By Carey Wedler
The classified 28-pages of the 9/11 report have made global headlines lately as a handful of lawmakers battle to release them to the public. Those pages are believed by activists and members of Congress — who have seen them — to expose the role of Saudi Arabia, including government officials, in the terrorist attacks.
But according to a new report based on years of investigative journalism, it turns out there are far more than 28 classified pages on Saudi Arabia and 9/11 — there are 80,000 kept secret by the FBI. And though not all 80,000 are expected to concern the Saudi family — and the FBI insists their investigation of the documents came up empty-handed — journalists, at least one lawmaker, and heavily-redacted documents suggest otherwise.
As the Daily Beast reported, the discovery of the 80,000 pages came when Irish investigative journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan were contacted by an unnamed counterterrorism official in 2011. The reporters were preparing to publish a book on the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks and were told by the source that a Saudi family who had been living in Sarasota, Florida, prior to the attacks had connections to the attackers. Specifically, they were linked to Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian terrorist widely recognized as the ringleader of the attacks.
The unnamed official’s tip conflicted squarely with the FBI’s prior conclusions on that family. Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii, his wife Anoud, and their three small children lived in an upscale Sarasota community, along with Anoud’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, a financier and interior designer, who owned the home, and Ghazzawai’s American-born wife. The FBI had received multiple calls from the family’s neighbors expressing concerns over erratic behavior. Two weeks before 9/11, they left the house in a huge hurry, leaving dirty diapers and toys strewn about, a fully stocked refrigerator, and three cars in the driveway.
Though the FBI opened an investigation in April 2002, it still insists it never found any significant connection between the family and Atta. The agency acknowledged they had suspected a connection, but “not until after the Tampa field office opened an investigation that claimed to find ‘numerous connections’ between the family and the 9/11 hijackers,” the Daily Beast explained. The 80,000 classified pages in question stemmed from that investigation.
The FBI says “the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers.” But “on further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.”
But Summers and Swan contacted Dan Christensen, a veteran Florida reporter, and together they published an exposé on these connections in Sarasota in September 2011. As they reported, following the 9/11 attacks:
[L]aw enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.
They were also never revealed to lawmakers. The 2011 story caught the attention of Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has since led the campaign to release the 28 pages on the Saudi connection, which are said to contain information showing Saudi government officials were involved in orchestrating the attack.
At the time, he said the journalists had “open[ed] the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11.” Graham attempted to view some of the documents, and told the Daily Beast (for a forthcoming article) they did show a connection between the family and three hijackers. He was soon after confronted by then-deputy director of the FBI, Sean Joyce. According to Graham, he said, “Basically everything about 9/11 was known and I was wasting my time and I should get a life.”
Christensen filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the hopes of either confirming or refuting their original reporting. Thomas Julin, his lawyer, said the FBI initially denied having any records. When Graham said he was willing to testify he had seen some, the Department of Justice conveniently admitted to having 35 relevant pages. They released them, but they were heavily redacted. In spite of the overt censorship guarding that information, they reportedly still made clear the FBI had suspicions about the family — and that they had found several connections between them and the hijackers. The pages also include the FBI’s dismissals of those suspicions.
U.S. District Court Judge William Zloch, who presided over the Freedom of Information case, was unconvinced and demanded the FBI conduct another search of its records. This time,“the FBI found some additional responsive documents which it produced,” Julin told the Daily Beast. “But it also found 80,266 pages of material in the Tampa Field Office of the FBI which had been marked with the file number for the FBI’s PENTTBOM investigation.”
PENTTBOM was the FBI term for its investigation into the 9/11 attacks. Though the New York Post had previously reported on these 80,000 pages, the DoJ’s small release of documents clarified suspicions. Zloch ordered the FBI to hand over all the documents in May 2014 — and he is still going through them to determine which pages can be released. He has given no indication of when he will be finished.
The Daily Beast explained “Zloch’s task is made all the more painstaking by the strict security rules governing review of classified documents, even for a sitting judge. The files are kept in a secure facility, and he can only remove a portion at a time.”
It remains unclear how many of the 80,000 pages pertain directly to the Tampa FBI field office’s investigation of the family in Sarasota — and their ties to the attackers. Though Christensen says he’s ready to be proven wrong, he believes “those files will reveal the underlying reasons for the FBI’s early suspicions.”
As the Daily Beast laid out:
The FBI, for instance, says that phone records searches showed no links to the house and the hijackers. Christensen’s confidential source says the opposite is true. If the FBI is right, Christensen asks, then why not just release the information and put the dispute to rest?
The FBI has attempted to discredit the pages, claiming the agent who filed the first reports on the family and their potential connection to the hijackers was “not a good writer and should not be taken as the last word,” according to Graham. However, that agent was promoted shortly after 9/11, casting doubt on assertions they were incompetent.
In a similar evasion of accountability, President Obama vowed to block a legislative effort to release the 28 pages amid pressure from the Saudi Arabian government, which threatened to remove $750 billion in American assets should the legislation pass. The president cited concerns that allowing families of 9/11 victims to sue a foreign government could, in turn, open the United States government up to prosecution, itself. The White House has since indicated it intends to release part of the 28 pages.
Though Julin says the 28 pages likely aren’t linked to the Sarasota Saudi family, he hopes their eventual release “might help Judge Zloch see the wider significance of the events in Sarasota and persuade him that some or all of the records have not been properly classified.”
Last week, a former member of the 9/11 commission said he believes six Saudi officials supported the 9/11 hijackers. John F. Lehman said Wednesday, “There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government,” he said. “Our report should never have been read as an exoneration of Saudi Arabia.”
The FBI’s trove of documents also requires further examination. Julin dismissed suspicions Judge Zloch is intentionally lagging in his investigation of the 80,000 pages. “I believe this is not a stalling tactic at all,” he said. “The judge is doing what he has to comply” with the stringent rules surrounding the release of the classified documents. “But I would urge him to speed it up,” he said.
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