Law allowing 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia “poses no risk of exposing U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts”
By Brian P. McGlinchey
As Saudi lobbyists continue to fly U.S. military veterans to Washington to oppose a recently-passed law that cleared the way for 9/11 families and victims to sue the kingdom for its alleged assistance to the hijackers, an expert on international law says the principal argument motivating the veterans’ participation is false.
Lobbyists are persuading veterans to call for the amendment or repeal of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) by claiming that, if other countries reciprocate and pass similar laws, individual military service members and veterans will be exposed to lawsuits in foreign courts. Continue reading →
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.
CIA Director John Brennan this weekend endorsed the declassification of 28 pages that detail foreign government links to the 9/11 hijackers. More significantly, he also said he expects the material will indeed be released when the intelligence community’s declassification review is complete.
In an interview with the Saudi television network Al Arabiya, Brennan said, “I believe they are going to come out, I think it’s good that they come out.”
At the same time, however, he also dismissed what former Senator Bob Graham and many others have said about the contents of those 28 pages. “People shouldn’t take them as evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks,” said Brennan.
28 Pages a “Very Preliminary Review”
Brennan’s declaration that the release of the 28 pages would be a good thing marked a subtle but significant shift in tone from last month: In a May 1 appearance on Meet The Press, Brennan didn’t say anything positive about the idea of releasing the classified chapter from a 2002 congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11.
With the rest of his remarks to Al Arabiya, however, Brennan reiterated his previous attack on the credibility of the 28 pages.
“These so-called 28 pages…(were) a very preliminary review trying to pull together bits and pieces of information reporting about who was responsible for 9/11. Subsequently, the 9/11 Commission looked very thoroughly at these allegations of Saudi government involvement and their finding, their conclusion was that there was no evidence to indicate that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually had supported the 9/11 attacks.”
Brennan’s Spin Depends on a False Premise
As 28Pages.org noted after his Meet the Press appearance, Brennan’s claims about the 28 pages rests on a false premise—that the 9/11 Commission thoroughly investigated leads that pointed toward Saudi Arabia. That premise has been attacked by some of those most familiar with the commission’s work.
“Our report should never have been read as an exoneration of the Saudis,” 9/11 Commission member and former U.S. Navy secretary John Lehman told The Guardian last month.
His sentiments are shared by 9/11 Commission member and former senator Bob Kerrey. “Evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued,” he said in a statement prepared in support of 9/11 victims’ lawsuit against the kingdom.
Lehman and Kerrey’s remarks are just the start: In contrast to what the CIA director would have us believe, there are many more indications that the 9/11 Commission failed to thoroughly investigate Saudi links to the attacks, and that the release of the 28 pages will prompt Americans to question the commission’s conclusions—and not the other way around.
With the campaign to declassify 28 pages from a congressional inquiry moving ever closer to its goal, the chairmen and executive director of the 9/11 Commission are doing their best to discount the significance of the pages, which are said to illustrate damning ties between Saudi Arabia and 9/11.
In interviews, a formal statement and an op-ed piece, the three have cast doubt on the contents of the final, 28-page chapter of a 2002 congressional report.
Their aspersions can be reduced to two propositions:
Comparable to “preliminary police notes,” the 28 pages are a collection of “raw, unvetted material,” and were rendered obsolete after the 9/11 Commission fully investigated those and other leads and issued its own final conclusions.
Releasing the 28 pages in full could cast a shadow of guilt on individuals who, via the 9/11 Commission’s investigation, were later deemed innocent.
As citizens and journalists weigh the commentary of commission chairmen Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton and executive director Philip Zelikow, they should consider the possibility that members of the Saudi royal family aren’t the only ones whose reputations may be harmed by the release of the pages: To the extent that the release of the 28 pages undermines the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission, Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow may have an interest in minimizing their significance.
Before we proceed, note the 28 pages are not in the 9/11 Commission Report—they’re in the report of a joint congressional intelligence inquiry that preceded the commission.
Conflicting Justifications for Secrecy
There’s a glaring disconnect between the rationale for the redaction of the 28 pages advanced by Zelikow, Kean and Hamilton and the one offered by President George W. Bush when he classified them. While the three commission leaders argue that secrecy was warranted because the material was unvetted and hence unreliable, Bush said classification was necessary to protect intelligence “sources and methods.”
Republican Porter Goss, who co-chaired the joint inquiry and supports the release of the pages, likewise struck national security chords in 2003 as he tried to put the best face on Bush’s decision, saying nothing to question the reliability of the information that was concealed.
Speaking broadly of the need to keep some information in the 838-page report secret, Goss said, “You have to remember we are at war and there are some actionable items still being pursued by the appropriate authorities.” Then, apparently referring to the 28 pages, he said, “You’ll find there’s a couple of blank pages…as soon as the actions that are necessary to deal with those issues are completed, those pages will be filled out.” Not revised, corrected or repudiated after vetting. “Filled out” after action is taken.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, former Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the joint inquiry, flatly refuted the idea that the 28 pages are raw, unvetted material.
Asked if it’s correct to compare the 28 pages to leads in an initial police report, Graham replied, “No. This report was 850 pages. This is 28 pages out of 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.”
Serious Doubts About Thoroughness of Commission
In their Friday statement, Kean and Hamilton remind us that the commission—as controversially stated on page 171 of its report—“found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda.
That assertion raises a question that goes to the heart of the 28 pages controversy, a question that could threaten the reputations of Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow: Just how thoroughly did the 9/11 Commission pursue leads both inside and outside the 28 pages that point toward Riyadh?
Though it may come as a surprise to journalists who are reporting the trio’s criticism of the 28 pages without scrutinizing much less acknowledging their potential conflicts of interest, there are many reasons to doubt that the probe of Saudi links was pursued with the vigor that 9/11 victims and the American people deserved.
That doubt specifically springs from Hamilton and Kean’s lack of investigative assertiveness in the face of Bush administration obstructionism, and the manner in which executive director Zelikow ran the inquiry.
Commission member and former senator Bob Kerrey, in a statement submitted in the 9/11 victims’ suit against Saudi Arabia, said “evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”
As Philip Shenon recounted in The Commission, 9/11 commission member and former Navy secretary John 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.'”
Kean and Hamilton, against advice from commission member and former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, ruled out the routine use of subpoenas to compel full cooperation by various parts of the government, including the White House.
Bush had a close personal relationship with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Investigators learned Bandar’s wife wrote checks worth tens of thousands of dollars that eventually found their way to the wife of Omar al-Bayoumi, who is widely suspected of being a Saudi government operative. Bayoumi helped two future 9/11 hijackers find lodging and provided ongoing assistance to them. (With an admitted air of speculation, note that Lehman told 60 Minutes the 28 pages not only named names, but that “the average intelligent viewer of 60 Minutes would recognize them instantly.”)
The commission bent to the White House’s controversial demands that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney only be interviewed by a limited number of commission members, in private at the White House, with no recording or transcription of the conversation. Kean and Hamilton also conceded to the extraordinary White House stipulation that Bush and Cheney were to be interviewed simultaneously, as a team.
Commission member Slade Gorton said the questioners, apparently mesmerized by the Oval Office environment, went easy on Bush and Cheney: “Several of my colleagues were not nearly as tough in the White House as they were when they went in.” Lehman asked Bush about the money transfers from Bandar’s wife to the wife of the alleged hijacker-handler in San Diego. “He dodged the questions,” said Lehman.
Zelikow had close ties to the Bush administration: He co-authored a book with Condoleezza Rice, worked on the transition team and commission staffers were alarmed to learn, against policy, he had ongoing contacts with Bush political advisor Karl Rove during the investigation. The first public witness Zelikow called was an individual with no special expertise on 9/11 who used the opportunity to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq that had commenced the week before.
Mike Jacobson and Dana Lesemann wrote the 28 pages for the congressional inquiry and also worked for the commission. When they set out to further their investigation of Saudi links, they compiled a list of 20 individuals they wanted to interview. Zelikow declared 20 was too many, and directed them to pick just 10, going against basic investigative principles that suggest casting as wide an initial net as possible.
After repeatedly asking Zelikow for access to the 28 pages without effect, Lesemann, fed up, went around him to gain access on her own; when Zelikow found out, he fired her.
With the commission’s final report nearly complete, Jacobsen was alarmed by a midnight call tipping him off that Zelikow and commission investigator Dieter Snell were rewriting findings that dealt with Saudi Arabia. As Shenon wrote, they removed “virtually all of the most serious allegations against the Saudis” and shifted important information into the footnotes. Members of the investigative team felt the excessive standard of proof demanded by Snell would effectively exonerate the guilty.
Rep. Walter Jones read the 28 pages and is championing their release. Asked last week if the government derailed the investigation to protect Bandar and other VIPs, Jones said, “Things that should have been done at the time were not done. I’m trying to give you an answer without being too explicit.”
New Indications of Political Influence on Saudi Investigation
Last week, 28Pages.orgbroke news by drawing to public notice a recently declassified 9/11 Commission document. While its revelation of a mysterious Saudi embassy envelope made headlines around the world, another revelation has thus far flown largely under the media radar: Jacobson and Lesemann, at the outset of their commission work, questioned the aggressiveness of the investigation of links between the 9/11 attacks and the Saudi Arabia, and wanted to probe the extent to which “political, economic and other influences” had affected that line of inquiry.
Organizationally set apart from dozens of other questions as among the more important, overarching lines of inquiry for their particular avenue of the commission’s work, the significance of the questions’ presence in Document 17 is amplified by the absence of corresponding answers in the commission’s final report.
At some point—perhaps after Lesemann’s determined interest in Saudi links to 9/11 led to her dismissal—someone apparently determined a public study of those critical questions was beyond the scope of work.
Between facts old and new, there seems ample reason to place an asterisk after the 9/11 Commission’s declaration that it found no links between the Saudi government and the al Qaeda hijackers. With an eye on the commission’s dubious investigatory approach and stark indications of political influence and White House obstruction, informed citizens and journalists want to know: Just how hard did the commission really look?
As Kean, Hamilton and Zelikow continue their campaign against the credibility of the 28 pages, the world awaits the journalist who will ask them that.
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: