Co-chair of congressional inquiry into 9/11 aids investigative journalist’s FOIA case against FBI
At a federal court hearing in Miami on Tuesday, former U.S. senator and Florida governor Bob Graham was seated at the plaintiff’s table in a case pitting a journalist against the FBI in a fight for transparency about the bureau’s investigation of a Saudi family that suddenly left its upscale Sarasota home shortly before the 9/11 attacks. Continue reading →
A 2014 email released by Wikileaks, in which Hillary Clinton asserted that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were directly aiding ISIS and other extremist groups, may help stave off a Saudi lobbying effort aimed at reversing a newly-enacted law giving 9/11 families the power to sue the kingdom.
The email, sent to Clinton presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, lays out an assessment of the situation in Syria and Iraq and includes various policy prescriptions.
One of them leveled a pointed indictment at Saudi Arabia: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” (ISIL is an abbreviation for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—an alternative reference for ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.)
As Daily Caller’s Alex Pfeiffer noted in breaking the story, the email’s format matches previously revealed intelligence reports prepared for Clinton by her confidante Sidney Blumenthal. Though it may have been drafted by Blumenthal, Clinton’s sharing of the material without attribution seemingly signals her embrace of its contents, including the damning assertion about Saudi Arabia.
This isn’t the first time Wikileaks has revealed a Clinton assertion of ties between Saudi Arabia and terrorism. In a 2009 cable, then-Secretary of State Clinton said “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
The newly-released email is particularly significant because, rather than vaguely implicating unidentified “donors” that may or may not include individual members of the royal family acting independently, it specifically points a finger of guilt at the Saudi government itself.
The email validates former Senator Bob Graham’s previous assertions that, by classifying Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government helped pave the way for the rise of ISIS.
“I believe that the failure to shine a full light on Saudi actions and particularly its involvement in 9/11 has contributed to the Saudi ability to continue to engage in actions that are damaging to the US—and in particular their support for ISIS,” Graham told Patrick Cockburn in a 2014 interview.
Strengthening the Case for JASTA
The Clinton email leak comes just a few weeks after the enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in a way that enables 9/11 family members and victims to sue the Saudi government for its alleged financial and logistical support of the hijackers.
President Obama vetoed the bill and, though his veto was overwhelmingly overridden, JASTA supporters are bracing for a determined Saudi counterattack in the lame duck session of Congress. That counterattack will likely take the form of a new alteration of FSIA to reverse some or all of JASTA’s effect.
Though JASTA explicitly limits its scope to terrorism and only applies to governments, opponents—under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. intelligence community—are claiming JASTA will leave individual U.S. military service members vulnerable to lawsuits filed abroad if foreign governments modify their own sovereign immunity laws in reciprocation.
In a statement issued after Obama’s veto, attorneys for 9/11 families said “a reciprocal statute could not permit claims against individual U.S. officials, employees or military personnel, as JASTA prohibits such actions…the inescapable conclusion is that the president’s rationale for opposing JASTA has nothing to do with JASTA itself.”
Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Endorses Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act
In an appearance this morning at the National Press Club, former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham said the July release of 28 pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry was just the first step toward gaining full transparency on the U.S. government’s investigation of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.
“This is removing the cork from the bottle,” said Graham. “There is a significant amount of information which, like the 28 pages, has been withheld and it was necessary to get this first block of material to the public in order to build the support that will be necessary for the balance of the material to flow.”
Pattern of “Aggressive Deception”
Among the countless documents still hidden from public view are those relating to the FBI’s investigation of a wealthy, well-connected Saudi family in Sarasota that reportedly had many contacts with future 9/11 attackers before suddenly vacating its home days before the attacks.
The FBI initially denied that it had any documentation of that investigation. When pressed with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the bureau surrendered 80,000 pages of documents to a federal judge who is currently reviewing them for potential release.
Graham characterized the FBI as moving beyond a cover-up, which he defined as a passive withholding of information, to “aggressive deception” in which “they rewrote the narrative,” making public declarations that are at odds with what’s contained in the bureau’s still-secret documents.
Noting that there were several al Qaeda cells around the country, Graham called for the release of still-classified files from the investigations of hijackers based in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as additional material from the 9/11 Commission.
Those commission documents are vital to helping the American public understand the apparent disconnect between the commission’s conclusions that it found no evidence of Saudi government support of the 9/11 plotters and disturbing declarations in the newly-released 28 pages—including revelations that an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan had an unlisted phone number associated with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s Aspen, Colorado mansion, as well as the phone number of a bodyguard at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.
Pending Legislation Would Help Cause of Transparency
Graham also endorsed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would modify the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in a way that would clear the path for 9/11 families to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its alleged links to the attacks.
Graham positioned the lawsuit as a critical avenue of transparency. Noting that he was familiar with much of the research that plaintiffs’ attorneys had already conducted, Graham said “of all the channels of information about the Saudi role, what’s going to come out in that litigation—if it is allowed to occur because the sovereign immunity defense has been modified—will be astounding.”
JASTA passed the Senate unanimously in May, and activist 9/11 family members and victims are pressing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to schedule a vote immediately upon Congress’s return from summer recess next week. The activists’ latest efforts include emotionally impactful videos recorded by those directly and indirectly affected by the attacks, as well as a letter from the children of many who were slain in the attacks.
Graham said his daughter, Florida Congresswoman Gwen Graham, has observed an increase in constituent support for JASTA following the release of the 28 pages, adding, “I hope that (the House) will act during this session, ideally before the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11.”
The Saudi government promptly responded to Graham’s remarks, declaring in a press release its “strong disappointment at Senator Graham’s continued advocacy of the idea that the government of Saudi Arabia bore responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
Call Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at 202-225-0600 and ask him to schedule a vote on JASTA before 9/11
Thirteen years after they were classified by the George W. Bush administration, 28 pages that are said to detail specific financial links between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 hijackers are set to be released as early as Friday, according to CNN and manyother outlets. Here’s what to look for both in the 28 pages and in the ensuing debate about their significance.
Less Than Full Declassification
The 28 pages are part of the report of a 2002 congressional intelligence inquiry that spans more than 800 pages. There are periodic, specific redactions throughout the rest of the report, so it would not be surprising if the 28 pages had a few surviving redactions of their own. The more numerous, however, the greater the chance that important information is still being concealed from the American people—and perhaps the greater the chance that concerned members of Congress will take matters into their own hands and release that information on their own.
Residual Cover for Saudi Arabia
White House press secretary Josh Earnest today seemed to hint that, in addition to protecting intelligence sources and methods, concern for U.S.-Saudi relations will also shape decisions on how much the public is allowed to see.
“We want to make sure that we factor in the diplomatic equities into a decision like that. So when that process is completed, we will obviously coordinate not just with the (Director of National Intelligence) but also with the Congress to make sure those diplomatic equities are properly factored in,” said Earnest at the White House press briefing.
False Narratives About 9/11 Investigations
In the months leading up to the release of the pages, U.S. government officials and the chairs of the 9/11 Commission have been waging a public relations campaign aimed at creating doubt about the reliability of what’s in the 28 pages. Expect that effort to resume with renewed intensity as the pages are released.
Detractors have described the 28 pages as unvetted investigatory leads. However, former Senator Bob Graham, who chaired the inquiry that produced the 28 pages, noted that “there’s been no questions raised about the professionalism and quality of the other 820 pages of that report and this chapter followed the same standards that they did.”
Those questioning the value of the 28 pages also point to the fact that they were written before the 9/11 Commission, and declare that the commission thoroughly investigated all the leads in the 28 pages and, quoting the commission report, “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” the hijackers.
In fact, the idea that the 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated Saudi links to the hijackers has been thoroughly discredited—though that discrediting has so far failed to permeate major media reporting.
9/11 Commission member John Lehman, in a statement offered in support of 9/11 families suing the kingdom, wrote, “Evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”
That statement from someone who should know is only the beginning. Indeed, the case against the commission’s work regarding the Saudi line of inquiry is so broad and multifaceted that, rather than repeating it here, we urge you to review our April piece, “9/11 Commission Leaders Circle Wagons Around Their Legacy.”
What’s driving the campaign to denigrate the 28 pages? Where 9/11 Commission chairs Tom Keane and Lee Hamilton are concerned, it’s surely about safeguarding their reputations: To the extent the 28 pages cast doubts on the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission—and raise questions about their personal leadership of that effort—the most salient chapter of their professional careers stand to be tarnished.
For the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies, reputations again hang in the balance. At a press conference last week, Rep. Stephen Lynch said, “I think that those individuals (in the intelligence community) don’t want this to come out. They don’t want the facts to come out because it may reveal terrible, terrible errors on their part and they may bear part of the blame” for failing to foil the attacks.
In addition, the very foundation of the U.S. government’s war on terror may be called into question. Saudi Arabia is routinely praised by government officials and Saudi-funded think tanks as an important partner in fighting extremism; revelations that the kingdom may have aided the 9/11 attacks could in turn expose U.S. hypocrisy—particularly when juxtaposing the invasion of Iraq alongside continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Seeming to make that very point, Rep. Rick Nolan, who has read the 28 pages, said, “They confirm that much of the rhetoric preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq was terribly wrong.”
Bogus Reasons for Redactions
If officials announce that some remaining redactions were made to protect individuals who were initially under suspicion but later exonerated, journalists and citizens should push back, because that is not a valid justification for secrecy.
Classification expert Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told 28Pages.orgearlier this year, “If you examine the executive order governing the classification system, it does not say that information that is inaccurate or unvetted may be classified. Those words aren’t in there,” said Aftergood.
Driving the point home, Aftergood said, “The 28 pages could be entirely false, malicious and nonsensical. That is not a basis for classification and that should not be an impediment to their declassification.” If persons of interest were subsequently ruled out from aiding the hijackers, the government should release the corresponding documents that led to that conclusion.
9/11 Commission member John Lehman was asked by 60 Minutes if the 28 pages name names. He replied, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
Given very few Saudi officials are household names even among educated viewers, you’d expect Lehman to be referring to someone on the level of, say, former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud.
Outside the 28 pages, it’s already been revealed that cashiers checks found their way from Bandar’s wife to two Saudi citizens in San Diego who furnished heavy financial and other assistance to future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar.
Echoes of Document 17
Last summer, the government silently declassified a 9/11 Commission document that listed dozens of people of interest to investigators who were exploring Saudi links to the hijackers. Written by the same authors as the 28 pages and first revealed by 28Pages.org, “Document 17” had many interesting revelations—most notably, the fact that the FBI found the U.S. pilot license of an al Qaeda associate buried in Pakistan, inside an envelope from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
There’s no shortage of news in the drive to declassify 28 pages on foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers. Of foremost concern, uncertainty continues to swirl around precisely what will happen at the end of the intelligence community’s declassification review of the 28 pages. Meanwhile, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia unveiled some some new marketing material, a House hearing examined Saudi Arabia’s position in the fight against terrorism, and Rand Paul is trying to tie 28 pages declassification to a major piece of legislation.
Declassification Process In Need of Its Own Transparency
When former Senator Bob Graham—along with Rep. Walter Jones and Rep. Stephen Lynch—met with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last week, Graham was surprised when Clapper suggested that the final move would be left to the Congress.
Graham told Carl Hulse of the New York Times, “No one has ever questioned that this is a decision that rests at the White House. The idea of adding another elongated, contentious step to the process is befuddling.”
When Dan Christensen of FloridaBulldog.org first broke the story of Clapper’s confusing comments, some observers interpreted that as possibly referring to a vote of the House or Senate intelligence committees. However, Graham says Clapper hinted at a scenario far more worrisome to transparency advocates. Wrote Hulse:
Mr. Graham said Mr. Clapper had compared the approach to the handling of a Senate report on C.I.A. torture of terror detainees. That document was reviewed by the Obama administration, which redacted parts of it over security concerns, and the Senate ultimately released an executive summary. But that was a messy process that took months of bitter fighting to resolve.
Responding to the Times story yesterday, the September 11th Advocates—a group of activist 9/11 widows—issued a two-page statement expressing alarm over the idea that the 28 pages could follow the same path as the torture report. In addition to expressing concern over the likelihood for delays, the group is also concerned about the idea that the final product would be a synopsis of the pages rather than full declassification: “Executive summaries are not meant to reveal facts or the truth— they are used to hide the facts and the truth. Thus, we find Clapper’s suggestion unacceptable.”
Reached yesterday by 28Pages.org, Rep. Jones seemed hopeful for a more straightforward White House recommendation to declassify the material, promptly followed by in a simple vote from the intelligence committees or the full House and Senate. “If President Obama says, ‘I recommend that we declassify the 28 pages,’ I don’t think it would take 10 minutes for the House and Senate to do it. There’s just too much American interest in this,” he said.
The September 11th Advocates claimed that the continued classification of the 28 pages violates the executive order that governs classification. Specifically, they noted that Executive Order 13526 forbids the use of classification to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency, or to delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security—flawed rationales that have been alluded to by CIA Director John Brennan and the two chairmen of the 9/11 Commission.
A spokesperson for Clapper declined both a New York Times and 28Pages.org request to clarify his remarks to Graham: It looks like it will be up to the White House to provide the American people with a clear understanding of the declassification end-game.
Saudi Lobby on the Offensive
Last week, Politico revealed that Saudi lobbyists were distributing a slick, 104-page white paper extolling the kingdom’s dedication to countering terrorism. Yesterday, The Hill’s Julian Hattem reported that the lobbyists’ collateral package had grown to include a 38-page prebuttal of the 28 pages, and that Saudi lobbyists are characterizing proponents of 28 pages declassification as “delving into conspiracy theories.”
That term is rarely used in serious discussions of the 28 pages, however it was central to a highly Saudi-friendly paper on the topic published last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies—and then scathingly critiqued by 28Pages.org. CSIS accepts money from Saudi Arabia and a who’s who of defense companies that call the kingdom a customer.
House Hearing on Saudi Arabia and Counterterrorism
Yesterday, Texas Congressman Ted Poe chaired a hearing of a House foreign affairs subcommittee that focused on Saudi Arabia and counter-terrorism. (Archived video here.) A few highlights:
As The Intercept’s Alex Emmons reported, when the panel of witnesses was asked by California congressman and House Resolution 14 cosponsor Dana Rohrabacher if they believed “the royal family of Saudi Arabia did not know and was unaware that there was a terrorist plot being implemented that would result in an historic attack in the United States,” only two of the four raised their hands. One of the doubters was 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer, who declared it too difficult a question to answer with a show of hands—perhaps owing to the vast size of the royal family.
Rohrabacher said, “We are intentionally ignoring who’s financing (terrorism). It’s clear to all of us…that the Saudis and the Saudi royal family have been right up to their eyeballs in terrorist activity and supporting the terrorist activity of radical Islamic forces in the Middle East.”
The panelists were uniform in their support of releasing the 28 pages. Roemer said, “The 9/11 families deserve it, the American people deserve it, and justice deserves it. We have a right to transparency and sunlight.”
Poe said he has read the 28 pages and supports their release, but is notably absent from the list of cosponsors of HRes 14.
Georgetown University’s Dan Byman said the biggest beneficiary of Saudi intervention in Yemen has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Rep. Brad Sherman said Saudi Arabia can’t claim to oppose terrorism while supporting extremism: “It’s time for Saudi Arabia to come clean.”
Rand Paul Working to Catch-Up with House Allies
Senator Paul, who last year introduced a bill with Sen. Ron Wyden that would direct the president to declassify the 28 pages, yesterday introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would do the same thing.
While a House resolution aimed at achieving the release of the pages has been steadily accumulating cosponsors—reaching 62 this morning—the Senate bill has inexplicably languished, even after 60 Minutes thrust the issue into nationwide headlines last month and a number of senators advocated their declassification.
New York’s Kristin Gillibrand was an original cosponsor of the Senate bill; in stark contrast to what House declassification leaders Walter Jones, Stephen Lynch and Thomas Massie have accomplished, Paul and Wyden have yet to persuade even one additional senator to officially sign on to a cause that has wide public support.
This is the second time Paul has pursued a 28 pages amendment to the NDAA. Last year’s amendment was not taken up for a vote.
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