On 60 Minutes, A Compelling Case for Releasing 28 Pages on 9/11

Former Sen. Bob Graham
Former Sen. Bob Graham

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.

Secure U.S. Capitol Facility That Houses the 28 Pages
Secure U.S. Capitol Facility That Houses the 28 Pages

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.”

Roemer TenetProponents 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.

Saudi FlagClassified 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.

Ronald Breitweiser: Killed on 9/11
Ron Breitweiser

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.”


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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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