Author of 9/11’s famed “Phoenix Memo” was told White House’s pursuit of warm relations with kingdom comes first
Former Senate intelligence chair Bob Graham calls FBI’s action “a fundamental assault on the principle of democracy”
By Brian P. McGlinchey
A retired FBI counterterrorism agent with a notable role in the story of 9/11 says the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with attorneys representing 9/11 victims in their suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because it could harm U.S.-Saudi relations.
In an exclusive interview with 28Pages.org, Kenneth Williams, author of an ignored July 2001 memo warning that Osama bin Laden may be training pilots in the United States, explains why he has now decided to ignore the FBI’s instructions, and illustrates how the failure to share critical information continued into the 9/11 investigation—possibly to the benefit of the kingdom.
FBI Priority: Protecting U.S.-Saudi Relationship
The 9/11 plaintiffs—family members, survivors and insurers—allege that officials of the Saudi government provided financial, logistical and other support to the perpetrators of the attacks.
After being contacted by their attorneys in October of last year, Williams notified the FBI legal counsel in Phoenix, where he spent his career. Days later, he received a call from an attorney at the Office of the General Counsel whose name he does not recall.
“She said they didn’t want me to cooperate with the plaintiffs’ attorneys because it could impact other pending litigation involving the United States government…and because…the Trump administration was trying to develop good relations with the Saudi government,” he says.
At the time, the FBI general counsel was James A. Baker. He was reassigned to other duties in December 2017 and left government in May of this year. Prior to being removed as general counsel, House Republicans were reported to have investigated contacts between Baker and the media in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
28Pages.org asked the Department of Justice: what “other pending litigation” the attorney was referring to; how sharing facts about 9/11 could harm the U.S. position in that case; who decided that Williams should be instructed not to cooperate with attorneys representing 9/11 plaintiffs; and why the White House’s pursuit of good relations with Saudi Arabia is a reason not to help 9/11 families seeking facts about the mass murder of their loved ones.
“We do not have a comment for you,” says an FBI spokesperson via email.
“How in the world did we, the 9/11 families, become the enemy of the FBI?” asks Kathy Owens, whose husband Peter was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Owens, a plaintiff in the suit against Saudi Arabia, says news of the FBI’s obstructionism in her case “confirms what we’ve been suspecting all along—that the government, through three administrations, has decided that staying friends with Saudi Arabia is more important than holding accountable the sponsors of the 9/11 attacks.”
Former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham tells 28Pages.org that the FBI’s opposition to an agent helping 9/11 victims is only the newest facet of a well-established pattern.
“I think they’ve just thrown the biggest blanket they can find over everything that has to do with the Saudi role in 9/11,” he says.
Graham offers a pointed characterization of the FBI’s decision to put the Saudi relationship ahead of 9/11 victims: “It’s a fundamental assault on the principle of democracy.”
Crisis of Conscience Leads to a Change of Mind
After more than 30 years of obeying headquarters, Williams initially complied with the FBI’s directive, but did so with a guilty conscience. “I really felt horrible about my decision, I really did,” says Williams, who retired in May 2017.
He also resented the FBI’s stance. “I thought to myself, ‘How could my agency tell me not to cooperate with people that have been victimized on that horrible day?’ That did not pass the smell test in my opinion. That is ridiculous to even suggest that to one of your former employees or even a current employee,” he says.
“It’s un-American in my opinion,” says Williams. “It’s like, who gives a rat’s ass about the Saudi Arabian government? Either (the plaintiffs) have the evidence or they don’t. But the evidence needs to be presented to a court of law and let the court make that decision as to whether…the Saudi Arabian government (is) complicit in the terrorist attacks of September 11th.”
Earlier this year, he chose to disregard the FBI’s direction and to assist attorneys for the 9/11 victims to the extent he can without sharing classified information. “We let them down before 9/11. I said, ‘I don’t want to let them down after 9/11. I just want to go for it’,” he says.
Williams says he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of Saudi government complicity, but that another agent said supervisors told that agent to stand down from his interest in leads pointing toward Saudi officials.
The Saudi government crossed Williams’ radar in other ways. After he arrested Faisal al-Salmi for lying about his association with Hani Hanjour—who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon—Williams was surprised to see the Saudi government hire a top-notch lawyer for him.
Williams says he wondered “why is this guy al-Salmi getting this level of attention and support from the Saudi government? I still don’t have the answer to that.”
Williams also says that, contrary to assurances by the U.S. and Saudi governments, the kingdom was not an earnest partner in counterterrorism investigations.
“I didn’t feel like they were giving us much assistance with respect to information we were asking for on their citizens that we were interested in,” he says. “I always felt like the United States government went above and beyond in providing assistance to our allies and friends, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, I don’t think they reciprocated.”
After learning more about the case 9/11 plaintiffs are building against the kingdom, Williams has concluded “there definitely needs to be additional follow-up on the Saudi regime’s involvement with some of the hijackers.”
“That really angered me when I saw some of the stuff that (the plaintiffs’ attorneys) showed me and I listened to their thoughts and the things they’ve learned throughout their journey. I was embarrassed as a former FBI agent, and I was very angered and very sad. It was a whole mixture of emotions,” he says.
Failure to Share Information Continued Well After 9/11
In July 2001, drawing on his investigations of extremists living in Arizona, Williams sent an electronic communication, or “EC,” to FBI headquarters warning that Osama bin Laden might be undertaking “a coordinated effort” to train pilots and that “these individuals will be in a position in the future to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets.”
The document—which became known as “the Phoenix memo”—urged the FBI to develop a list of aviation schools across the nation and to contact them in search of suspicious activity.
It was ignored. Along with the CIA’s blocking of an FBI agent’s attempt to alert headquarters that a known al Qaeda terrorist—and future hijacker—had obtained a multi-entry U.S. visa, it stands among the most prominent of many examples of the government’s failure to share and act on critical information that may have thwarted the 9/11 attacks.
The 28Pages.org interview with Williams suggests the failure to share pertinent information continued into the 9/11 investigation.
For example, one of the Arizona extremists Williams investigated was Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi citizen who would go on to be apprehended in Pakistan with al-Qaeda logistics man Abu Zubaydah.
In 2016, 28Pages.org was first to report on the declassification of a 9/11 Commission document that revealed that, after capturing al-Sharbi in 2002, coalition forces found his U.S. flight certificate in an envelope of the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Asked about the envelope, Williams’ reply is one of exasperation: To this writer’s surprise, he is hearing about it for the first time, much as he had recently learned other unsettling facts from the 9/11 plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“See now, here you go. You’re talking about my al-Sharbi, right? I did not know that,” says Williams, who interrogated al-Sharbi at Guantanamo without the benefit of that knowledge.
“It really does anger me. I go above just professional disagreement—it angers me. I knew that guy better than anybody in the U.S. government. I should have been included in that information,” says Williams.
When 28 pages on Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks were declassified in 2016, they revealed that coalition forces also retrieved Zubaydah’s telephone book, and that it held U.S. phone numbers—one of which was linked to an unlisted number associated with the Colorado mansion of the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
This too was news to Williams.
“For crying out loud, one of my guys was arrested with this guy. I should know everything about both of them,” he says. “Were there any Arizona numbers in that phone book?”
Unease About 9/11 Investigation
Williams also has misgivings about FBI decisions on who would lead and participate in the 9/11 investigation, codenamed PENTTBOM. He says agents with little background in counterterrorism were given important roles, and that others with direct experience with some investigation subjects weren’t involved in their interrogations.
As an example, he points to when PENTTBOM investigators traveled to Saudi Arabia to interview Mohammed al-Qudhaeein and Hamdan al-Shalawi. The two had lived in Arizona and were suspected of engaging in a 9/11 “dry run” on a 1999 America West flight from Phoenix to Washington. They were on their way to an event hosted by the Saudi embassy, and bought their tickets at Saudi government expense on the night before traveling.
With deep knowledge of the pair, Williams repeatedly asked to assist in the interrogation, but says his requests went unacknowledged. “I was the case agent on those guys…you’d think you’d bring someone who knows the people into the fold. Even if you don’t want me to be the interrogator or interviewer, you would think you would at least consult with me,” he says.
Throughout the discussion, Williams toggles between anger over being kept in the dark and left out of investigations, and an insiders’ appreciation of just how challenging the post-9/11 environment was for the FBI and other agencies. “It was total chaos right after 9/11. There was so much information coming in. I equate it to trying to get a sip of water out of a fire hydrant,” he says.
“I would hate to think there was a deliberate attempt to prevent us from getting all the answers, but maybe there was. I don’t know. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is the case, not only do the Saudis need to held accountable, but the people who prevented investigators from pursuing the investigation to the umpteenth degree need to be held accountable for that.”
Noting that 9/11 constituted the worst mass murder in U.S. history, Williams says “if there’s people in government that have been told not to follow through on legitimate investigative leads on things, that’s the definition of obstruction of justice and that becomes a criminal matter.”
Suit Impeded by Classification
Standing in the way of a full examination of Saudi Arabia’s links to the 9/11 attacks—and in the way of plaintiffs in the civil suit against the kingdom—is the continued classification of a vast number of documents relating to the attacks.
“I think the president should do two things: He should declassify information and he also should give legal protection to agents, either current or former, that want to come forward to cooperate with the plaintiffs’ lawsuit,” Williams says.
“If the president would give them some form of protection, maybe you’ll get additional information and maybe the floodgates will open up and maybe (the 9/11) plaintiffs will get what they need to bring some retribution against the Saudi government,” he says.
On the presidential campaign trail, President Trump told an audience, “You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers in there that are very secret. You may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.”
However, apparently bending to the influence of advisors who don’t share the “America-first” philosophy that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton—and mesmerized by Saudi weapon purchases—the Trump White House has pursued a extraordinarily close relationship with the kingdom.
Williams rejects the notion that extensive classification of 9/11 documents is necessary for national security, saying that, even during his career, he would argue that the FBI’s secrecy was excessive: “I would say, ‘My God, the classification level of this stuff is off the charts crazy’.”
“Seventeen years (since 9/11) is a lifetime in the intelligence business. There can’t be anything in those documents that’s going to hurt us. The only thing I think it would hurt is maybe past administrations’—maybe even the current administration’s—reputation, with respect to giving Saudi Arabia a pass,” he says.
On Monday, Senator Richard Blumenthal, flanked by 9/11 family members, announced he will introduce a resolution pressing for the broad declassification of 9/11 documents.
Unwarranted classification “is protecting the Saudis and terrorist organizations rather than the American people and these families,” said Blumenthal.
The Connecticut Democrat’s resolution will have language identical to a House measure introduced by North Carolina Republican Walter Jones.
Williams welcomes the bipartisan congressional effort. “This is a nonpartisan issue. Forget about if you’re a Republican, if you’re a Democrat, if you’re independent—this is a humanity issue. These are human beings that got savagely murdered on September 11 and there should be no partisan politics involved in this at all,” he says.
Is This the “Other Pending Litigation”?
Williams says he doesn’t know what “pending litigation” the FBI was referring to when it told him not to help lawyers for 9/11 victims. He entertains the possibility that the bureau was bluffing.
However, it’s conceivable the FBI lawyer was referring to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by Florida Bulldog, an investigative news outlet that has been pressing the FBI to release a variety of documents related to its investigation of a wealthy Saudi family that suddenly abandoned its home in Sarasota about two weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
The pursuit of material associated with that case has now led Florida Bulldog to sue for the release of documents from the 9/11 Review Commission, a 2013-15 undertaking that is not to be confused with the 9/11 Commission.
Funded and supervised by the FBI, the 9/11 Review Commission concluded that an FBI agent’s report of discovering “many connections” between the Sarasota family and 9/11 hijackers was faulty.
That conclusion rested on an assurance by Supervisory Special Agent Jacqueline Maguire that the agent’s 2002 assertion about “many connections” was “a bad statement. It was overly speculative and there was no basis for the statement.”
The FBI’s stance on the Sarasota family contradicts Florida Bulldog’s reporting, sourced to an unnamed counterterrorism agent, that both phone and security gate records linked the Sarasota home to 9/11 hijackers, including Mohammed Atta.
Maguire was one of the lead PENTTBOM agents. “That’s a question I have,” says Williams. “Why was she this authority, what made her the expert terrorism person? I understand her background wasn’t very extensive when 9/11 happened. I don’t understand it. There were many more people on the job at the time that had much more extensive terrorism credentials that could have been working that investigation.”
A briefing to the 9/11 Review Commission by Maguire and two others similarly discounted a San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force memo that “alleged a connection to Saudi Arabia.” The briefers said it was “bad FBI reporting” and that “subsequent investigations did not collaborate (sic) this.”
The same briefing appears to have covered the suspected 1999 “dry run” discussed above, concluding that “we do not know what these individuals were doing and we do not have any additional bad information on them.”
That’s false, unless you don’t think it’s “bad” that in July 2000, al-Shalawi traveled to Afghanistan, was there at the same time as several future 9/11 hijackers, and received explosives training from al Qaeda.
According to the 28 pages, that information was received by the FBI in November 2000.
“Why she would say that is beyond me,” says Williams.
According to Williams, Maguire was the PENTTBOM agent who conducted the post-9/11 interview of al-Shalawi and al-Qudhaieen in Saudi Arabia without consulting him.
The 9/11 Review Commission was meant to serve as a follow-up on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, to evaluate progress and assess evidence not known to the FBI at the time of the 9/11 Commission.
Though the 9/11 Commission sought and received Williams’ detailed input on how America’s counterterrorism effort could be improved, the 9/11 Review Commission didn’t ask him for a fresh assessment.
In fact, in what seems to indicate that the 9/11 Review Commission was little more than a check-the-box undertaking, Williams says he hadn’t even heard of the 9/11 Review Commission until earlier this year. “I was really astounded,” he says.
“I would have pointed out many things that we have not made improvements on,” says Williams, to include his perception that post-9/11 procedures have bureaucratically slowed the FBI to the point that “the communication I wrote before 9/11 probably would not have been published and disseminated.”
For a Retired Agent, a New Mission
Despite his criticisms, Williams repeatedly expresses fondness for the FBI, deep respect for its rank and file agents, and pride in his career, which, beyond “the Phoenix memo,” is also noteworthy for his obtaining a critical witness statement in the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing case.
He makes it clear, though, that his ultimate loyalty lies beyond the bureau. Throughout his career, he says, his philosophy was that “I’m an employee of the FBI, but I’m also an employee of the American people. The whole reason for taking the job is to protect America. It’s not to protect the FBI as an institution, it’s to protect people,” he says.
“I really feel an obligation and really a spiritual obligation to help (the 9/11 victims) out, and beyond that to make right what the U.S. government might have done wrong,” he says.
As an FBI agent, Williams took an oath to defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. To that commitment, he now adds a new pledge: “I will do everything and anything I can within my area of knowledge to help the victims of 9/11.”
If you’re a current or former FBI agent and want to join Williams in shedding light on the investigation of Saudi links to 9/11, contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org