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, 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2015 New York Times story, Burr “said he was skeptical of the value of releasing the pages, calling them more of a historical document in a fight against terrorism that has shifted substantially since 2002.”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 28 pages on foreign government ties to 9/11 received its highest-profile exposure to date tonight, as 60 Minutes aired a report that featured insights from several former officials who are familiar with what the 28 pages contain—and believe the information should be public.
Even before it aired, Steve Kroft’s report had already had an impact: This afternoon, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement reviving her long-dormant stance that the pages should be declassified.
The 28 pages are an entire chapter in the 838-page report of a joint House-Senate intelligence inquiry into 9/11 conducted in 2002. They were redacted by the George W. Bush administration over the objection of many who served on the inquiry, and of 46 senators who signed a 2003 letter to Bush demanding the release of the pages to the public. Among the signatories: future Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and future Vice President Joe Biden.
“Substantial” Saudi Support for 9/11 Terrorists
While none of the individuals Kroft spoke to disclosed any specifics about their contents, former Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the inquiry, told Kroft he believes Saudi Arabia “substantially” supported the 19 hijackers. Asked if that support came from the government, wealthy individuals or charities, Graham said, “All of the above.”
Kroft elicited a particularly intriguing statement that, surprisingly, wasn’t included in the prime time segment, but can be found in an online “60 Minutes Overtime” segment. Asked if the 28 pages include specific names, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said, “Yes. The average intelligent watcher of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”
Perhaps the strongest unclassified indication of Saudi support of the 9/11 hijackers was found in San Diego, where future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar received cash, assistance with lodging and other help from Omar al-Bayoumi, who is widely believed to have been an operative for the Kingdom.
Though they weren’t covered in the 60 Minutes segment, there are unanswered questions—and more government resistance to transparency—concerning an FBI investigation of a wealthy Saudi family that appeared to have multiple contacts with future 9/11 hijackers including Mohammed Atta from their home in Sarasota. The family abandoned the residence in haste just days before the attacks.
Investigative journalists have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the FBI’s records of its investigation of the Sarasota Saudis. The FBI initially said it had no files on it; a federal judge is now reviewing more than 80,000 pages the FBI ultimately produced.
Along with the secrecy of the 28 pages, the reluctance of the government to share the Florida files is part of what Graham previously called “a pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11, by all of the agencies of the federal government which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.”
Proponents of the release of the 28 pages ostensibly have a surprising ally: Saudi Arabia itself. As former Congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer told Kroft, “Look, the Saudis have even said they’re for declassifying it.”
While it’s true that Saudi Arabia, in the summer of 2003, formally requested that the Bush administration declassify the 28 pages, the public plea may have been offered with confidence—or perhaps even an assurance—that the White House would deny it. In 2014, Congressman Stephen Lynch told MNSBC’s Chris Hayes, “I think there might be some duplicity on the part of the Saudis in terms of them desiring this to be disclosed.”
Protecting Saudi Arabia…At What Cost?
Though Bush attributed the classification of the 28 pages to a need to protect intelligence “sources and methods,” Lehman forcefully refuted the idea that the secrecy is justified.
Referring to himself and other former officials who’ve read the 28 pages and favor their release, Lehman said, “We’re not a bunch of rubes that rode into Washington for this commission….we’ve seen fire and we’ve seen rain and the politics of national security. We all have dealt for our careers in highly classified and compartmentalized in every aspect of security. We know when something shouldn’t be declassified….those 28 pages in no way fall into that category.”
In his report, Kroft said, “Graham and others believe the Saudi role has been soft-pedaled to protect a delicate relationship with a complicated kindgom where the rulers, royalty, riches and religion are deeply intertwined in its institutions.”
There was no mention of a more specific interest Bush may have been protecting when he redacted the pages: His family’s close, multi-generational ties to the Saudi royals, ties that are deeply personal and financial. Likewise missing was commentary on the apparent double-standard applied as the U.S. government identified friend and foe in the nascent “war on terror.”
Graham has previously asserted that, by covering up Saudi ties to the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, the Bush and Obama administrations have only encouraged their continued sponsorship of extremism and proliferation of the ultra-conservative form of Islam called Wahhabism.
Classified State Department documents published on Wikileaks acknowledge Saudi support for extremism enduring well beyond 2001. “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups,” declared then-Secretary of State Clinton in a 2009 cable. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Kroft also spoke with Jim Kreindler and Sean Carter, attorneys representing families of 9/11 victims suing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its alleged financial and logistical support of the 9/11 hijackers. In September, a federal judge dropped Saudi Arabia from that suit for lack of evidence.
Though that decision is being appealed, the case underscores why the press to release of the 28 pages isn’t a mere exercise in updating the history of that pivotal event.
“It’s been difficult for us because, for many years, we weren’t getting the kind of openness and cooperation that we think our government owes to the American people, particularly the families of people who were murdered,” said Kreindler.
In proclaiming its innocence, the Saudi government has routinely pointed to a sentence from the report of the 9/11 Commission: “We have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
Carter said the sentence was written with a precision that deliberately narrowed its meaning: “They conspicuously leave open the potential that they found evidence that people who were officials that they did not regard as official had done so.”
The 9/11 Commission’s Lehman agreed: “It’s not an exoneration.”
Lehman’s fellow commission member and former Senator Bob Kerrey told Kroft the 9/11 Commission wasn’t able to fully examine the leads found in the 28 pages. “We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the resoures. We certainly didn’t pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia.”
President Obama to Visit Saudi Arabia Next Week
The publicity around the 28 pages and allegations that a country often described as a U.S. ally aided and abetted the 9/11 hijackers comes at particularly sensitive time: President Obama will visit the kingdom on April 21.
The close U.S.-Saudi relationship sparks anger in many of those who lost loved ones on September 11, among them, Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, worked in the World Trade Center.
Anticipating the president’s upcoming trip, Breitweiser wrote, “I only wish I could adequately relay the disgust I have in my heart when I anticipate having to see my president smiling, laughing, and joking with his ‘special Saudi friends’ — the very same people who I believe underwrote the murder of my husband and nearly 3,000 others.”