolain,  an independent expert who monitors “the promotion and protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.”

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Fionnuala Ni Aolain

“The systematic rendition and torture at multiple [including black] sites and thereafter at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – with the entrenched legal and policy practices of occluding and protecting those who ordered, perpetrated, facilitated, supervised, or concealed torture – comprise the single most significant barrier to fulfilling victims’ rights to justice and accountability.” She called the use of torture “a betrayal of the rights of victims.”

Amnesty International also announced solidarity with the 9/11 victims. “We commemorate this anniversary with deep sorrow. Twenty-two years have passed since the horrific attacks of September 11, and survivors and victims’ families have yet to see any justice or accountability for this crime against humanity.

“The military commissions created at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in the wake of the attacks have not brought justice to anyone. Instead, they have circumvented U.S. and international law and abused the rights of those who remain imprisoned at the facility.”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM, is a Pakistani who the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 torture report says was waterboarded ‘‘at least 183 times” under the CIA’s ‘‘enhanced interrogation” program. He nightmared up the so-called “planes” operation in the 1990s that ultimately became what happened on 9/11.

THE ACCUSED

Also tortured were KSM’S four co-defendants Ramzi bin al Shibh, of Yemen; Mustafa al Hawsawi, of Saudi Arabia; Walid bin Attash, aka Khallad, of Yemen; and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, of Kuwait, also known as Ammar al Baluchi.

  • Ramzi Bin al Shib is alleged to have been a member of an al Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, along with 9/11 hijack pilots Atta, Marwan al Shehhi (who flew into the center’s south tower) and Ziad Jarrah (who pushed United Airlines Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field). He was the only one of the four to have been denied a visa to enter the U.S. and shortly after the attacks U.S. authorities said he was to have been the “20th” hijacker if he had been able to gain entry.
  • Walid Bin Attash, who is charged with helping choose and train several of the 9/11 hijackers, is described in a report by Office of the Director of National Intelligence as “the scion of a prominent terrorist family” who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He is said to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, has been identified as the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 and attended an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar in January 2000.
  •  Mustafa al Hawsawi, using various aliases, is alleged to have been a financial facilitator for the hijackers. He sent or received thousands of dollars, as well as packages, to members of each of the four hijack teams. He was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003.
  • Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, or Ammar al Baluchi as he is better known, is alleged to have transferred thousands of dollars to various hijackers, including Nawaf al Hazmi, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it rammed the Pentagon. The National Intelligence Office described him as “a member of an extended family of extremists that has spawned such notorious terrorists as his detained uncle and 11 September mastermind Khalid Shayk Muhammad (KSM) and cousin and incarcerated World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.” The report adds that he was a “key lieutenant for KSM during the operation on 11 September and subsequently assisted his uncle on various plots against the United States and United Kingdom.’’ He was captured in Pakistan in April 2003.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a 2022 photo provided to The New York TImes by his lawyers

Since 2011, Mohammed and the others have faced the death penalty on counts of murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians and civilian objects, terrorism and conspiracy. That same year, the Department of Justice gave up its plans to try them in federal court in New York after members of Congress intervened to impose restrictions that blocked the Obama administration from bringing them into the U.S.

But now that Biden appears to have ended the likelihood of plea deals, the chances that the case will be brought to a trial in Guantanamo appear slim. (A government notice that apparently announces the president’s decision was docketed on the Pentagon’s military commissions website Wednesday, but unlike U.S. civilian courts was withheld from public view. Instead, a notice appears that says: “The document you are trying to access is currently undergoing a security review per the 2022 Regulation for Trial by Military Commission Chapter 19 Section 4. At the completion of the security review, and if the document is deemed publically releasable, it will be made available to the public 15 business days after the document was filed with the court.”)

TORTURE AND A PROBLEMATIC TRIAL

While a half-dozen 9/11 victims interviewed for this article would welcome a Guantanamo trial and a full airing of the evidence in their search for justice, it’s unlikely the CIA or others in the U.S. intelligence community want such a trial. Such a quest for justice would stir up ugly public talk about torture and black sites.

A trial would also raise questions about the problematic nature of some of the evidence in the case. If the defendants’ confessions get suppressed and excluded from evidence because of torture, what else does the government have to convict them?

A still from footage at Dulles Airport outside Washington showing hijackers and brothers Salem, in light shirt, and Nawaf al-Hazmi passing through security on 9/11.

Then there are problems like this: in April Florida Bulldog reported on details contained in the sworn declaration of Donald Canestraro, an investigator for the Office of Military Commissions who is assigned as part of the defense team for Ammar al Baluchi.

Canestraro states he interviewed former FBI agents, including one he dubbed CS-23 with “extensive knowledge” of counterterrorism and counterintelligence matters, who discussed efforts by the CIA to recruit future hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar, both known al Qaeda members, as informants.

“CS-23 told me that the CIA used their liaison relationship with the Saudi intelligence services to conduct an operation on U.S. soil. CS-23 told me that the Saudis were used as a go between as the CIA is forbidden by law to conduct intelligence operations within the U.S,” Canestraro wrote. The CIA “has used its relationship with allied intelligence services to conduct operations inside the United States in the past.”

Terry Strada

TERRY STRADA’S HOPES

On 9/11 Terry Strada’s husband, Tom Strada, was on the 104th floor of the North Tower where he worked as a senior vice president at the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. No one in Cantor’s five floors of WTC offices that day survived.

Unlike many other 9/11 family members, Strada remains optimistic that justice will prevail and a trial in Guantanamo will occur.

“I’m hoping that we will have the trial. I’m hoping that the death penalty remains on the table, that the trial happens and that the evidence that’s been collected will see the light of day,” she said. “I think we’ll have the ability to ask [the defendants] questions on the stand and under oath, even though I don’t exactly know how much respect they give to our oath.”

Strada is also confident that the victims’ sprawling civil case in federal court in New York that accuses Saudi Arabia of complicity in the attacks will go to trial and bring out the facts.

“The 9/11 families have a lot of questions. We want to know a lot about the Saudi connection and we want to know what they know about it. The only way to do that is to have a trial. So, yeah, we’re very hopeful that’s going to happen eventually.

“So you remain hopeful.”

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Latest comment

  • I am ETERNALLY GRATEFUL, TO YOU AND SENATOR GRAHAM, for enabling me to SEE THE LIGHT as to what really happened on 9/11.

    Also, whereas I mistekenly voted for Trump in 2016, dismissing Bob Graham’s Warning Trump could be a MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for Russian Dictatotrship,

    HISTORY HAS PROVEN BOB GRAHAM RIGHT.

    WE SEE CLEARLY IN 2023 THAT DONALD TRUMP IS A MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE FOR RUSSIAN DICTATORSHIP.

    Sincerely,

    Jackson Rip Holmes

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