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 →
Things have been moving fast since a momentous 60 Minutes report on the drive to declassify 28 pages on foreign government financing of 9/11. Here’s your personal briefing on all the latest developments.
Declassification Decision in “One or Two Months”
Brett Holmgren, senior policy advisor to the assistant to the president for Homeland Security, called former Senator Bob Graham on Tuesday to say a declassification review of the 28 pages will be completed “soon.” Pressed by Graham for a more precise estimate, Holmgren was said to reply “one or two months.”
The review of just 28 pages has been ongoing since the summer of 2014. Last year, a spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to tell us on what day or even in what month the president tasked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with the review.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Signals Support
Congressman Devin Nunes, chair of the House intelligence committee, said the “benefits of publishing this information would outweigh any potential damage to America’s national security.” House Resolution 14, which urges the president to declassify the 28 pages, has 41 cosponsors and been referred to the intelligence committee, but Nunes has yet to schedule hearings on it.
There’s no new word yet from his counterpart, Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee. According to Carl Hulse in a February 2015 New York Times story, Burr “said he was skeptical of the value of releasing the pages, calling them more of a historical document in a fight against terrorism that has shifted substantially since 2002.” [Call the two chairmen right now and ask them to schedule hearings on H.Res.14 and S.1471. Here’s how.]
Congressman: 28 Pages Present “Clear and Startling Picture”
Congressman Rick Nolan this week renewed his support for declassifying the 28 pages. Nolan, who has read the secret chapter, said the secret chapter of the congressional intelligence report “presents a clear and startling picture of who financed the attacks.”
Nolan, a cosponsor of H.Res.14, also said the 28 pages “detail the probable financing behind the Saudi Arabian terrorists…and they confirm that much of the rhetoric preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq was terribly wrong.”
Graham: 60 Minutes Report Didn’t Tell Full Story of Saudi 9/11 Ties
In investigative journalist Dan Christensen’s latest piece, Bob Graham acknowledged disappointment that 60 Minutes didn’t include some “other important information about 9/11,” including the story of an undisclosed FBI investigation into a wealthy Saudi family that abruptly abandoned its Sarasota home two weeks before 9/11. It was later established that the family’s home had been visited by future 9/11 hijackers including Mohammed Atta.
Christensen broke the news of that FBI investigation, has requested the declassification of the 28 pages through a process called Mandatory Declassification Review, and is also party to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking the records of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. His new piece provides an excellent summary of his work to date and the status of his own 9/11 declassification maneuvers: Read it here.
Saudi Government Ridicules 60 Minutes Report
On Sunday evening, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia issued a statement calling the 60 Minutes report “a compilation of myths and erroneous charges that have been thoroughly addressed not just by the Saudi government but also by the 9-11 Commission and the U.S. courts.”
It went on to declare that “the 9/11 Commission confirmed that there is no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia supported or funded al-Qaeda.” That Saudi assertion had already been contradicted in the 6o Minutes report by 9/11 Commission members, including former Senator Bob Kerrey, who said, “We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the resources. We certainly didn’t pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi embassy described the joint congressional intelligence inquiry that produced the 28 pages as an “infamous” undertaking “which aimed at perpetuating these myths instead of investigating them seriously.”
Conspicuously absent from the Saudi statement was a reiteration of its 2003 request that the 28 pages be released so the kingdom could address its contents in the open.
Victims’ Attorneys Respond to Saudi Statement
On Tuesday, James Kreindler and Sean Carter, who represent 9/11 families and victims, responded to the Saudi critique of the 60 Minutes piece. Among other points, the attorneys countered a Saudi claim that U.S. courts had dismissed the kingdom from the 9/11 suit for “sheer absence of any substantive claims” by noting that the Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs had presented a “wealth of evidence, conscientiously cited to published and unpublished sources.”
Kreindler and Carter said, “In fact, the kingdom has never been willing to address the merits of the families’ claims—it has at every stage hidden behind the defense of sovereign immunity, maintaining that U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction to even consider the families’ evidence that Saudi agencies and employees supported al Qaeda and the hijackers in carrying out the worst terrorist attacks in history on US soil. If the kingdom is as confident as it purports to be about its innocence, there is a simple way to prove it—just withdraw the immunity defense it has been hiding behind for 12 years and answer the charges on the merits.”
Dorgan: American People “Deserve” Declassification
Byron Dorgan, who represented North Dakota in the House and Senate, said, “I am absolutely convinced that the American people deserve and need to see what’s in those pages, because only then will they fully understand that they can connect the dots to the financing and other things. It’s just sad to me that’s been labeled ‘top secret.’”
In 2003, Dorgan twice offered language similar to the current H.Res.14 as an amendment to other bills. His effort was thwarted by procedural objections initiated by Senator Mitch McConnell.
Under Media Pressure, White House Resets Review Expectations
The Obama administration’s assurance to Graham that the review should be completed in “one or two months” came just a day after White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced a far less ambitious timetable.
CBS News correspondent Bill Plante kicked off what turned into eight minutes of questioning that centered on how a review of just 28 pages could be nearing the start of its third year, and when the American people could expect it to end. Earnest initially deferred to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Pressed, he said the president “hopes” to see the review completed before his term ends in January 2017.
Pelosi Revives Her Pro-Declassification Stance
In 2003, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi sharply criticized the George W. Bush administration’s decision to declassify the 28 pages—but fell silent on the topic for the first seven years of the Obama administration.
Hours before the 60 Minutes report aired, she issued a statement saying, “I agree with former Senator Bob Graham that these documents should be declassified and made public, and that the Bush Administration’s refusal to do so was a mistake. I have always advocated for providing as much transparency as possible to the American people consistent with protecting our national security.”
One Sloppy Headline Begets Another
As noted above, Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times was first to report the news of the White House call to former Senator Bob Graham assuring a near-term conclusion to the long-running declassification review of the 28 pages. Morgan was on the money, but the editor who penned her headline wasn’t: The story’s title declared that the declassification is “underway.”
Other outlets, racing to follow Morgan’s scoop, took their cue from the headline and doubled down on the mischaracterization. The Daily Beast’s headline said, “Senator Graham: 9/11 Declassification Happening,” and the brief item beneath it said the White House told Graham “the papers are set to be released to the public.” Slate erred in much the same way but corrected it after feedback from a 28 pages activist. The Daily Beast corrected the headline but left the over-exuberant story intact.
To its great credit, however, the Tampa Bay Times on Monday issued an editorial urging the release of the 28 pages.
Lehman Quote Goes Unscrutinized
In our report on the historic 60 Minutes segment, we noted that CBS inexplicably relegated the most intriguing statement in any of its interviews to a web-only extra feature. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, asked if the 28 pages include specific names, said, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
While we have yet to see any other outlets analyze Lehman’s remark, here’s some speculation from the world of social media:
The movement to declassify a finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers might be strengthened soon: A federal panel is reviewing the censored 28-page chapter of the report of a Congressional joint inquiry into 9/11 and is expected to make a recommendation to President Obama in the coming months.
The review of the redacted chapter on sources of foreign support of the September 11 terrorists is being conducted under a process called Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR), and was initiated by attorney Tom Julin on behalf of Dan Christensen, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Christensen is the editor of FloridaBulldog.org, and has been working to learn what the FBI knows about a 9/11 cell in Sarasota; Summers and Swan are investigative journalists and authors of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11.
Understanding the MDR Process
MDR is a multi-tiered process that begins with a request to an agency to review a specific classified document and consider releasing it. It was created by an executive order issued by President Clinton, and can now be found in Executive Order 13526 (see Sec. 3.5).
The 28 pages request was directed to the Department of Justice, which failed to respond within the deadline imposed by the process. Ultimately, Julin appealed to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, or ISCAP. The highest authority in the MDR process, ISCAP agreed to review the 28 pages for declassification. At a Nov. 11 event, Julin said he’d been told to expect the panel’s recommendation to President Obama sometime this winter.
A few weeks before that event, nine members of Congress who’ve read the censored chapter sent a letter to ISCAP urging their release, saying “we firmly believe that declassification of the 28 pages would enhance, not harm, U.S. national security interests.”
Under the rules governing the ISCAP review, a recommendation to declassify a document “requires the affirmative vote of at least a majority of the members present.” The panel consists of senior level representatives appointed by:
The Department of State
The Department of Defense
The Department of Justice
The National Archives
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence
The National Security Advisor
In addition, the director of the CIA can opt to appoint a voting member to the panel where information that originated with the CIA is in question.
Anticipating the Verdict
Eyeing the ISCAP “jury box” and contemplating the governmental constituencies each member represents, it’s far from certain the panel will side with so many authoritative figures on the 28 pages and acknowledge there’s no national security justification for the blanket redaction of this entire chapter of the congressional joint inquiry’s report.
And even if the panel does reach the same conclusion of the chairs of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate co-chairs of the joint inquiry, it’s important to emphasize that the word “mandatory” in the name of the process refers to the review and not to the declassification—the panel’s verdict is but a recommendation to the president, one may be accompanied by a final, urgent appeal for secrecy from a government agency. It would, however, be the most powerful such recommendation to date, one that would add substantial pressure on the president to honor the commitment he made to 9/11 family members and release the 28 pages—while further eroding the credibility of those who say they must remain secret.
The Mandatory Declassification Review is a very important and intriguing front in the fight to finally release the 28 pages, but it’s not the only one: If you want to know what’s in the 28 pages, it’s critical that you make your voice heard on this issue from Capitol Hill to the White House—right now, while you’re thinking about it.
Add your voice to the growing, bipartisan movement to declassify the 28 pages.
Last month, 9/11 parents Loreen and Matt Sellitto hosted an informative event focused on one of the most important yet least-understood aspects of September 11: the extent to which the terrorists received support from foreign governments—and the extent of the government’s knowledge of that support, both before and after the attacks.
Held in Naples, Florida, the November 11 event was called “The Untold Story of 9/11: A Conversation with Bob Graham.” Following opening remarks from host Loreen Sellitto and from Terry Strada of 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, the event featured three speakers:
Former SenatorBob Graham, the most prominent voice outside government fighting for declassification of the 28 pages.
Broward Bulldog editor Dan Christensen, who broke the story of the FBI’s discovery of a 9/11 cell in Sarasota, and who continues working to bring FBI investigation documents into the daylight.
AttorneyTom Julin, who is helping the Broward Bulldog in its effort to overcome the government’s stonewalling.
Here, we cover many of the highlights; a full video of the event can be found at the bottom of the page.
Bob Graham on the San Diego Cell
Graham’s remarks centered on the story of Omar al-Bayoumi, a man who, before 9/11, held what Graham called a “ghost job” with a Saudi company in San Diego. Bayoumi, whom the FBI had previously identified as a Saudi agent, helped two 9/11 hijackers establish themselves in the United States.
Bayoumi later claimed that—on the same day he made a two-hour drive to Los Angeles to attend a meeting with the director of religious affairs at the Saudi consulate —he just happened to become acquainted with future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar in a Middle Eastern restaurant after he overheard them talking Arabic in Saudi accents.
This encounter occurred soon after the pair’s arrival in Los Angeles, which in turn happened just days after they attended a terrorist summit in Malaysia. On the spot, Bayoumi invited the two to move to San Diego, where he furnished them with generous assistance, including the initial payment on an apartment and spending money. Adding to the cluster of coincidences, Bayoumi’s salary soared upon Hazmi and Mihdar’s arrival, while his wife began receiving payments from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Broward Bulldog Battles Feds Over Sarasota Investigation
Christensen’s quest for answers about foreign sources of support of the 9/11 hijackers began in 2011 with a tip passed to him by Anthony Summers, who, with his wife Robbyn Swan, had just completed their book, “The Eleventh Day.” Summers and Swan had learned about an FBI investigation of a Saudi family with close ties to the Saudi government that suddenly abandoned its upscale home just outside Sarasota about two weeks before 9/11.
Pursuing the lead, Christensen contacted Senator Graham for his insights into the Sarasota cell. Braced for the possibility that Graham would decline comment because of classification restraints, Christensen was stunned to learn that Graham—who had been chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chaired the joint Congressional inquiry into 9/11—was unable to comment for an altogether different reason: Graham said the FBI had never told him about its Sarasota investigation.
Christensen then inquired with the FBI, which confirmed there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to 9/11. Next, seeking to learn how they reached that conclusion, he requested the FBI’s investigation documents using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the FBI said there were no documents matching the request. Finding that completely implausible, in September 2012, Christensen and the Broward Bulldog filed a FOIA lawsuit.
About six months later, the FBI sent Christensen 35 partially redacted pages that contained a bombshell conclusion directly contradicting the government’s earlier denials: The investigation had in fact “revealed many connections” between the Saudi family that fled their home and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” (Indeed, investigations showed the home had been called and even visited by future 9/11 hijackers.)
In April 2014, as the Bulldog’s lawsuit progressed, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its files, chiding the government for advancing “nonsensical” legal arguments in its effort to maintain secrecy. Later, he ordered the FBI to turn over more than 80,000 pages from its Tampa office so he could personally review them and reach his own conclusions about the need for secrecy. The judge’s review of that enormous cache is still underway.
In July of 2014, the FBI released a new and intriguing document. This one revealed that, on Halloween in 2001, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office was called by a citizen who observed a man discarding items in a dumpster behind a rented storage unit in Bradenton, Florida. After interviewing the man, who held a visa from Tunisia, police searched the dumpster and found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”
Attorney Tom Julin’s Pursuit of the 28 Pages
Julin, in addition to providing an interesting elaboration on the legal battle to liberate the FBI’s Sarasota files, explained the Broward Bulldog’s attempts to secure the release of the 28-page finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers found in the 2002 report of the joint Congressional inquiry.
Julin is helping Christensen, Summers and Swan push for the declassification of the 28 pages through a little-known process called Mandatory Declassification Review. Under that process, an agency’s refusal to declassify material can ultimately be appealed to a multi-agency panel that reviews the material and presents a recommendation to the president. The panel is now reviewing the 28 pages. While there’s no deadline, Julin has been told to expect the panel’s recommendation to President Obama sometime this winter.
The first amendment attorney said he was hopeful the panel would take the request seriously, pointing to the fact that “so many Congressmen have said declassification will not harm the national security interest, it will help the national security for the public to know what was Saudi Arabia’s role.”
Many More Questions Remain
Before opening up the discussion to questions from the audience, Graham discussed some of the remaining mysteries around the 9/11 plot. First, noting that 9/11 hijackers had spent significant amounts of time in Paterson, NJ, Falls Church, VA and Palm Beach County, Graham said, “We have been trying to find out, were there investigations similar to what we know took place in Sarasota in those three areas and if so, what result? We have run into exactly the same stone wall.”
Graham also explored the questions of:
Why would the Saudis support Islamic terrorists operating in the United States?
Why did the Bush administration shield Saudi Arabia by preventing the release of damning material?
Why would the Obama administration continue the Bush administration’s “soft treatment” of Saudi Arabia?
This post shares just some of the many interesting points covered during the event. To learn more, watch the full video below—then send a pre-written letter to Congress urging the release of the 28 pages.