Questions Swirl Around 28 Pages Declassification Process

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

James Clapper
James Clapper

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 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, 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 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

Front Cover of Saudi Arabia's Counterterrorism Paper
Saudi Arabia’s Glossy Counterterrorism Paper

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 CSIS accepts money from Saudi Arabia and a who’s who of defense companies that call the kingdom a customer.

We’ve obtained and posted both the Saudi white paper and 28 pages prebuttal so you can see precisely what the Saudis are selling.

House Hearing on Saudi Arabia and Counterterrorism

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

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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In New York Times Story on the 28 Pages, 9/11 Commission’s Zelikow Dismissive of Their Value

It’s been a week of heightened attention to links between Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 hijackers, first with the news that so-called “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui has testified that members of the Saudi royal family were major patrons of al Qaeda, and now with a front-page story from New York Times chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse that discusses the classified, 28-page finding on foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers found in the report of a joint congressional intelligence inquiry.

9/11 Executive Director Philip Zelikow
9/11 Executive Director Philip Zelikow

Read the piece here. As for our thoughts on the story, we’d like to focus on one specific aspect: The attempt by 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow to position the commission as having throughly investigated and then dismissed the Saudi Arabia leads uncovered by the congressional inquiry that preceded it. Writes Hulse:

Others familiar with that section of the report say that while it might implicate Saudi Arabia, the suspicions, investigatory leads and other findings it contains did not withstand deeper scrutiny. Philip D. Zelikow, the executive director of the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks after the congressional panels, said the commission followed up on the allegations, using some of the same personnel who wrote them initially, but reached a different conclusion.

Many close followers of the 28 pages story and the 9/11 Commission’s work will take particular issue with this quote from Zelikow:

“Those involved in the preparation of the famous 28 pages joined the staff of the 9/11 Commission and participated in the follow-up investigation of all the leads that had been developed earlier,” he said Wednesday. “In doing so, they were aided by a larger team with more members, more powers and for the first time actually conducted interviews of relevant people both in this country and in Saudi Arabia.”

Chances are, Zelikow neglected to tell Hulse that he fired a member of the 9/11 Commission staff, Dana Lesemann, for going around him to acquire a copy of those very 28 pages—pages she needed to perform her assigned task of investigating potential ties to Saudi Arabia.

According to The Commission, Philip Shenon’s exhaustive account of the 9/11 investigation, Zelikow had, for weeks, neglected Lesemann’s request for a copy of the 28 pages. “Philip, how are we supposed to do our work if you won’t provide us with basic research material?” reportedly asked an agitated Lesemann, prompting Zelikow to storm off in silence. Fed up, she took matters into her own hands. When Zelikow discovered it, he fired her.

911 Report CvrThat’s not the only aspect of Lesemann’s experience that undercuts Zelikow’s portrayal of the commission’s work as exceedingly thorough. Before the firing over the 28 pages, Zelikow and Lesemann clashed over the breadth of the investigation. Again according to Shenon, Lesemann had presented Zelikow with a list of 20 government officials she wanted to interview to pursue the Saudi links. She was furious when Zelikow, several days later replied that she could interview only 10—a numerical limitation that Lesemann felt “arbitrary”, “crazy” and damaging to the work of the commission at its critical outset.

Beyond what Shenon portrays as a pervasive pattern of Zelikow restricting investigators and excessively limiting access to and sharing of information, there are other reasons to question Zelikow’s assertions on this topic, starting with the fact that, to the extent the 28 pages put the commission’s final product in doubt, he may have an interest in prolonging their censorship.

And then there are Zelikow’s conflicts of interest in his role, including:

  • His previous friendship with Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, with whom he’d even authored a book.
  • His position on the Bush administration’s transition team.
  • His frequent contacts with Bush political advisor Karl Rove—while the investigation was underway—which lend credence to characterizations that he failed to be an impartial and, when necessary, adversarial investigator.

That last point is critical, given widespread reports that the Bush White House routinely impeded the commission’s investigation of possible Saudi ties to 9/11. The Commission describes 9/11 Commission member and former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s frustration with the Bush administration’s relentless shielding of Saudi Arabia:

Lehman was struck by the determination of the Bush White House to try to hide any evidence of the relationship between the Saudis and al Qaeda. “They were refusing to declassify anything having to do with Saudi Arabia,” Lehman said. “Anything having to do with the Saudis, for some reason, it had this very special sensitivity.” He raised the Saudi issue repeatedly with Andy Card. “I used to go over over to see Andy, and I met with Rumsfeld three or four times, mainly to say, ‘What are you guys doing? This stonewalling is so counterproductive.”

Zelikow portrays the commission’s work on the Saudi threads as more thorough than that of the joint congressional intelligence inquiry behind the 28 pages, but—even if that’s in some ways true—the question remains: Was it thorough enough?

9/11 Commission chairman Tom Keane doesn’t seem to think so. Said Keane, “(Vice chairman Lee Hamilton and I) think the commission was in many ways set up to fail because we had not enough money…we didn’t have enough time.” Indeed, charged with unraveling and studying the vast and extraordinarily complex tapestry that is 9/11, the commission was initially given a budget of just $3 million—later increased to a still-paltry $15 million—and issued its final report just over 18 months after the very first organizational meeting.

Keane and Hamilton aren’t the only ones who, unlike Zelikow, acknowledge that the 9/11 Commission report is far from the last word on potential Saudi government complicity in 9/11. Commission member and former Senator Bob Kerrey, in a sworn statement recently submitted in litigation by 9/11 family members and victims against Saudi Arabia, said the commission report does not exonerate the kingdom. Wrote Kerrey:

“To the contrary, significant questions remain unanswered concerning the possible involvement of Saudi government institutions and actors in the financing and sponsorship of al Qaeda, and evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.

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